4.1. Condition and Consequences
On the basis of the available literature, opinions were formed that tried to ascertain how noticeable some phenomena, important in geographical research for the sustainability of rural parts of Serbia, were during the COVID-19 pandemic. Items are presented in the order in which they are studied in geographical science (Table 5
Opinions related to the issues of natural and mechanical movement of the population were first presented. Respondents do not have a definite opinion on whether the pandemic resulted in higher birth rates in rural areas, or whether deaths have intensified. These attitudes are discussed in non-rural-focused literature [59
]. Restrictions on movement and social contacts are impossible to control in remote, scattered rural settlements. Respondents stated that these measures were not consistently respected. Thus, the pandemic has not changed the way of life, especially in small mountain settlements. This benefits the quality of life in rural areas.
No clear opinion was received on the departure of people from the countryside, so socio-demographic groups with clearer views were sought. The respondents from the territory of Southern and Eastern Serbia stood out as the only ones who agreed (M = 3.86, σ = 1.07) that people leave the countryside (Table 6
). It shows that the pandemic did not stop the permanent emigration from rural areas, mentioned by Zdravković [60
] and Nikitović [61
]. Respondents from Western Serbia were undecided, so to speak, on the verge of disagreement (M = 2.51), with great mutual disagreement (σ = 1.26) following the work of Willberg et al. [62
], which, using mobile telephony, reveals the movement of the population towards rural areas. He emphasized the need to improve preparedness in crisis situations, which has recognized the growing importance of living in more places. Respondents agree that they have noticed that people are moving to rural areas. From the respondents, it was learned that these people are residents of cities that have grandparents, holiday homes, and close relatives in rural areas. They are retirees or those who have the ability to work remotely.
The media spread the news, which was announced by the authorities, that from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic until the second half of April 2020, 400,000 citizens who temporarily or permanently lost their jobs abroad returned to Serbia [64
]. In addition, Serbia provided them with safe health care. As sociologists say, existential fear also supports this [66
]. The motivation for return is complex and related to the origin, personal circumstances, and opportunities that are ‘opening’ in Serbia, which did not exist when a number of people moved out 10 or 15 years ago. Startup culture, benefits for returnees, tax breaks, support for creative industries, and development of the IT sector in the previous decade, as well as the opening of the global market, have influenced the migration flows to change, according to our experts. With the establishment of the eGovernment portal administrative procedures, available online, have been accelerated and facilitated [67
]. In the period from 2015 to 2019, Serbia had a net positive migration of highly educated returnees in all age groups [68
Respondents noticed that people lost their jobs (Table 7
), especially in activities that were officially recognized as the most vulnerable [69
] during the pandemic. Although reduced need for service trades (hairdressing and beauty salons, tailors, car repair shops), bookmakers, gambling houses, and children’s playrooms have been recognized in urban areas [71
], respondents from rural areas do not have a clear opinion on this issue (Table 5
). It should be borne in mind that most of these activities do not exist or occur sporadically in most rural areas. They agree that those with smaller savings are consequently more endangered.
Respondents showed great disagreements and a vague attitude on the item that social distancing jeopardized their income. Only the unemployed agreed that social distancing jeopardized their income. However, within this sociodemographic category, there are large disagreements (σ = 1.50) (Table 7
). Some of them had been employed in tourism, catering, art, recreation, etc.
In the media, the headlines indicated that, due to the appearance of new factories for the production of the necessary supplies during the pandemic [72
], new jobs are being created [74
]. This appeared to be another positive factor, in favor of the sustainability of rural areas. Respondents agreed that entrepreneurs harmonized their initiatives with the needs of the market (they started production of masks, visors, gloves, containers for storing disinfectants, and the like) (M = 3.55), but large discrepancies were observed (σ = 1.20). (Table 5
). That is why the one-factor analysis of ANOVA showed that the unemployed almost completely did not agree that with the appearance of new plants for the production of funds necessary during the pandemic, new jobs will be created (Table 7
). This result can also be interpreted as the unemployed being insufficiently informed.
Respondents agreed with some of the troubles in rural areas that were mentioned in the literature. Farmers faced heavy losses. Respondents from smaller rural areas agreed that they had problems earning a wage, while a statistically significant difference arose due to those from large villages (more than 1500 inhabitants), who were undecided (M = 3.38) (Table 8
). This indicates that their problems in finding labor and selling agricultural products are less frequent. It follows that finding work in larger rural settlements is easier, and sustainability is more certain. There are divided opinions on the difficulty of selling agricultural products. Respondents from settlements with less than 1500 inhabitants stated that they have difficulties selling their products, while those from larger settlements are undecided or have significant disagreement (M = 3.24, σ = 1.19). This indicates that not everyone has such problems (Table 8
). Respondents agreed that changes in sales methods are needed. Social networks, especially in periods of quarantine, restriction of movement, and difficult communication, have proven [75
] the usefulness of their existence.
More than 70% of respondents were not informed about the trends in the value of subsidies for farmers (Table 9
). This question speaks more about the fact that subsidies are not used. Since the beginning of the pandemic, farmers engaged in vegetables and fruit growing have not received state support, as evidenced by the work of Gajdobranski et al. [77
]. Three-fifths of respondents confirmed that the pandemic forced farmers to search for markets online. Four-fifths confirmed that older farmers use the Internet less often. These facts confirm the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic brought evident changes in various segments of agricultural activity (H2). From these findings, it can be concluded that the hopes for the sustainability of the village are in intensifying the use of state aid, modernizing business using the Internet, but also that increased electronic literacy of the elderly, during the colder part of the year, would help.
Miassi et al. [78
] wrote on revenue decline in households worldwide. This research found that retirees and the unemployed rated the impact of the pandemic on the household budget or the state of finances worse, compared to the employed, whether working legally or illegally (Table 7
). The pandemic negatively affected the household budget of respondents who completed only primary school. They also showed a high degree of mutual agreement. Given their level of education, these respondents are employed in lower paid jobs or are among the older respondents (Table 10
Respondents did not have a clear view of whether a lot is being built in the countryside, with the value of the standard deviation showing their mutual disagreement (σ = 1.13), which indicates that construction works exist and that, according to the respondents’ comments, they are more obvious in larger settlements, closer to Belgrade. However, they could not claim that the construction work was initiated by the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic.
] notes to what extent in the remote villages of Eastern Serbia, among the oldest population, restricting movement has made life difficult. Following this story, the attitude was formed that people have problems with the supply of basic foodstuffs. Respondents did not have a definite answer and showed great disagreement (σ = 1.26). This result was reached because the settlements, from which the respondents came, are of different sizes and distances from the points where they are supplied. So, in reality, a number did not experience any difficulties.
A characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the switch from face-to-face to digital connections for schooling, higher education, business meetings, health consultations, shopping, and cultural events [19
]. In order to limit the spread of the pandemic, the medical profession of Serbia advised social distancing. Due to this, school and remote work, as well as other activities, were organized on several occasions. Respondents agreed that the education of children and youth is difficult (Table 5
). They believe that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be felt (M = 4.17, σ = 1.06). Respondents agreed that there is a growing demand for computers and similar electronic equipment. As a consequence, an increase in the price of technical equipment (computers, tablets, TVs, etc.) was observed. Respondents in rural areas agreed (M = 3.73, σ = 1.08) (Table 11
) distance learning is a challenge for children, but also for parents who do not use computer skills in everyday life. In addition, no one raised the question of whether parents have the means to purchase and maintain computers. According to Vesić [80
], schools in Belgrade procured tablets for students from the first to the fourth grade. Internet access is also provided for them [81
]. This was arranged for the digitalization of teaching and as an aid to distance learning. Maybe the purchase was more necessary for children living in remote parts of Serbia? The rising wealth disparity has also exacerbated a social divide, based on class, which has resulted in unequal educational outcomes [82
]. The utilization of online learning is a new reality for the education system that COVID-19 has developed, but only the wealthy have access to a solid internet connection and technology that allows for this form of study. Additionally, in Serbia, as Stanković [83
] wrote, 10–12% of children could not access online classes because they do not have the opportunity to access the Internet. There are also students who have the Internet, but their parents cannot afford laptops or computers. Thus, the pandemic imposed new ways of education that would contribute to the improvement of life in the countryside, but also creates a problem for those to whom they are inaccessible for financial reasons.
Due to the greater dispersion of workplaces, consumer and business services, and the importance of visitor economies to many rural regions, more severe limitations on personal travel for non-essential activities may have a greater impact on rural areas [84
]. Respondents confirmed that people rarely travel (Table 5
). Respondents with a high school diploma do not agree with each other and do not have a clear vision of whether the pandemic has reduced travel. Working from home is a privilege that highly educated people could have during a pandemic [85
], so most respondents with this level of education continued to work. Rural areas’ structural characteristics, such as their widely scattered population base and long-standing practice of home-based labor [87
], may serve as a source of resilience during this crisis.
Respondents agreed with the view that tourist movements have become unpredictable (Table 11
). Respondents with the lowest level of education did not know how to comment on this issue, while more educated respondents agreed (Table 10
). It is not possible to predict in which direction the pandemic will move, and the movements of tourists also depend on it. Will mass vaccination allow free movement? Will mobility with any vaccine be allowed? Will a COVID pass be introduced that is valid both in this country and abroad? What will be the policy in the favorite destinations chosen by travelers from Serbia? Where will tourists go? Will all potential obstacles motivate them to decide to travel within Serbia? Which destinations will be the most attractive? Maksimović [88
] talks about the influence of COVID-19 on the increase in the price of accommodation in rural Serbia, as well as the increased interest in rural tourism. Respondents also confirmed that they noticed an increased demand for rural tourist services.
Respondents agreed that the need for health workers increased (Table 5
). According to their comments, it can be concluded that this is an inherited condition (and not caused by a pandemic). Respondents supported the item (M = 3.83, σ = 1.09) that there were more people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than by the COVID-19 virus. The pandemic disrupted the work of the health system, as well as the specialist health care services. In that way, it negatively influenced the detection and treatment of all other diseases.
The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are also felt on a psychological level. Respondents agreed with the following statement ‘By following the media more often, I find out more bad news that negatively affects my mood’. In addition, with less mutual agreement, they supported the position ‘I have the impression that COVID-19 pandemic will never disappear’ (Table 11
). In settlements of less than 1500, respondents agree that they have the impression that the COVID-19 pandemic will not disappear, while those from the largest settlements are undecided. This shows that they are more optimistic and believe that the negative effects of the pandemic will be reduced by vaccination, finding adequate drugs, or people taking care of each other. By employment category, all but employed respondents have the impression that the COVID-19 pandemic will never disappear (Table 7
The news portal 021 [89
] cites unique examples of COVID crime, based on the announcements of the judicial authorities. The Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime prosecuted a case of falsifying results of PCR tests and selling them for travel abroad, as well as the selling of false results of COVID-19 tests and stickers as confirmation of vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Fight against High-Tech Crime states that there were cases of registration of fake domains for the purpose of falsifying negative PCR test certificates. In addition, a volunteer at the vaccination point, located at the Belgrade Fair, admitted that he had entered several false certificates of vaccination and revaccination. The World Health Organization also warned about fake vaccines, and EUROPOL warned about similar phenomena.
The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are discussed in the world literature and on the basis of which the research of the situation and consequences was made, were noticed and present in the rural areas of Serbia. This confirms the first hypothesis (H1).
4.2. Possible Solutions
Not many items were offered in the research, but space was left for the respondents, more precisely the inhabitants of rural settlements, to write or say what they saw as possible solutions to the new problems brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of 519 respondents, 117 proposed solutions. The most interesting ones are listed after the comments on the offered solutions.
In the Balkans, there is a saying ‘Some war, some brother’ [90
], which refers to the fact that there are people who profit in different ways in times of natural disasters, wars, and the like. Respondents recognized this phenomenon in their living environment (increase in the price of electronic equipment, loss of job, problem in business and movement, reduction of the household budget due to expenses caused by the pandemic, etc.), and that is negative. It is positive that they condemn this to the extent that they agree that we should work on raising awareness that it is not moral to get rich in times of crisis (Table 12
). This item indirectly ‘supports’ the sustainability of rural areas in Serbia.
Respondents agreed that there are good people (neighbor, friend, relative) because they offered some kind of help (for example, supplies, physical help, and financial help). This is one of the positive things that appeared in response to the negative effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Designing the functioning of the remote health system did not find a clear position of the respondents (Table 12
). Probably because it is difficult for them to imagine how it would work, although it exists, in practice, at other geographical coordinates [91
]. Those who agreed commented that it was better to have something rather than nothing. Psychological and verbal support, in the form of good and professional advice, is also valuable. A female respondent, in the age category 30–39, wrote that ‘overcoming the problems caused by the pandemic, and thus the lack of medical staff and adequate health care, is seen in the adoption of the law on compulsory vaccination.’ Several respondents mentioned ‘working on preventative healthcare’ and ‘promoting healthy living habits’. Younger respondents wrote that they would ‘emulate the countries that had the least consequences since the outbreak of the pandemic.’
Respondents agreed with the third position offered and the idea that the curricula in education should be adjusted (Table 12
). Since the beginning of the pandemic, schools in Serbia have functioned according to different models. Research will show their effectiveness, but the standards of assessment have not changed and, from the conversations with the respondents, it was heard that the conditions in which learning takes place should be taken into account in the educational system, as well, primarily from the psychological aspect of stress, fear, uncertainty, and unpredictability. The respondent from the youngest age group suggested that it is necessary to ‘provide equal conditions for monitoring classes’. Respondents emphasized that work should also be done on ‘encouraging humanitarian activities from the youngest generations’. The respondent from the oldest age category offered the opinion that ‘better education of the population can be achieved through public media’.
Respondents suggested solutions that did not thematically relate to the items offered. Most respondents pointed out the need for better local infrastructure, as in Serbia, according to Ekapija [92
], more attention is currently being paid to the main roads.
To citizens exhausted by work and city life, rural areas offer a ‘better quality of life’, in nature, learning, or engaging in the cultivation of crops and production. Life in the countryside implies great physical activity and lack of time to follow media information. A large number of respondents expressed negative attitudes towards news media. One male respondent, in the 40–49 age group, summarized several other similar responses, saying, ‘The media exaggerates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then it affects some areas, which it doesn’t really have to.’ A female respondent, from the youngest category, noted that it is necessary to ‘place more positive content through public media’, but also that well-known, so-called folk festivities originated from the villages of Serbia [93
]. A respondent from the oldest category commented that her solution could resemble the Latin proverb ‘songs and games, because a person is happier the less they know’.
A male respondent, aged 40–49, suggests the introduction of significant ‘financial assistance to farmers and entrepreneurs’. A respondent from the younger age category writes that ‘the import of all agricultural products that can be produced on the territory of Serbia should be banned.’ A man from the youngest age category said that it was very important that there was a ‘secured market and acceptable prices of agricultural products by which people from the countryside could provide themselves with an adequate income and standard of living.’
According to Obradović [94
], the key to Serbia’s recovery, after the COVID-19 pandemic, is to boost productivity and digitize. According to one respondent, ‘Serbia must shorten and facilitate administrative procedures because of which one goes from the village to the city.’ A respondent from the youngest age category thinks that ‘young people who emigrated from rural areas would be attracted to return by creative and profitable jobs, which could also bring those young people who were born in cities’.
A respondent, aged 40–49, suggests that ‘different levels of taxes (thinking that the amount of taxes should increase with the proximity of the city) would immediately regulate the distribution of the population in small Serbia.’ A male respondent, of the same age, believes that the only solution is ‘decentralization of different institutions, which would contribute to more balanced regional development.’
There were respondents who were of the opinion that we should work on ‘designing, improving, organizing and conducting education of coexistence with pandemics like this COVID-19′. It is in line with such attitudes that rural conditions have more favorable conditions and less aggravating circumstances for such training.
4.3. Pandemic Impact Assessment
Respondents from rural areas of Serbia were asked to assess the impact of the pandemic on their mental and physical health, budget, and overall life. During the self-evaluation, they did not show mutual agreement on any of the categories proposed. Self-assessment showed that the values tend to be more negative (less than 3). Of all the propositions, physical health was rated the best, and the state of the household budget was the weakest (Table 13
). As physical and mental health improves staying in nature [95
], so these facts support the placement of life in rural areas that costs less [96
Respondents from larger rural settlements (1000–1500 inhabitants) expressed the lowest assessment (M = 2.49) of the impact of the presence of COVID-19 pandemic on the total life. The highest score (3.01) was obtained for respondents who live in what Mitrović [4
] calls middle villages, with 500–1000 inhabitants (Table 8
). They are most evenly distributed throughout Serbia, but the majority of them are in the region of Šumadija and Western Serbia. This symbolic optimism can be called a positive hint of sustainability.
Numerous answers were received to the open question of what the pandemic has changed in the lives of rural respondents. Among them, many mourn the dead, particularly the fact that they could not be near them when they were most needed. Some stated that, after they had recovered from the virus, ‘the consequences caused by the virus on the vital organs began to be felt.’ In some, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the fear of death, infection, helplessness, and loss of existence. Some stated that it disrupted their condition and zest for life. It caused anger, caution, irritability, worry, uncertainty, and helplessness. Some respondents stated that they began to feel a psychological burden, due to material insecurity. The curfew also had a negative effect on the psyche of the respondents. A lot of the answers contain the following words ‘everything has become more expensive’ or ‘people have lost their jobs, their incomes, their basic living conditions’. The pandemic has changed the organization of work, reduced contacts to a minimum, made people cautious, and made them think about actions that belong, but also do not belong to the daily routine.
There was an answer that ‘life in a rural area is a constant struggle for a better life in which the one who works wins. There is salvation in work, because it focuses thoughts on the task at hand, and not on other external topics.’ Respondents who state that their perspective on life has changed, in the sense that they have begun to respect other people’s decisions, are not uncommon. One respondent wrote ‘I wear a mask when I go shopping and I realize how happy I am that life in nature allows me not to have to do it all the time.’ People began to recognize priorities, but also things they had not noticed before. One of the answers was ‘I have to take care of my own health, but I think it’s easier for me insofar as I drink spring water and eat from my garden and barn.’ A positive aspect is that it ‘awakened’ the impulse to care for others and increased the sense of responsibility for one’s own and other people’s health. Some have stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed the way of life. Enhanced hand hygiene has emerged as one of the few positive life achievements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others again stated that they changed their attitude towards time. Some of the respondents stated that they liked the imposed calmness and reduced pace of life. Some used it to dedicate themselves to things they hadn’t had time for before. The answers of these respondents support the hypothesis (H3) that the chance of sustainability of the village of Serbia is that, due to its characteristics, it makes life easier in a pandemic. Also, it is noted that there are some differences between the answers according to the age groups (Table 14
). It is especially noted in younger population answers regarding organizing some novel events, such as cultural events. That can be a good starting point after pandemic.