COVID-19 policy responses show why political literacy is a public health issue

Tracey Oorschot

The adage “never discuss politics or religion” is invariably proffered to us with well-meaning intent at some point during our life. If anything, when it comes to public health issues, we need to be discussing politics more, not less, and certainly not avoiding it altogether.

It has been said that the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19 unfolding globally present a unique opportunity to create a new social fabric through major reforms to public policy.  The Federal Government’s flawed recovery packages for COVID-19 such as JobKeeper, JobSeeker, HomeBuilder and various industry-specific packages (or lack thereof) generally exclude or provide inadequate support to specific groups such as casual workers, people with a disability, women, young people, temporary visa holders, international students, the tertiary education sector and the arts and entertainment sector. This failure illustrates why political literacy is inherently a public health issue.

Political literacy is not about telling people who to vote for. Voters’ party preferences are not the only aspect of democracy. Challenging people on their political beliefs or lack of political literacy is another matter altogether.

While it may be tempting to ask “Who did you vote for?” when faced with a distressed patient who has been pushed down a public hospital waiting list once again, this is not usually considered an appropriate or professional response.

And yet, perhaps this sort of response is what we need to have more often as public health professionals. To help people understand that who they vote for has a direct impact on a wide range of public policies that can affect their everyday life – like being on an elective surgery waiting list for years or living with chronic pain. However, many public health sector workers are employed in the public service and are bound by codes of remaining politically neutral, perhaps increasing their reluctance to point to the negative impacts of certain policies.

Perhaps it needs to start earlier in life. Perhaps political literacy ideally begins with instruction on how governments operate through education beginning in primary school and then expanding through secondary school and tertiary education.

An excellent example of a case study to illustrate the connection between politics and public health would be the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke political wrangling to introduce/remove/strengthen our universal health care system; following through to what is happening regarding health policies in the present. Debate over the importance of a strong universal public health system and what that actually means in real terms is critical, but would this be enough or would it work? Can a seed be planted in a child or young person that can germinate into political activism or propagate to engender diverse and truly representative parliaments in the future?

Perhaps it goes even further than this. Maybe we need to have an even deeper conversation. One that discusses the fabric of Australian society. One that begins with the truth-telling of our foundation. How can we instill political literacy if we cannot reconcile our past and what that has meant in terms of public health outcomes for First Nations people? If we do not know what we stand for as a society, how can we adequately converse on the merits of one political party or candidate over another? Who are we as a nation today?

Let us use the example of the current COVID-19 policy response as an avenue to have that conversation. Are we really accepting of a policy that provides $25,000 for people in the position to spend $150,000 on renovating their house in place of using that money to build much needed social housing for far more vulnerable people? Are we a nation of indifference to those on JobSeeker who may have to return to the income levels of Newstart that correlate with poverty? Ordinary Australians who have had to make the choice between buying groceries or paying their electricity bill – this is the reality they lived and may have to live again.

The COVID-19 policy responses of today will affect our future in the long-term. Let us not be a nation of indifference or one of single-issue voters that further our own interests to the detriment of the collective. Above all, let’s engage in political conversation. We should encourage people to research the ideologies of political parties and candidates and understand what that means in terms of policy creation and implementation, as well as the likely flow-on effects for the health and well-being of everyday Australians.

The public health community has a rich history of political engagement on many matters impacting on the public’s health. The call has gone out that we are needed to energise the public with respect to climate change. Let’s add political literacy to the list.


PHAA member Tracey Oorschot is an emerging public health researcher with multidisciplinary training in human services/social work, counselling and psychology. Tracey’s interests include chronic disease, mental health, complementary medicine and integrative health care, and public policy. She is currently a doctoral student of public health at the Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine within the Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney.


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