Let’s not stop now: responses to COVID and multiple disasters must put people first

Terry Slevin

While the government has had its fair share of problems in the past month, it’s taken credit – and deservedly so – for the way it’s managed the economy and supported the people, businesses and organisations most heavily impacted by the pandemic over the past year or so.

The government acted swiftly, and appropriately, in throwing a lifeline to the hundreds of thousands of Australians whose lives unravelled when our economy effectively shut down twelve months ago.

Economically, and especially compared to other nations, it’s been a good news story for Australia and the government; particularly in how quickly we’re recovering from our first recession in nearly thirty years mid last year. Despite the sad losses of small businesses during the height of the pandemic and the major challenges faced by some industries in surviving this time, there is some very positive news at the national level. The latest unemployment figures showed a fall in the number of jobless people to 5.8% in February and a participation rate at a record high of 66.1%. A former PM might have described these as ‘a beautiful set of numbers’.

Despite the impact of lockdowns and border closures, all things considered and when benchmarked against most other nations, the past twelve months has also been a very good news story for the health of the Australian people as we managed to contain two COVID waves. As an essential piece of that puzzle, the government provided much-needed financial security for those working in areas most heavily impacted – hospitality, tourism, events, the arts, aviation, and the list goes on. Last weekend, the government ended Jobkeeper, and it’s estimated that around one million people will be directly affected. We will be holding our collective breath for the fallout.

Bracing itself for the worst, last month the government announced a very modest (described by others as ‘measly’) rise in income support payments, including the Jobseeker payment by $50 a fortnight, or the equivalent of about $3.50 a day. That means those receiving the benefit (and there may soon be tens of thousands more with the end of Jobkeeper) will get $620.80 a fortnight, or just over $44 a day.

The Public Health Association of Australia shares the concerns of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and others who have thrown their support behind the ACOSS ‘Raise the Rate for Good’ campaign.

In September last year, I wrote to the PM in support of the Raise the Rate campaign, making the point that sustaining good health for a population is directly undermined by poverty in the community. Make no mistake, reducing income support payments will directly increase the number of Australians living in poverty, and therefore, in worse health, whether immediately or in the long term.

Many people might love a government that can boast beautiful sets of numbers. But the better measure of a government’s performance is how well they care for their people.

To illustrate my point and because governments and ministers love their stats, here’s a set of beautiful numbers I shared with the PM last year. They came from a survey by ACOSS in April 2020, of 955 people receiving the increased Jobseeker payment at the time:

  • 8% said they were able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables
  • 1% said they were able to pay their bills
  • 2% said they were now able to pay for essential medical and health treatments
  • 5% said the removal of the supplement would have a significant or extreme impact on their ability to cover the cost of essentials

While many may feel that 2020 was a year to forget as we struggled to get on top of the pandemic (and in the main we did so well), there is a very real risk that 2021 will be a year not so much where the economy is sick, but where the health of the nation takes a turn for the worse. We simply can’t afford to undo all of the good work in protecting people’s health that was enabled last year at the height of the pandemic by raising the Jobseeker rate above the poverty line.

And let’s not forget, COVID is just one of many health, environmental and economic disasters this nation has been dealing with over the past two years.

The record flooding this month, described in many areas as one-in-a-hundred-year events has ruined many lives and will take the hardest-hit communities years to recover from.

Some of those same communities were still rebuilding from the devastating Black Summer bushfires of just over twelve months ago, which have been described in sheer scale as the worst in recorded history. Similarly, the drought which preceded those fires was unprecedented.

Throw on top of that the pandemic, crippling job losses, the lockdowns and border closures, and the resulting one-in-a-hundred-year economic shock, and is it any wonder the physical and mental health of this nation is in such a precarious state?

There has been so much talk about ‘the new normal’. What will it look like? And when will it arrive?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. But what I do know is that over the past couple of years the resilience of our nation and its people has been tested like never before. Let’s not push people further than we need to when they have already had to show such enormous strength and courage.

So, I repeat my call for the PM and the government to put those precious economic numbers aside and think of the health and wellbeing of the Australian people. In particular the health and wellbeing of those in greatest need.

By the time the May budget rolls around, the government should have the early signs of the impact of the reduced support for those on Jobseeker and former Jobkeeper recipients. That will provide the opportunity for the government to demonstrate the same constructive spirit it’s demonstrated so admirably in managing the fallout of the pandemic to date. It is another opportunity to take permanent steps to lift people out of poverty for good.

Let’s not stop now!


Terry Slevin is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University and Adjunct Professor in the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University.


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