By Dr Ingrid Johnston, Senior Policy Officer, Public Health Association of Australia
The recently created National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has been set up to advise on all non-health aspects on the pandemic. But there are serious concerns about its scope, membership and authority, in particular whether social impacts will be ignored given it is primary focus seems to be business.
The impact of COVID-19 on different parts of our community has started to become clear as Australia moves from crisis to recovery. The impacts are different for men and women, for the old and the young, for those in big cities versus those in small towns, for large households versus those living alone, and for those for whom home is a safe place and those for whom it is not. Other groups who have been affected differently include: the employed and the unemployed, those with family nearby and those whose family are on the other side of the planet, those with access to technology to facilitate schooling at home and those without, and those who have had to isolate and those who have not. It is imperative that as we move further into the COVID recovery phase, that Government hears the voices and advice of each of these diverse communities of people.
There appear to be two main sources of advice to Government and the National Cabinet regarding the COVID-19 response: one for health and the other for business. The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee “is the key decision-making committee for health emergencies and is comprised of all state and territory Chief Health Officers and Chaired by the Australian Chief Medical Officer.” The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission established on the 25th March, is designed to cover non-health issues.
There are however, serious questions to be asked about this Commission which was appointed without any consultation and is right now considering project proposals. What was the selection process for the membership? Where are the declarations of conflicts of interest and how are those conflicts being addressed (or not addressed if recent reports on Twitter are accurate)? What are the processes by which a proposal is put before it? What are the guidelines they are operating under to make recommendations on particular project proposals? What accountability and transparency measures are in place for the important tasks of this Commission? What will be the impacts on our recovery from COVID-19 of this opaque and unilateral decision?
According to the Commission’s website it aims to “coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic…The Commission advises the Prime Minister on all non-health aspects of the pandemic response”. All non-health aspects. That’s ambitious.
However, this Commission, as currently established, is unlikely to be able to achieve this aim, because it doesn’t appear to be focused on the entire aim to begin with. A quote from the Chair, Mr Neville Power, says the Commission aims to “help minimise and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and businesses, and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods once the virus has passed”. This provides a clear and concise focus on the economic impacts, but does not adequately reference the many and varied social impacts.
Another indication that the focus is clearly on economic rather than the social impacts is the membership of the Commission. The members include former CEOs and senior executives of Fortescue Metals, Smorgens Steel Group, Telstra, IBM, Toll Holdings, EnergyAustralia, Shell, BHP Billiton, Dow Chemical Company, DowDuPont, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. While this creates an excellent economic focus, there do not appear to be any members whose experience and expertise suggest an equally excellent social focus.
The make-up of the Commission does not appear to allow it to fulfil its designated purpose. There are no members with experience and expertise in a broad range of non-economic issues upon which the Government will need advice. Where are the members with expertise in, and representing the interests of – cultural and linguistic diversity? The homeless? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? Sectors for whom the recovery will be much longer than others such as events. Sectors for whom there will be radical changes such as Universities. Sectors for whom things may not ever be the same such as travel and tourism. “All non-health aspects” entails a whole lot more than just economics and big business, and that needs to be reflected in the bodies established to provide such advice.
The stated purpose and terms of reference of the existing Commission should be amended to reduce the focus on economic issues, and establish clear and transparent processes and guidelines. Another Commission should be established to provide advice on non-economic issues. This new Commission should be comprised of members with a diverse range of backgrounds in social policy and programs, to provide advice on impacts on particular sectors of society, and how to “build back better”.
We’ve seen that there have been some surprising positives coming from the response to COVID. This includes: a realistic living wage, slowing down life and allowing time for exercise and being with family, free childcare, relief from the scourge of poker machines, decreased consumerism and buying less stuff, improved air quality and reduced emissions, the knowledge that we can successfully and en masse work from home, creative ways to connect with people, and a sense of connection across the world .
Decisions made now will impact upon the future – it’s an opportunity to take learnings from the last few months and do things differently. Do we follow IMF recommendations and ensure that there is a green focus to the recovery? In encouraging people back to work and education but maintaining distancing, do we accept more cars than ever on our roads, or do we proactively enable and encourage active transport and increased public transport options?
We weren’t expecting it, but we’ve been given a rare chance to shake up the system and make radical changes, and to have a recovery which is healthy, fair, just and progressive in the process. But that’s an opportunity which may be lost without diverse input and creative thinking – far more broadly than just on jobs alone.