By Kasy Chambers, Executive Director of Anglicare Australia.
The coronavirus or COVID-19 has laid bare the weaknesses in our society.
The GFC, bushfires, and many other disasters drew upon individual generosity, but did not really change the underlying structure of society. During the GFC, I wrote that I hoped the close fiscal call many experienced, would soften how we responded to those less well off; that more cautious consumption could lead to a more sympathetic environmental footprint. However neither came to be on a large scale; en masse we forgot the shock and busied ourselves again being productive.
This time, the crisis is different. None of us can be truly cushioned. Inter-generational wealth won’t help, neither will being young or fit guarantee immunity from the worst effects. This time the health of every single member of the public rests upon the weakest plank of our society’s structure.
Hence, one by one, we are seeing those horrifically weak planks being addressed. How can we guarantee the public’s health when half of Australian workers don’t have access to paid leave entitlements? When many people live in barely affordable rental properties, how can we avoid a huge increase in the homeless population with deteriorating health for them and those around them? And how could we expect people to stay healthy while living on the lowest unemployment benefit in the OECD.
Federal and State governments have acted and deserve credit for an impressive list:
A doubling of the Newstart rate; real action on getting homeless people off the streets as we approach winter; opening private hospitals for community benefit; addressing the precarious nature of people’s employment with one-off payments; additional leave entitlements (for some the only leave entitlements); the massive Job-Keeper payment designed to keep people attached to their jobs; the moratorium on evictions from private rental –
Notwithstanding this list, there are still some left behind – each time the lowest income group is lifted it uncovers new poverty and inequities. At the moment, people living on the Disability Support Pension need urgent consideration as they struggle with increased food prices, and often additional health vulnerabilities. Similarly those on an aged pension without the security of owning their own home will be struggling; carers are another group yet to attract much needed attention in this pandemic. People are still sleeping rough in some jurisdictions, including here in Canberra where the overnight temperature dropped to five degrees on the weekend.
Despite this it is an impressive list of responses and time will tell what additional benefits are gained from each of them – we will certainly be looking for that.
Now, as people start look to the future, there is talk of “getting back to normal””. I am resisting that narrative.
What is normal about the precariousness of leaving half a national workforce without any leave entitlements? With a two-class workforce, half the people enjoy career progression, training and leave; while the rest swirl around in a peripheral job churn of casual hours, underemployment and the gig economy. They are not able to access what the first half consider to be societal norms, like the housing market, or even look to a superannuated future in their old age.
“What is normative about a housing market that favours wealth development over home and shelter? This is an opportunity to swing the balance of residential tenancy agreements in recognition that people live long term in rental housing, seeking to call it home. This security is denied when “no reason evictions” and short-term leases are commonplace.
“How could we intentionally go back to a structure which by its nature excludes Aboriginal and First Nations people, even denying their culture and custodianship.”
“How can we possibly go back to the “normal” of taking 5 or 6 times more than the planet is able to repair,” she said. “Or to an Australia with a shameful species extinction record. Since European arrival 1,790 species are recorded as being on the brink, and this is before the catastrophic 2019 bushfires. We must not move on too quickly from the dual disasters of prolonged drought and catastrophic bushfires, both direct results of our shameful stewardship of this beautiful continent. The health and well-being of many rural and regional communities were already worn and fragile before COVID-19 arrived.”
The list goes on – but it is clear the way we were, is not something to aspire a return. A society that dismisses poverty as individual failure, or treats environmental sustainability as an economic nuisance, is not worthy of membership. Post COVID-19, there is no place for government policies that shift money to the top quintiles of society and reward environmental damage.
With the first part of the response to the pandemic posited to take 6 months we have time to plan, and to imagine. We have long pointed out that a society is what we choose – we are the architects, we are the citizens.
The community sector has a particular role to play. We are the first responders in disasters. Our people are on the frontline handing out material aid, advice and often comfort. Our services form a safety net for people in personal disaster – family violence, children unable to remain with their families, homelessness, etc.
But we are also far more than that. The community sector at its best is society at its best. The values of Anglicare Australia and its members support the very relationships that have been identified as central to overcoming the current pandemic and inspire a spirit of volunteerism in others. We are able to look ahead and imagine what life could and should look like. We provide services that are the safety net, but we are also part of the rich and deeply woven fabric of those communities.
We will be working over the next months to both ensure none are left behind in the initial response to this dreadful pandemic, while using our influence to ensure more progressive policies shape the future. We will work hard to not get back to the old normal, but build a future in which economy serves equity and justice, kindness and empathy.