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Identifying COVID-19 vulnerabilities: beyond the economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating health, social and economic impacts and exacerbated the inequities that already exist within our community.

A new report, developed by ACOSS in partnership with the COSS Network, has found that many community organisations are struggling to meet the additional pressures created by the pandemic, including a doubling of unemployment and a rise in serious mental health issues, as well as a reduction in fundraising, drops in JobKeeper amounts, and future funding uncertainty.

The report also describes the specific problems faced by the more than one million people excluded from income supports because they are on temporary visas, or are international students or people seeking asylum.

Governments around Australia have implemented a range of policy and spending initiatives in response to COVID-19.  But are they sufficient to address its broad ranging impacts?

Below, Dr Megan Weier and Isabella Saunders, from the Centre for Social Impact, analyse the policy responses from the federal and state/territory governments to COVID-19, identifying areas of weakness and vulnerability which they argue are likely to exacerbate the impacts of the pandemic.


Megan Weier and Isabella Saunders write:

Governments around Australia are focussing on the economic impacts of COVID-19 but it is essential that we think of COVID-19 not just as an economic crisis, but as a health and social one as well.

The increased scrutiny of casualised, privatised work and its contribution to the second wave of cases in Victoria has shown that we cannot be responding to the pandemic with only the economy in mind. We must also consider the basic human needs and foundations of wellbeing and opportunity that should be available to each Australian.

In the current pandemic environment these include having social connections, adequate shelter and hygiene infrastructure, mental health support, and the ability to access to remote learning.

There are already inequities in access to these basic needs and without intentional targeted policies it is likely that these inequities will be further deepened as we work to recover from COVID-19.

Our work at the Centre for Social Impact in partnership with the Social Progress Imperative has provided us with a unique perspective for understanding policy priorities and vulnerabilities in the wake of COVID-19. As the researchers who led the development of Australia’s first Social Progress Index (SPI), we have spent 18 months interrogating the ways that relying on the economy alone is not a sufficient indicator of a society’s health.

We define social progress as:

the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.”

With this definition of inclusive growth in mind, we have documented and analysed all Federal as well as State and Territory policy responses to COVID-19, mapping each response against the 12 ‘components’ of social progress (such as access to nutrition and basic medical care); some policy responses were judged to be economy-focused.

We did this with the aim of identifying where there are potential policy gaps that decision makers should be considering when grappling with a complex, multi-systems problem such as COVID-19. Mapping policies against single components was partly an interpretative exercise; however, we looked at each policy keeping the SPI’s universal questions in mind when trying to understand what particular problem the policy was trying to solve.

Based on the 2018 Australian SPI scorecards, we were able to determine whether there were areas of social progress vulnerabilities for each state and territory, in comparison to its economic peers (based on four closest jurisdictions in Gross State Product per capita).

Where there are areas of underperformance, there is a risk that without target policy response existing under-performance will only get worse as we continue through the pandemic.

A brief summary of findings for each State or Territory is below; however, you can read a more in-depth fact sheet that was released by the Centre for Social Impact here.

Federal Government responses

Federal policies largely responded to COVID-19 with economic and primary healthcare packages, specifically the $259 billion economic support package (which encompasses JobKeeper, JobTrainer, HomeBuilder, etc), a $2.4 billion health package, and a $74 million mental health and wellbeing support package.

The Federal Government also responded to personal safety with a $150 million funding boost to domestic and family violence services, and a $6 million communications package speaks to access to information and communications.

Given the extent of spending, out interpretation is that the Federal Government’s response has largely focused on economic recovery, while social issues are left largely in the remit of individual states and territories.

State and territory responses

ACT

Policy wins: $126 million investment in additional healthcare funding; $3 million funding boost for homelessness and domestic and family violence support; $4.5 million additional mental health funding support; $7 million Community Support Package for non-government community organisations. A $20 million ‘Jobs for Canberrans’ fund for secure short-term employment in ACT Public Service.

No direct policy: Water and sanitation; environmental quality; personal rights. These are currently areas where the ACT is performing better than its peers, so no direct policy addressing these areas does not appear to pose a risk in COVID-19 recovery.

Potential vulnerabilities: None identified; however, there is always a possibility for groups of people to be missed in stimulus and policy responses

NSW

Policy wins: $700 million funding boost for ICU capacity and COVID-19 testing; $250 million cleaning stimulus; $34 million in temporary accommodation and private rental assistance; $73 million mental health service boost; $10 million support for charities and $4 million funding support for temporary visa holders; $1.6 billion in tax cuts to support job retention.

No direct policy: Personal safety, access to information and communications, personal freedom and choice. These are all areas where NSW was performing within the expected range compared to its economic peers and does not suggest a risk at this time.

Potential vulnerabilities: Individual on-the-spot fines for breaching public health orders. Scrutiny is needed over who is being fined and if disproportionate groups are being targeted (for example, Indigenous peoples, refugee and migrant communities, people in lower socioeconomic areas). Deferred payments and extended due dates for resources/mining sector to support economic recovery risks further environmental damage.

NT

Policy wins: $3 million funding boost for family and domestic violence services; $2 million Creative Industries Sector Immediate Response and Resilience Program for creative arts sector; $50 million Small Business Survival Fund; $120 million Territory Jobs Hubs platform.

No direct policy: Nutrition and basic medical care, water and sanitation, access to information and communication, health and wellness, environmental quality, personal freedom and choice, access to higher education. NT is significantly under-performing in all SPI components except environmental quality and inclusiveness.

Potential vulnerabilities: NT is performing significantly worse compared to its economic peers on access to nutrition and basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter, and personal safety. The lack of targeted policies to equip basic medical care, homelessness, and better equipping remote communities occur pose significant risks should an outbreak arise.

Queensland

Policy wins: $1.2 billion expansion to fever clinics and emergency department capacity; $24.7 million housing and homelessness funding boost; $7.5 million additional funding for family and domestic violence services; $28 million additional funding to support community-based health groups; $150 million rescue package for Queensland universities; $6 billion COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan.

No direct policy: Water and sanitation, access to information and communication. Qld is performing within the expected range for access to information and communication, and slightly under-performing for water and sanitation in comparison to its economic peers. An absence of policy, particularly targeting water and sanitation, may lead to continuing under-performance.

Potential vulnerabilities: Individual on-the-spot fines for breaching public health orders. Scrutiny is needed over who is being fined and if disproportionate groups are being targeted (for example, Indigenous peoples, refugee and migrant communities, people in lower socioeconomic areas). $4 million in COVID incentives for scoping potential new resource and mining projects as an economic stimulus activity risks further environmental damage.

SA

Policy wins: $15 million investment in upgrades of country hospitals; $1.6 million funding boost to relief organisations, NGOs and charities for food relief, financial counselling, and financial assistance; $13.8 million support package for South Australia’s international education sector, including financial support for international students; $16million VET Market Continuity Package will support non-government training providers; $1 billion economic stimulus plan.

No direct policy: Personal safety, personal freedom and choice. SA was performing within the expected range on these components, and an absence of policy does not suggest an immediate risk to these components in COVID recovery.

Potential vulnerabilities: Deferred costs for exploration of licence fees for minerals and petroleum sectors. No additional funding or support for social housing.

Tasmania

Policy wins: $4.3 million for additional housing and homelessness support; $4 million into mental health support services; $150 million targeted health funding to combat COVID-19; $40 million Small Business Grants Program alongside industry-specific incentives and tax cuts to support fisheries and aviation industries.

No direct policy: Water and sanitation, access to information and communication, personal rights, personal freedom and choice. Tasmania was performing better than its economic peers in personal rights and personal freedom and choice, but it is not possible to say whether an absence of policy targeting either component will negatively impact scores in the future.

Potential vulnerabilities: Tasmania is under-performing relative to its economic peers on access to information and communication – a lack of targeted policy here risks deepening inequities. Mining and mineral processing sector grants were announced to promote economic recovery which may impact environmental quality long-term.

Victoria

Policy wins: $1.9 billion health funding boost; $6 million for Victorian homelessness organisations alongside $150 million From Homelessness to a Home Package including temporary accommodation for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic; $17.5 million in additional funding for frontline legal assistance services; $11.3 million to support multicultural communities; $350 million university support fund; $1.7 billion economic survival and jobs package.

No direct policy: Access to basic knowledge, environmental quality. Victoria’s scores are within the expected range of their economic peers on these components, but it is not possible to estimate whether an absence of policy will impact these scores post-COVID-19.

Potential vulnerabilities: Victoria is performing worse than its economic peers in personal freedom and choice. The decision to implement a complete lockdown of three social housing towers in Melbourne with little notice disproportionately impacted people who Indigenous, from refugee or migrant backgrounds, people with a disability or lower socioeconomic status.

The response demonstrates an inequity in policy responses  that have the potential impact mental wellbeing, communication with health authorities, and willingness to get tested for COVID-19 in the future.

WA

Policy wins: A number of policies directly impact areas where WA had been underperforming: $15 million worth of clinical equipment to boost the public health system; $28.1 million support package for family and domestic violence services; $159 million COVID-19 Relief Fund, which will assist community groups and local government authorities; $1.1 million Community Partnership program to encourage regional community programs; $5.5 billion Recovery Plan to drive economic and social recovery.

No direct policy: Access to basic knowledge, access to information and communication. WA is under-performing in access to basic knowledge, relative to its economic peers, and a lack of policy addressing this disparity may contribute to increased inequity following COVID-19.

Potential vulnerabilities: $91 million package of measures was announced to support a police response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual on-the-spot fines are also being implemented. WA is under-performing in personal rights, personal freedom and choice and inclusiveness; responding to the pandemic as a criminal issue may deepen these inequalities. A Reduced Mines Safety Levy has been announced to provide relief to mining companies to assist with economic recovery.

Methodological and definitional issues

The Australian Social Progress Index is a tool that gives an indication of how Australian states and territories compare, relative to one another, on areas of social and environmental issues such as access to nutrition and basic medical care, environmental quality, personal freedom and choice, and water and sanitation.

Traditionally, economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are used by governments to demonstrate growth and success; the SPI is calculated independently from economic measures and instead gives an insight into the health of policies and communities.

We measure social progress through non-economic indicators such as the standardised mortality rate for cancer, estimated rate of homelessness, the proportion of the population who is registered to vote, and how connected people feel to their communities.

The Australian Social Progress Index was developed through extensive consultation with academics, members of the not-for-profit sector, industry, and local and federal government departments. The Index is comprised of secondary data (data that is collected by others), which was primarily resourced through government administrative data such as the Australian National Notifiable Surveillance reports, or social data such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Education and Work survey.

These indicators are intended as proxy representations of rather complex concepts such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘access to information and communication’, and at times we were limited by the data that was available. We have published a full report of our methodology as part of maintaining a transparent communication about the index.

The SPI is independent of economic measures, but it does not mean that the economy is irrelevant for a society and its wellbeing. Rather than focusing only on economic or social measures of progress, we advocate for an ‘inclusive growth’ model that prioritises the equal importance of basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, opportunity andthe economy.

Dr Megan Weier is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact. She is the lead researcher on the Australian Social Progress Index, and recently participated in a panel with the Social Progress Imperative on rebuilding resilience and inclusive societies.  You can follow Megan on Twitter at @MeganWeier

Isabella Saunders is a Research Assistant at the UNSW Centre for Social Impact. She is a co-researcher on the first Australian Social Progress Index. You can follow Isabella on Twitter at @isabellasaund

Megan and Isabella will be discussing findings for each state and territory in an upcoming series of webinars as part of the Centre for Social Impact’s Impact2020 series. You can register here.

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