Going from being a health emergency to a social and economic one, the COVID-19 crisis expanded from urban areas to rural zones and it risks widening the divide between the centre and the periphery in the long term, according to a survey on the impact on territories of the pandemic that was carried out by Eurofound over three periods (spring 2020, summer 2020 and spring 2021).
The results of the study are illustrated in the latest edition of TerritoriALL, a magazine produced by the ESPON programme, which specializes in regional analysis.
The possibility of remote working becoming a permanent characteristic of the world of work is one of the hypotheses.
The survey highlights that the percentage of people interviewed to lose their jobs was initially higher in urban areas (3.3%) than in rural ones (3.2%).
However, the distribution of COVID-19 cases changed over time and, as a result, the impact on employment changed too.
During the peak of the third wave in the following year, the proportion of people who had lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic was higher in rural areas (5.4%) than in urban ones (5.1%).
Furthermore, the crisis exposed the discrepancies between territories in relation to remote working, which became the standard way of working for many employees.
According to the survey, workers living in cities have a significantly higher probability of working remotely than those who live in less densely populated areas.
In spring 2021, 64.5% of the people interviewed living in rural areas worked exclusively physically present at the place of work, up from 58.5% in the summer of 2020.
The percentage of those in rural areas working exclusively remotely, on the other hand, went down by almost half in a year, going from 32.4% in the summer of 2020 to 17% in spring 2021. The picture is different in urban areas, with 43.7% of people interviewed saying they were working exclusively physically in the workplace in spring 2021.
The rest either worked from home (30.4%) or via some form of mix (26%), the latter figure being up fro 16.2% with respect to the summer of 2020.
What is the difference between urban and rural areas in the use of remote working down to? The researchers say that it could be down to the poor development of digital infrastructure and the high incidence of remote working in some sectors (such as education, public services and financial services) which have a greater presence in cities than in more remote areas.
Eurofound Social Policy Chief Massimiliano Mascherini and trainee Paola Asja Butera conclude that there is a high probability that these limitations will reinforce the centre-periphery gap because “it is likely that remote working and hybrid forms of employment will remain a permanent characteristic of labour in the future”.