Health induced economic crisis in Australia: One size doesn’t fit all

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The Government has been scrambling to assist all affected by the pandemic with questions being raised as to who will front the bill at the end, writes Dr Shannen Higginson and Dr Franceso Paolucci.

COVID-19: A war of a different kind

In response to public gathering bans due to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), Australians showed tremendous spirit by standing vigil at the end of their driveways, balconies and houses for the Anzac Dawn Service to pay their respects to those who gave their lives. Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered the address, along with the roll of honour, marking the names of the 102,000 men and women who died in service.

Seventy-five years since WW2, Australia is waging another kind of war, one against an enemy that is indifferent to country borders or class. Just today, the total number of deaths from COVID-19 has reached catastrophic figures, over 200,000 deaths worldwide, with the United States (56,803), Italy (26,977) and Spain (23,822) recording the highest numbers of COVID-19 fatalities.

The number of total confirmed cases is over 3 million, with the highest number of reported cases from the United States, having crossed 1 million, accounting for 33% of world cases. Although total recoveries are recorded at 919,365, latest reports from South Korean officials claim that previously recovered patients have tested positive again to the virus.

As of today, Australia has reported a total of 6,733 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 494,257 tests conducted nation-wide. The death toll is currently at 88, with deaths occurring predominantly in the elderly population. The share of the Australian population above 65 years is 15.9%.

(Graph supplied)

Additionally, official records show that fewer than 50 new cases have been recorded in Australia in the past 12 days, with the number of new cases gradually declining from a peak on 28 March at 460 new cases.

(Graph supplied)

Who are the winners and losers?

As is the case in any war, there are winners and losers and the stakes are changing every day in Australia. In the past several months, the Morrison Government has developed a stimulus package to soften the inevitable recession that is bound to rock Australia as a consequence of COVID-19. Total support from fiscal and monetary packages over the next few years will total $319 billion; in comparison, the Rudd Government spent $51 billion in response to the Global Financial Crisis.

Rightly so, beneficiaries of some of these monetary stimulus packages are senior Australians and the aged care sector, with almost $500 million paid out to the old aged sector to support residents and staff. Additionally, $1.1 billion has been allocated to boost mental health services, to provide additional support to domestic violence services and help assist emergency food relief organisations. Roughly $16 million in grants has been provided to researchers to develop pathology tests for COVID-19 and to develop potential treatments including a vaccine, with tests already underway at CSIRO in Melbourne.

The stimulus package protects workers and job seekers through the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs, offering $1,500 fortnightly payments to workers at companies affected by COVID-19, proving a 30-50% decrease in revenue and supplementary payments to job seekers are available also. Small and medium-sized business also get additional support of up to $100,000 in payments to aid in operating costs and loan support of 50% through eligible lenders.

However, there are many falling through the cracks in terms of available support from the COVID-19 aftermath. Virgin Australia recently entered into voluntary administration after a request to the Federal Government for a $1.4 billion bailout was refused. Meanwhile, Qantas was able to use its aircraft as collateral to secure a ten-year loan of $1 billion to stay afloat.

Tertiary education, the third-largest export industry in Australia, is expecting $10-19 billion in revenue losses in the next three years, with universities encouraged to seek loans from banks and state governments, or apply for the JobSeeker wage subsidy when revenues declined to eligibility thresholds.

Additionally, sectors such as culture and the arts have been affected, with new figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics stating more than 50% of small arts and recreation businesses have been affected. Typically, people who operate within these industries do not have regular shifts or hours, unpredictable cash flows and therefore cannot apply for the Federal Government stimulus schemes as loss of income from COVID-19 is incredibly hard to demonstrate.

Who are those being left behind?

Along with the losses of war, some are inevitably left behind. As the Federal Government continues to prop up the worsening economy with the stimulus package, very little thought is given to who will be given the bill at the end of it all. This burden will fall upon the younger generation, with experts expecting that taxes will need to be raised to pay back the accumulated debt from the Morrison Government.

Additionally, the Government's allowance to withdraw up to $10-20,000 from superannuation accounts if hardship can be proven means that not only will the younger working generation be taxed more, but either the retirement age will increase, or they will need to continue working for many years more to retire in somewhat comfort. Actions now will continue to exacerbate generational inequalities, with those born in the 1990s already heavily impacted by the GFC stimulus package and now the COVID-19 package.

But we are, of course, forgetting. As the new year came in and many proclaimed all the amazing things that could be accomplished in the new decade, we were easy to forget some of the most devastating events of 2019. Only recently did the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires occur, ending in March 2020. A vastly different response, especially in terms of monetary support, has been experienced between these two events, despite the incredible loss of life. A total of 34 direct human deaths were recorded, with an additional 417 as a result of excessive smoke inhalation. A total of 5,900 buildings, 18.6 million hectares were destroyed and estimates state that over one billion animals perished. As COVID-19 captures the nation’s attention, sufferers of Black Summer have been forgotten.

Furthermore, the Royal Commission released its interim report into Aged Care Quality and Safety on 31 October 2019, demonstrating that systematic failures continued to lead to poor quality care for senior Australians. Why did the Australian Government wait for a global pandemic to provide support to the aged care sector, especially when Australia is now entering into a recession to protect its senior citizens?

In this new war that Australia is facing, it is hoped that the same spirit that we celebrate every year on Anzac Day still exists; one of camaraderie, mateship and that nobody gets left behind.

Dr Shannen Higginson is a PhD candidate in Health Economics at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. Dr Francesco Paolucci is Professor of Health Economics & Policy at the Faculty of Business & Law, University of Newcastle and the School of Economics & Management, University of Bologna.


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