In May 2020, VCOSS was called to give evidence before a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into the state’s response to COVID-19.
COVID-19 struck us like a tsunami. Within weeks, it triggered a crisis response from our health system. It tested our community’s resilience and safety net. And it thrust thousands into poverty.
On so many fronts, we rose to the challenge and did things that were considered ‘impossible’ just months ago. Things like free childcare, a fair rate of Newstart, remote learning, a Housing First approach to rough sleeping and remote medical appointments, including mental health consultations.
Things that we thought would take 10 years were achieved in 10 days.
COVID-19 upended our understanding of what was possible. We should celebrate and protect these advances: embedding them as standard practice going forward. I will speak in more detail about some of these measures shortly. But we must also acknowledge that COVID-19 has exposed some significant fragilities in our system.
Vulnerable people are always hit hardest in emergencies or disasters, and so it was with this pandemic. They are the most likely to get sick, lose their jobs, be evicted from their homes. And they have the least ability to absorb the income hit when their hours are cut, or to go out and buy a new iPad when the kids are learning from home.
VCOSS applauds the speed with which governments have scrambled to respond to the social impacts of this disaster.
But at the same time, that speed and that scramble underlines how threadbare some of our social protections were.
Our safety net was revealed as riddled with holes. Holes that too many people were slipping through: For example,
- International students, who are not eligible for Medicare,
- Casual workers in insecure jobs, who don’t get the wage subsidy,
- People without homes, who can’t safely isolate.
It was community organisations that stepped up—as they always do—and worked with the government to support communities and vulnerable people in their time of need.
Despite restrictions now easing, we all know this is far from over. That hard times lie ahead. And as people start moving back out into the world, it’s again the most vulnerable who are at the greatest risk. For example, people who are older, or who with a disability, or who have a chronic illness. It is these people who must remain the most vigilant — and will potentially be the most isolated. Loneliness, disconnectedness and anxiety will likely to be their constant companions.
As VCOSS sees it, the Victorian Government has two broad challenges going forward:
1. To combat the public health emergency, and to keep Victorians safe and well.
We are not public health experts so won’t seek to advise the government on this front. Except to say: vulnerable communities must be front-and-center in this health response.
Nobody should miss out on proper care because of who they are, where they live or how much they may earn.
Nobody should miss out on online services because they don’t have internet at home.
Nobody should be turned away from mental health care because they aren’t ‘sick enough’.
And nobody should be confused about where to get help because English is not their first language.
Nobody can be left behind.
2. Making sure our recovery is fair, inclusive and smart.
Our recovery must be about more than getting spending down, and GDP up. Our recovery must be about tangible outcomes for real people.
The smartest way to embed this approach would be for Victoria to become a wellbeing economy, and to deliver a wellbeing budget. A wellbeing budgeting approach would allow us to draw a line under the pandemic, and set ambitious goals for our recovery. For example:
► How many homeless people do we wish to support into stable housing? And by what date?
► How many kids have disengaged from school during the pandemic? How many do we plan to get back into learning and engaged with their school community?
These types of social goals and measures should be in the budget papers alongside economic indicators, like inflation or net debt. Only by embracing a wellbeing economy will we have a fair, inclusive and smart recovery. Now is the time to think big, to be bold and to take the smart steps required to deliver real change.
Here’s one example. There is a way the Victorian Government can fight inequality, create jobs and stimulate the economy, at the same time.
Two words: social housing.
A large-scale social housing construction blitz would create homes for people in need, meaning they can get their lives on track, look after their health and, in some cases, find work. But a social housing construction blitz would also create work for tradies, architects, engineers, truck drivers and materials suppliers… the list goes on.
The government, I note, made some initial investments in this space earlier this week. These investments are very welcome. Every new home means one less person, couple or family is no longer homeless.
But so much more is needed.
And the more we do, the more lives we change.
The more we do, the more jobs we create.
The more we do, the more stimulus we give the economy.
I said earlier that this pandemic has “upended our understanding of what was possible.” That’s only half true. It has actually revealed that we decide what is possible.
Something is only impossible if we say it is.
So my final plea to this committee, to the parliament and to the government is simple: think big, be bold, and hold your nerve.
- Written text may vary slightly from delivery.