COVID mantra of ‘personal responsibility’ is fine – in theory


The emerging government mantra for COVID suppression appears to be personal responsibility. Gone are the days of broad mandates and harsh restrictions.

Victorians are now “strongly encouraged” to do the right thing themselves: mask up, use a rapid antigen test when unwell and stay home if sick or a test result is positive.

All fine in theory. But personal responsibility has limits.

Firstly, it only works if people do actually exercise their personal responsibility to protect themselves, their loved ones and those in their community.

You only have to step onto a train to see that in the limited spaces where masks are still mandated, many people are ignoring the very rules designed to protect them and those around them.

You’d expect that with about 10,000 new COVID cases being recorded each day and the death toll rising, people might think a bit more carefully about their personal responsibility.

But secondly, and perhaps most crucially, personal responsibility only works if you have the personal means to do what’s required. Basic economics applies: you can’t buy masks or self-fund your COVID tests without money.

If recent history is any guide, then increased demand, panic buying and price gouging will also inevitably lead to product shortages and price rises. Those with the available means will be outraged. But they will eventually shrug, mutter “Well, that’s annoying” and buy the necessary materials anyway.

A small pile of rapid antigen tests
Photo by Renato Marques on Unsplash

But those with less money won’t fare so well.

They will be forced to navigate the world without the protection of a mask and regular RATs, or make heart-breaking sacrifices to afford these items. These may include skipping meals, not using electricity, missing necessary medication or not paying bills, further compounding other challenges in their lives.

People who are both poor and immunosuppressed, or medically vulnerable in some other way, may “choose” to stay home entirely, entering into a form of endless personal lockdown.

These scenarios are all utterly unacceptable. Your income and your postcode should not determine your health or the health of your loved ones and your local community.

A high-level public campaign to encourage more people to get a COVID booster also presents challenges. Simply asking people to get their jab isn’t good enough.

Broad campaigns don’t reach everybody, and not everybody has the financial or practical means to get immunised. This is especially true for disadvantaged, multicultural or geographically isolated communities.

Intensive community outreach, genuine engagement with community organisations and local leaders, and tailored communications efforts are critical to increasing vaccine uptake.

The Victorian government knows this, because it did an admirable job throughout 2021 as vaccine supplies finally rolled out. This effort must be sustained.

These scenarios are all utterly unacceptable. Your income and your postcode should not determine your health or the health of your loved ones and your local community.

(National cabinet’s recent decision – after a week of near universal condemnation – to continue support payments for casual workers is a welcome counterpoint to the broader trend to personal responsibility.)

If Victoria is to move ahead successfully, the needs of vulnerable people and the community organisations that support them must not be an afterthought. They must be front and centre.

As an example, the state government has announced new cash grants for businesses to improve air quality in their premises. This makes sense as nobody wants to shop, dine or work in a stuffy, unventilated environment.

But community sector organisations – such as family violence refuges, homelessness support centres and community legal centres – aren’t eligible for these grants.

This is a particularly alarming omission given the people who frequent these settings often live with other forms of vulnerability, such as a health condition or a disability.

Nobody knows when this COVID rollercoaster will end, only that it’s not over yet.

For as long as COVID remains a threat, we must ensure the views and the needs of people with less or with existing precarious health are given the highest prominence.

The alternative is unthinkable: a two-track recovery, where those who can afford it live a life of relative safety and freedom, while everybody else endures a lower quality of life, punctuated by isolation and illness.

Nobody wants that.


This article was first published in The Age on Monday 18 July 2022.

It is a companion piece to our VCOSS Issues Alert A short guide to protecting everybody from COVID this winter‘.

VCOSS is the peak body for Victoria’s social and community sector, and the state’s premier social advocacy body.

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