If the slogan of 2020 is “We’re all in this together”, perhaps it should come with an asterisk: *except for those with less, who are hurting more.
Covid-19 hasn’t torn through Australia as it has the United States, Brazil, India and much of Europe, but the economic impact has exposed gaping inequities in almost every facet of our lives.
While some people simply packed up their desks and took work home, more than 1 million others are jobless and others only technically still “employed” because they are receiving federal government wage subsidies.
Another large cohort – including migrants denied government support – had no choice but to keep working insecure jobs. In the manufacturing, food processing, warehousing and care industries they were left exposed and the virus spread among them.
The closure of classrooms disrupted all, but was a disaster for some low-income households on the wrong side of the “digital divide”, who struggled with learning from home.
In Melbourne, where the pandemic hit hardest, the virus carved a conspicuous path through the most disadvantaged and culturally diverse parts of the city: the west, north and outer south-east.
“We should not pretend that everybody is in this equally,” says Dr Stephen Duckett, the health program director at the Grattan Institute. “People who are suffering are less well off, and have poorer, precarious employment. So when people say, ‘Look business is hurting,’ that may be true, but these people are bearing the brunt of this.”
Links to the disadvantaged overseas
In the US, Canada and the UK research has shown those on low incomes have been more likely to contract the virus and people from poorer, more racially diverse areas have been more likely to die.
Although the concentration of infections in poorer parts of Melbourne suggests a link to disadvantage as yet there’s no Australian data that addresses the question.
Australian authorities don’t publicly report Covid-19 deaths by local area, but this month the health department began publishing statistics in aged care facilities, the source of most fatalities.
Of the 115 outbreaks listed, the four in NSW include Dorothy Henderson Lodge (six deaths) and Newmarch House (19 deaths), and there was a fatality recorded at Melaleuca Home in northern Tasmania.
The remaining aged care deaths are in Melbourne and provide a clear, though grim, picture of how inequality has influenced the city’s second wave. Though there are exceptions, such as Bayside, where 37 people have died in aged care, a Guardian analysis of health data reveals a trail of disadvantage.
It shows of the 10 nursing homes with the most deaths, four were in suburbs in the bottom 20% when ranked by socioeconomic disadvantage, and six were in the bottom third. All but two were in the bottom 50%.
Examining the 550 deaths attributed to specific Victorian homes at 18 September, 41% occurred in facilities located in suburbs considered in the bottom 20% of socio-economic disadvantage.
Brimbank is the Melbourne’s second most disadvantaged council area; nearly half of all residents were born overseas (the Melbourne average is 33.8%) and far fewer are professionals able to work from home compared with the city-wide average.
It has seen the second-highest number of cases in Australia (2,001). The 64 aged care deaths across seven facilities make up about 10% of the more than 600 aged care deaths across Victoria. Across Australia, there have been about 650.
The most deadly outbreak was at St Basil’s, home to many residents from the Greek community, where 44 people died. It’s in Fawkner, a suburb ranked among the bottom 20% most-disadvantaged in Australia.
The risk of infection is higher because of the nature of our housing arrangementsDr Stephen Duckett
Epping, home of the Epping Gardens nursing home where 36 people have died, is also in the bottom 20%. Its council, Whittlesea, has had 57 fatalities in aged care.
One factor in the spread of the virus, says Duckett, has been overcrowded housing. An obvious example is the outbreaks that prompted the Victorian government to controversially lock down nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington.
“Some referred to them as vertical cruise ships,” Duckett says. “The lifts are small and there is a real chance of transmission. There are also lots of postcodes in Melbourne where the census showed significant overcrowding with too many unrelated people sharing rooms. So the risk of infection is higher because of the nature of our housing arrangements.”
Authorities in Victoria, including the premier, Daniel Andrews, acknowledge insecure employment played a key role in the second wave. People went to work sick because they didn’t have access to paid leave or government benefits – or they were worried not turning up could cost them their job.
It had disastrous consequences for vulnerable, elderly people living in some of the poorer parts of Melbourne.
“The areas with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have people that need to travel using public transport and that have to work and can’t spend time quarantined away at home,” says Joseph Ibrahim, head of the health law and ageing research unit at Monash University.
“You’re more likely to have higher-risk industries [in the area]. That increases the likelihood that you’re going to have an outbreak.”
He says those in lower socioeconomic areas also generally have poorer health and elderly residents might wait longer to access hospital treatment.
While it’s too simplistic to draw a straight line between deaths and socioeconomic disadvantage, Ibrahim believes wealth is an issue.
“The cost of going into a [nursing] home is a lot less in the poorer suburbs,” he says. “People who don’t have much money end up living in an area they can afford. Those sorts of questions might be part of the answer.”
Class bias could be a factor, too, Ibrahim says. If you have a home in Malvern or Toorak with doctors, lawyers and bank managers, the facility may be “more likely to want to show they’re doing more”.
Young people, low-wage workers and women worse off
Outside Victoria, community transmission has broadly been contained. Even in New South Wales, which still sees cases most days, most infections have been among returned travellers. In some states, the virus has been essentially eliminated.
Yet the economic impact of the shutdowns has been far-reaching. Using data from the respected Hilda survey, the University of Melbourne’s Prof Roger Wilkins found young people, low-wage workers and women were most likely to be exposed to job losses in sectors immediately hit by lockdowns: hospitality, air travel and tourism, creative arts and entertainment, sports and recreation.
It could have been worse. In a widely praised decision, the federal government shielded the newly unemployed from poverty by doubling unemployment benefits and introducing jobkeeper.
Although some groups – such as migrants and many casual workers – were excluded, it’s likely poverty in Australia declined at the height of the pandemic. A study by ANU researchers this month suggested about 2.2 million were lifted above the poverty line thanks to the support payments. US studies have found the boost to benefits in that country also reversed poverty trends.
But the measures are temporary. The ANU study expects 740,000 people to sink back into poverty when the government tapers benefits. While the longer-term unemployed will return to higher benefits than before Covid, their chances of getting work are greatly diminished.
The reduction and eventual end of the $550-a-fortnight Covid welfare supplement will have its most drastic impact in remote parts of South Australia, the Northern Territory, WA and Queensland with large Indigenous populations.
In NSW, areas that would suffer include Walgett and Bourke and parts of the central and mid-north coast, according to a Deloitte report for Acoss.
There was also a divide in our cities. In Sydney, council areas in the west such as Fairfield and Liverpool would suffer most, while the wealthy council areas of Woollahra, Mosman and Ku-ring-gai, which is Australia’s most advantaged, would be left relatively unscathed.
For families crowded in small spaces, it’s really hard to eke out a little spot to studySue Karzis
“The stimulus was there, it helped cushion the blow,” says Nicki Hutley, a senior economist at Deloitte. “When you take it away, it will fall hard on those communities.”
In Melbourne, the Covid hotspots of Hume and Brimbank will be worst off when the supplement is cut. Brimbank is topped in total cases only by Wyndham and Hume ranks third.
All three have already seen massive increases in unemployment. In the Hume suburb of Broadmeadows, once home to the Ford Factory, 12% of residents were on the dole before the pandemic. Now it’s 20%. In Boroondara, Melbourne’s most prosperous council area and part of treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kew, the figure is 4.5%.
Nicki Hutley, a senior economist at Deloitte, says poorer parts of the country have faced a “double whammy”.
“Those who already had higher levels of unemployment before the coronavirus have been hit harder,” she says. “It’s disproportionate to wealthier suburbs where jobs have been more protected.”
Educational gaps likely
Duckett says for many privileged people like him the restrictions are more like “an inconvenience”. “I can’t go out because of the lockdown, but I can work perfectly well from home,” he says.
But for others, life has been very different. Sue Karzis, the chief executive of State Schools Relief, says her organisation has provided 1,000 desks and 3,000 sets of headphones to needy families.
The not-for-profit normally hands out items like uniforms and books but remote learning during the pandemic forced it to shift its focus.
“For families crowded in small spaces, it’s really hard to eke out a little spot to study,” Karzis says. “Desks took me by surprise in terms of how many we provided. Headphones were actually suggested by a teacher [and] they’re going gangbusters.”
There have also been 800 laptops and 3,000 dongles to help close the “digital divide”.
“We heard many stories of families with one mobile phone,” Karzis says. “Children having to do their learning on one mobile phone with a broken screen. That really affected me.”
Experts say it’s likely educational gaps between disadvantaged and affluent students are likely to grow as a result of 2020’s brief foray into remote learning. And although there is no hard data yet, another risk is that older disadvantaged students will be less likely to complete year 12.
Serge Mackin, of the Mitchell Institute, points to modelling from June which suggests the number of school and preschool children affected by employment stress in their families has more than doubled.
The worst-hit areas will be familiar by now: Fairfield in Sydney’s west and Campbelltown in the south-west and, in Melbourne, the Covid-ravaged areas of Wyndham, Whittlesea, Broadmeadows and Brimbank.
“A whole lot of parents who previously could will no longer be able to pay for uniforms and books,” says Karzis. “The 1930s was the Great Depression. If you look at what we’re facing now it’s not dissimilar.”