Australians awoke to a new reality on Tuesday, living under the nation’s strictest-ever isolation policy. Tightening earlier restrictions that closed non-essential businesses such as pubs and gyms, now gatherings of more than two people are banned except in limited circumstances, and it is illegal to leave your residence for non-essential reasons. In New South Wales, the most populous and affected state, breaching the rules carries a maximum six-month prison sentence and AU$11,000 fine.
“You shouldn’t be leaving home unless it is for work, for school, for essential things that you need to buy or else if you need to seek medical attention or exercise. They are the only reasons you should leave home,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“If you can work from home you should, if you can learn from home, you should. If you can do everything from home, you should. It is only in the exceptional circumstances that you should leave home.”
At the time of the escalation, Australia had 4,359 confirmed cases and 19 deaths — a 0.4 per cent fatality rate. The rate of infection is dropping as a result of stronger border security, social distancing and quarantine policies, and is below the levels of countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
“We were at 25 to 30 per cent growth just over a week ago, on a daily basis,” said Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday. “Now we have come down in the last week to the low teens, and the latest advice I have from the National Incident Centre this morning is that the last three days have been approximately 9 per cent, on average.”
In an effort of minimise the harm of the pandemic, Canberra has announced AU$194 billion in spending — equal to around ten per cent of the Australian economy, and four times larger than its response to the global financial crisis. The debt is expected to take at least a decade to pay off, but could prevent the nation from slipping into a depression.
This week the government vowed to pay up to AU$1,500 per fortnight to workers for the next six months, as a wage subsidy via their employers, hoping to arrest the march of citizens onto the unemployment line and to help the economy rebuild quickly once the health threat has eased.
“We want to keep the engine of our economy running through this crisis,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “It may run on idle for a time but it must continue to run.”
James Pearson, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, hailed the measure as a game changer, saying: “We would now urge every employer who has had to lay someone off due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, to look hard at their numbers, rethink, and rehire wherever possible.”
The wage subsidy has been costed for six months, twice as long as the similar (albeit more generous) plan adopted in the United Kingdom. In less than 24 hours, 200,000 businesses had registered for the programme.
The government had already promised welfare payment increases to those who have lost their jobs, totalling around AU$1,200 per fortnight for the next six months. Additionally, most welfare recipients will receive a lump-sum payment of AU$750.
On Sunday, Morrison said that over AU$1 billion would be spent on a range of support services, including telephone-based healthcare, domestic violence support, and mental health.
“As we battle coronavirus on both the health and economic fronts with significant support packages in place and more to come, I am very aware many Australians are understandably anxious, stressed and fearful about the impacts of coronavirus and what it brings,” the Prime Minister said.
“We are focused on saving lives and saving livelihoods and this new support package will provide much needed care and help to so many Australians facing hardship at no fault of their own.”
With restrictions on movement and socialisation expected to last for up to six months, the effects on domestic violence and mental health will likely be more severe than the direct effects of Covid-19. These fears have been further heightened by a 30 per cent increase in alcohol sales.
“I suspect that people will stay in violent relationships because it will be that they won’t know what else to do,” former Supreme Court judge and chair of the 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence, Marcia Neave, told the ABC.
“And people who were in a terrible situation before may now be even in a worse situation, because if they’ve got violence combined with all of the restrictions that are being placed on people’s movements, having their children at home, etc, they will be badly affected.”
Similarly, mental health researcher at Queensland University of Technology, Dr Olivia Fisher, told the national broadcaster: “A lot of people have suddenly found themselves in a very vulnerable position. It’s the people who have lost their jobs, their purpose, their sense of identity, and sense of belonging in a work team.
“When all of that is suddenly taken away, those people can certainly be a high risk of experiencing anxiety and other mental health problems.”
The challenges ahead, in Australia as in the rest of the world, are beyond living memory. Government economic stimulus and investment in support measures may make the crucial difference in health, economic and social recovery.
Let’s hope the health minister was correct when he said on Tuesday: “In 50 and 100 years’ time, I suspect people will look back on this national cabinet as being one of the most amazing achievements of the federation in Australia’s first 200 years. That’s my honest view.”