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The privilege of self-isolation isn’t widely discussed in Australia, yet the disadvantages and dangers of lockdown faced by our most vulnerable and high-risk groups within society are already rife.
The list of those impacted is long, says Yin Paradies, an Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations in Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. It includes, but is not limited to:
Prof. Paradies explains the challenges these groups are facing are a result of ‘the dangers of being less connected to others, or spending more time in dangerous situations at home’ due to strict lockdown laws.
On top of this, he says there has been a decrease in ‘adequate’ support services available in Australia.
Navigating such hardships is difficult even without the weight of a global pandemic and physical distancing laws. However, it’s clear the COVID-19 lockdown has, in many cases, exacerbated them.
Prof. Paradies points to an increase in domestic violence web searches have gone ‘up by 75% since the lockdown’. There were also early reports of increased suicides, with estimates that worldwide suicide deaths ‘could increase by almost 10,000 per year due to the impacts of the lockdown on unemployment-related suicide alone’.
Prof. Paradies says ‘over-zealous’ lockdown policing adds another level of complexity for individuals in dangerous or disadvantaged situations. He explains there are those who ‘breach – what are at times confusing and contradictory – lockdown laws through necessity or limited choices.’
For people fleeing unsafe living arrangements or with an unstable home, 15% are temporarily taking refuge in other households, and 44% are staying in ‘severely’ overcrowded dwellings according to Homelessness Australia.
But the cost of doing so is high – not just in terms of large fines or potential jail time, but for their health.
The perceptible silence on these issues starts from the top. The Australian government and mainstream media filter COVID-19 related advice, laws and news through a lens applicable only to ‘the privileged in society’, Prof. Paradies explains. Those with homes and safe living arrangements, those with stable incomes and job certainty. ‘It is very worrisome, but not surprising,’ he says.
‘Both the government and media seem unable to handle the complexity of a situation where saving lives on one hand leads to lost lives on the other,’ he says.
‘There is a balance to large-scale societal changes that require much more careful consideration, honesty, transparency, humility and doubt which are rarely achieved by Australian governments or media.’
Prof. Paradies says deflecting the conversation away from the hardships people are experiencing indicates a ‘lack of trust by government and media in peoples’ ability to handle complexity’.
‘There is ample evidence of the Australian people being treated like children,’ he says, using the Prime Minister’s phrase ‘an early mark’ as a prime example. The phrase – used by the PM in relation to easing lockdown restrictions earlier than anticipated – was then repeated en masse by the media. It’s a colloquial Australian term meaning permission to leave a scheduled event (commonly school) early.
‘Such a lack of trust detracts significantly from Australia’s capacity to operate as a democratic nation, and instead favours authoritarian approaches to governance and policies,’ Prof. Paradies says.
'There is a balance to large-scale societal changes that require much more careful consideration, honesty, transparency, humility and doubt which are rarely achieved by Australian governments or media.'
Professor Yin Paradies,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University
Looking at the whole picture, Prof. Paradies doesn’t believe our most vulnerable are being supported well enough at this time.
‘There seems to be an underlying assumption that most people have enough wealth and savings to survive without ongoing income for weeks at a time, in their own stable home environment, with access to technology that would allow both working from home (in a job that allows this) and staying in social contact with others while physically distancing.’
It’s rarer than many of us think that someone has all – or even a majority – of these privileges. Especially at this time.
For instance, a ME Bank report discovered 49% of Australians have less than $10,000 in savings, and a quarter of Australians have less than $1000 in the bank. At a time when job security and financial uncertainty are rife, this ends up being the deciding factor on whether households can pay their bills and buy food for an ongoing amount of time.
While people without savings are often chastised for indulging in ‘luxuries’ instead of putting money in the bank, it’s not smashed avocado on toast making it difficult to keep money in the bank. It’s the exponential growth of living costs paired with the stagnancy of wages.
Renting in a capital city, like Melbourne or Sydney, costs more than $400 per week on average. For someone on minimum wage, these costs are exorbitant to begin with, but if they lost their only source of income, it becomes impossible to manage.
Having a large sum of savings is an incredible privilege to be afforded, especially at this time. But acknowledging the succession of privileges that allow someone to have savings is also important: perhaps it’s having a well-paying job, or living at home with your family and not needing to pay bills.
Likewise, the percentage of Australians with unstable home environments such as homelessness or those fleeing domestic violence is much greater than many people think. The people you see sleeping rough on the streets represent only 7% of Australia’s homeless population.
Current homelessness statistics are also largely based on the ABS’s estimates. So, while the homeless population jumped up by 13.5% from the 2011 census to the 2016 census, the real figures are still unknown.
There are those living through unimaginable stress due to not having a safe, stable place to physical distance or complete their work from ‘home’ to earn money. It’s something to consider next time you get frustrated being ‘stuck’ indoors with your family or get angry about not being able to see all your friends at once.
For many Australians, their most basic necessities are out of reach during lockdown.
Everyone is facing their own series of challenges, but Prof. Paradies says we should still be mindful of our own situation.
‘It’s always good to reflect on our own level of privilege and remember those in our community who are suffering more than we are.
‘It is also a good time to reach out and help others in whatever way we can during lockdown,’ he advises.
Generosity is a powerful tool. Giving doesn’t always have to be financial either. You can offer your time – perhaps you know a neighbour has been struggling with their mental health, so you spend some time chatting on the phone with them. Giving blood is still encouraged, or you could donate some food or clothing to shelters.
Prof. Paradies says ‘building a stronger, more resilient and robust sense of community’ will help us reduce the negative impacts of lockdown and ‘re-imagine the kind of society we want to live in after this crisis’.
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