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‘Sense of community is a strength’: SMU researchers look into impact of COVID-19 on N.S. communities

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We chat with Dr. Tony Charles, director of the community conservation research network at Saint Mary’s University to find out more about the results of a new survey that looks at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nova Scotia’s communities – Dec 23, 2020

A research team at St. Mary’s University in Halifax released a new study on Tuesday that looks into the impact of COVID-19 on communities across Nova Scotia and shows that communities are coming together to help each other during a time of need. 

When the pandemic came to Nova Scotia, the team was already looking at Nova Scotian communities, the issues they are facing and their plans for the future. For each of 50 communities, researchers spoke to individuals in the community as well as elected municipal officials.

When the coronavirus hit, the team said it decided to try to learn more about COVID-19’s impacts and responses in communities and released a report on its findings called Nova Scotian Communities & COVID-19: Challenges and resilience

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“The study reinforces what we already know about our communities, that they are resilient and can find community-based solutions to many problems. And for larger problems, they know the solutions needed but may need outside assistance to enact them,” said Tony Charles, a professor at SMU and the director of the Community Conservation Research Network.

Charles said the team head amazing positive stories of communities coming together, developing new programs and finding new ways to help those in need. For example, he said people were sewing masks and scrubs for their local hospital, while others were organizing food programs and creating virtual online efforts as communities tried to adapt to the changes brought on by COVID-19. 

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“The impacts, I’d say were particularly the change and not being able to come together as a community in the community hall, the facilities that have to be shut down and the lack of connection, the loneliness in some cases,” Charles said.

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One of the main challenges the communities faced was also lack of internet access in rural Nova Scotia.

“It was too bad to be hearing about that, given how well-known that is as an issue in Nova Scotia to have decent internet across the province,” said Charles.

“Governments need to realize the power of community and put the resources into supporting those communities and not only that, but the power of those community-based groups as well.”

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The study showed that 67 per cent of communities said they faced at least some moderate economic implications, 77 per cent said there were social impacts and 42 per cent of communities felt extremely affected by social and economic impacts.

Environmental impacts of the pandemic ranged widely, with about a third of communities seeing little or no impact, a third noticing a low or modest impact and one-third feeling environmental impacts were moderate to extreme.

Of social impacts, the team stated that the top ones identified were employment (listed by 58 per cent of respondents), social and recreational activities (54 per cent) and schools or schooling (50 per cent).

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“One thing that was clear from the survey was the importance of community-based groups to facilitate community solutions and responses,” said Charles. “Some of the themes noted in responses include access to services, financial aid, social connections, food security and volunteerism. In many cases, these responses were recognized as already an inherent part of the way of life in their community.”

The community-based responses included supporting various services no longer as easily accessible, such as groceries and water, and dealing with concerns around food security and access, specifically for children and seniors.

Charles said communities also took action to address the need for social connections, such as through virtual religious services, takeout community dinners, and support for regional food banks and local community halls.

“Despite the uncertainty and the challenges, that sense of community is a strength for Nova Scotia,” says Charles. “While the forecast is not clear, strong communities help to weather all storms.”

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The research survey summary was prepared by Charles, Larissa Sweeney, Libby Dean and Rebecca Zimmerman. For more information about the survey or to read the summary report, click here.