The current global pandemic has turned the world upside down, forever changing how things will be done. In Australia, we have been comparatively lucky in that there has been a low rate of infection and deaths from the disease. This does not, however, discount the experiences of the disadvantaged people in our communities.
We’ve been hearing a lot of “we’re all in this together” but it seems that the people in our society who need the most assistance are not getting all the help they so desperately need, leaving them to rely on generous charities.
I wonder if this response has come from a long-held stigma around people living in poverty, that they are somehow responsible for their position, or that they are dangerous. Or maybe they are perceived to be criminals, or addicted to drugs/alcohol and don’t deserve to be helped. These perceptions are flawed and need to change, or they maintain cycles of prejudice and entrenched disadvantage.
For example, students from low socio-economic backgrounds are already on the back foot when it comes to their education and future prospects. If they do not have access to the materials and technology that schools so heavily rely upon, they fall behind and find it difficult to catch up. During COVID-19, this disparity has become more pronounced, as discussed in a blog post on the 29th of April by Anne Hampshire, the Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family. As she explains, the families are not able to afford such luxuries as laptops because more of the budget needs to be spent on medical expenses, which could be higher than normal at this time with likely underlying health issues. The youth are our future – it is vital we give all of them equal opportunities to succeed during the pandemic and beyond. Hampshire also highlights the problematic nature of giving the students a laptop while the pandemic is happening, only for it to be taken away afterwards. An increase in JobSeeker (formerly Newstart) or JobKeeper payments could make a significant difference in students’ opportunity to have their own laptops, uniforms, books, etc, setting them up for greater stability in the medium term. Likewise, the temporary increase in JobSeeker and the temporary six-month JobKeeper payment, a taste of a universal wage, cannot simply be removed when things ‘go back to normal.’
When it comes to how we treat our vulnerable communities, more thought and consultation is definitely needed. Recently in Victoria, 3000 residents of nine public housing high-rises were put into hard lockdown - not even able to walk out their front door - to protect them and others from COVID-19. This was seen as necessary due to their high-density living conditions and often underlying health problems. The government assured us they would be looked after, but there were some major issues with the process used.
Many residents had to wait a long time to receive food that was inadequate or inappropriate, such as Muslim people being delivered food with pork products, or perishables being dropped at the door in the middle of the night, left to go inedible. There have also been residents not able to get the medication they need for themselves or their children, and police officers being unsympathetic to their needs; as well as inadequate numbers of social workers on site. Whilst the tower lockdowns might have come out of good motivation, it could have been handled much better.
Imagine you have come over to Australia from a war-torn country for a better life, then one day you return home to be confronted with swarms of police at the entrance to the building. You don’t understand why because you have done nothing wrong. And this re-triggers trauma from past negative experiences with police...
What does this hard-line action say about how we view the people in the towers when similar density towers in the same area were not locked down?
If authorities are going to protect the most vulnerable in our community, they need to have the right processes in place before making such drastic decisions. While eight of the nine towers were released within a week, into stage 3 lockdown in line with the rest of Melbourne, the ninth tower remained in lockdown for a further nine days due to a higher number of COVID19-positive residents.
In similar short-term responses, those sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne were given rooms in hotels and motels as well as ongoing food and other support. Whilst a positive measure to keep people experiencing primary homelessness safe, this again begs the question of how we see people who are homeless and what actions we are prepared to take to bring positive change to the longer-term chronic issue. Short-term thinking and reactions will not bring a meaningful end to homelessness and can often leave people experiencing disadvantage worse off in the medium to long term.
So where to from here? “Looking after each other” has been a much-quoted reason for us to remain vigilant about hand and cough/sneeze hygiene, keeping 1.5 metres distance from others, and staying home as much as possible. Very important.
But will there come a time in the near future when we will once again stop looking after everybody?
Whether it’s a person who is struggling to get by at school, a public housing tenant who has been locked in their residence, or a homeless person who is sleeping rough and has nowhere to safely isolate, our disadvantaged folk deserve to be treated as though they matter with effective short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, it is important they feel supported by somebody they trust and feel can understand their situation, and that they can rely on as long as needed. Longer term, it is important for people to be able to sustainably support themselves, giving them inter-dependence, which in turn boosts self-esteem. This can be done through reminding them they have their own skills and strengths, encouraging them to think about what those skills and strengths are, and helping them take meaningful and sustainable steps forward.