Food being delivered at the Flemington public estates. Image: Margaret Simons.

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The pandemic is not affecting everyone equally.

This is an edited version of VCOSS CEO Emma King’s opening address to the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into COVID-19.

COVID-19 brutally exposed the cracks that for years have run deep in our society. Our social service safety net was confirmed as inadequate. Insecure work practices were revealed as not just cruel, but dangerous.

Long-known drivers of poverty and disadvantage found a new ally in the virus, forcing many people deeper into hardship. And those who already had less fared the worst.

Since we appeared before this committee in May, a lot has happened. Cases have grown significantly. A tragedy has unfolded in aged care—one we must not let happen in other settings. There has been a hard and heavy-handed lockdown of public housing, and mental distress, isolation and family violence is increasing.

To its credit, the Government has stepped-up in many ways. For example giving people sleeping rough a pathway into a home, and investing in mental health services.

In the second wave, as in the first, community organisations have again risen to the challenge. They have provided support, assistance, advice and protection to our whole community, including those who are the most vulnerable.

These organisations have also adapted themselves, operating in new and unique ways. Often stepping up to serve their communities at very short notice.

Recently, the Premier described this pandemic as an “ultra-marathon”. And he’s right. It must be noted that the community service sector, including leaders and those working on the frontline, are feeling the strain.
At this stage of the pandemic, organisations are doing everything they can to serve their communities. Staff are also tired and at risk of burning out. With more confirmed cases sending staff into isolation, it’s getting harder to fill the roster.

But frontline services can’t just stop. That would be unthinkable. Here is what’s currently happening: People are working harder, they’re working longer, and they’re working themselves ragged.

This can’t go on indefinitely.

Community service organisations are essential, and community service workers are essential workers.
If the community is to come through this pandemic, we need a strong and sustainable community sector with a workforce that is recognised for the essential work they do.

As I alluded to earlier, the pandemic is not affecting everyone equally.

To be blunt: if you’re poor, working a precarious job or if you didn’t get a great education, then you’re more likely to get COVID. In addition, women and young people are being hit hardest by growing unemployment.

If you’re poor, working a precarious job or if you didn’t get a great education, then you’re more likely to get COVID.

When we were last here, we urged the Committee to look to social housing as a win-win, because it can solve homelessness and it can stimulate the economy. This is still the number one priority. But many of the jobs it will create are in male-dominated industries, thus exacerbating other problems that we have.

We should be combining building homes with building a stronger and fairer society. This means investing more in things like: community-based healthcare, social workers, youth workers, disability support workers… the list goes on.

Because make no mistake: the real “jobs of the future” are in healthcare and social assistance.

However, currently the funding for community services is inadequate and much of the workforce is also casualised and insecure.But here’s the good news: the Government can fix this.

The community sector needs secure and long-term funding, so it can offer attractive wages, conditions, hours and training to keep people in jobs and to serve our community.

What has happened in aged care is a wake-up call. Insecure work and inadequate funding means people working across multiple locations, without necessarily having the right training and equipment.

Investing in the community services industry is smart. It’s an investment in the future for the wellbeing of all Victorians.

I want to leave you with two key ideas, to bring all this together.

VCOSS believes Victoria should establish a Wellbeing Budget and a Social Recovery Taskforce.

This would help shape Victoria’s recovery strategy, beyond finding a vaccine and getting people back to work.

It would identify ambitious and bold recovery goals; economic opportunities that will have ongoing social benefits.

Alongside a well-being budget that VCOSS has long advocated for, a Social Recovery Taskforce would guide and advise government.

It would be responsive to the needs of people of all backgrounds, genders and abilities. It would have representatives from across business and the community, government and non-government. Fresh thinkers and trusted community leaders.

A wellbeing budget and a Social Recovery Taskforce would provide vision and direction for Victoria.

A vision for making Victoria fairer and stronger as we move through the pandemic, and after the virus is defeated


  • You can read a summary of our previous appearance here.