Coping with COVID-19: Recovery according to the experts

As 2020 draws to a close, economists at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research reflect on eight months of data tracking Australians’ experiences of the pandemic.

So far, Australia has come through the pandemic in an enviable position, with few active cases and early signs of economic recovery. This can be attributed, in part, to quick and extensive government engagement to simultaneously address the health and economic crises.

Even so, the effects of the pandemic have not been felt equally, and some groups remain vulnerable to financial stress and mental distress. The research shows that targeted government support will be needed beyond 2020 to assist those who have been worst affected.

Coping with COVID-19: Rethinking Australia considers the challenges and opportunities for Australia as restrictions ease and pandemic-related income support is wound back. The report draws on the Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey, a fortnightly survey tracking changes in the economic and social wellbeing of Australians since the pandemic began.

According to the report's editors – Professor A. Abigail Payne, Dr Nicolás Salamanca and Dr Barbara Broadway – our chances of coming out of this pandemic as a better and stronger society will depend on how much we learn from it and how well we adapt these lessons going forward.

“Very early on, we began to capture key information on attitudes, reactions and the impact of the pandemic on Australians, alongside the bold government policies and interventions that unfolded. Now our experts are in a unique position to deliver recommendations to enable the country to recover and reset,” Professor A. Abigail Payne, Director of the Melbourne Institute said.

The data show overall satisfaction with government policies to support jobs and keep people at work has been high but that satisfaction has declined in recent months.

Although a majority of people still support the main strategies for suppressing the virus, fatigue appears to be setting in. Support for wearing masks, weekly testing and closing non-essential businesses has fallen nearly ten percentage-points since August. However, support for a vaccine is high, with three-quarters of Australians saying they would get the vaccine.

A pick-up in household consumption will be key to economic recovery but the analysis suggests that GDP growth could be weighed down by low growth in population and wages.

Researchers say there is a shrinking window for governments to deliver policies that enable Australians to weather the storm of subsequent waves of the virus and secure the country’s economic resilience.

Key findings and recommendations:

  • The majority of Australians are financially vulnerable – in November, 55 per cent reported that they could not afford essential goods or are just making ends meet. Recovery from the recession will be driven by spending. Governments should focus on employment and productivity.
  • Nearly half of those experiencing financial stress are experiencing depression and anxiety. Expanding mental health services – particularly to vulnerable groups – will help address this.
  • A third of fathers are experiencing mental distress – the biggest increase among any group. Policies that encourage dual-earner families, such as accessible childcare and flexible work, will help protect parents’ mental health.
  • Increases in financial stress suggest there is a risk that poverty rates will go up – highest levels of financial stress among full-time workers in the poorest communities. Targeted programs could help avoid more people falling into poverty.
  • Those who are working from home want to continue doing so: in November, half of men and 36 per cent of women were working from home. Eighty four per cent of women said they would prefer to continue doing so. The biggest reasons are reduced risk of catching the virus, no need to commute, and getting more work done. A long-term transition to working from home will require changes in workplaces and cities.
  • Income support isn’t getting to everyone who needs it. Although, women suffered more work loss due to the pandemic, they are less likely to be on income support. More targeted programs may be needed for these groups.
  • Women are 35 per cent more likely to be in low-income households than men. The number of young people in low income households increased from 16 to 22 per cent, and the number of people who work in industries most affected by the pandemic increased from six to 16 per cent. Government income support will continue to be important for some time.
  • Over a third of Australians said they are considering further training due to the pandemic. For employed people, the biggest reason is to upskill. For unemployed people, it’s to learn new skills. Those seeking further training may need career counselling to help see opportunities after work loss.
  • Nearly a third of younger men avoided getting healthcare they needed due to the pandemic. Over half of people experiencing high levels of mental distress didn’t get healthcare they needed. Bulk-billing could be targeted at those most in need and digital healthcare expanded.

Interact with the results of the Taking the Pulse of the Nation survey on our tracker page.

Read the full report.