Coronavirus shutdown has human costs

Coronavirus shutdown has human costs

“The things that can happen when families are under stress.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning the economy shutting down will have real social consequences. AAP

“I’m as concerned about those outcomes as I am about the health outcomes of managing the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

“Lives are at risk in both cases.”

To save lives, indeed probably many people, the Victorian and NSW premiers seem to want to prioritise health protection, whatever the economic and social costs.

Worker sacrifices

A younger generation of working Australians are making enormous sacrifices to protect the health of – overwhelmingly but not exclusively – older Australians most susceptible to the coronavirus.

Laid off staff, income-stricken small business owners and workers in social isolation will help protect their parents and grandparents, plus a small proportion of younger people who could die from the virus.

Beyond Blue founding chairman and former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett says forcing people to avoid going to work and stay at home will lead to boredom, fractious relationships and a lack of social interaction.

“Work is a bit of relief so I am really worried about people’s mental health.

“In the companies I am associated with, I have made daily exercise and fresh air the number one priority. Otherwise there is going to be diabolical trouble.”

“We can take the personal disciplines of not being in crowds and washing hands, but this concept of everyone at home is going to have a lot of unforseen impacts.”

About 3000 Australians a year commit suicide and it is the leading cause of death for those aged 15-44, people of prime working age.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people are losing paid work and economists are tipping unemployment to hit 10 per cent.

Mental health concerns

Australian National University head of mental health policy Sebastian Rosenberg says the country’s “broken” mental health system is going to come under intense pressure.

“We know there are very strong links between unemployment and mental illness. Isolation is the enemy of mental health.”

Mr Rosenberg says it is vital governments swiftly improve their investments – both via funding but also critically through systemic changes – to mental health services.

As Mr Morrison hints, women and children in abusive relationships will be vulnerable during the coronavirus economic crisis.

Domestic violence vulnerabilities

University of Melbourne professor of social work Cathy Humphreys says economic downturns are a “disaster” for domestic violence victims, with recent research showing there was a close link between bushfire-hit areas and domestic violence increases.

“For women and children living with domestic violence, this is just a nightmare,” she says of the coronavirus.

“The strongest strategy domestic violence abusers have to control is social isolation.

“Going out to work and earning income is very protective for women. And the man having employment is also very protective because he’s out of the house for eight hours and drinking less.”

Humphreys says domestic violence services are “essential services” for governments to keep open “more than ever”.

As hardship and anxiety mount during the coronavirus crisis governments must embrace a much more generous social welfare net, perhaps pay some some sort of guaranteed wage to laid off workers and business owners being pushed by Greens Senator and former banker Peter Whish-Wilson, and significantly invest in social services.

Hard hit Australians must know we will support them through this tough time and there is light at the end of the tunnel in coming months when the virus peak passes and the economy reopens.

No mainstream political leader in Australia is advocating to embrace Donald Trump’s more extreme “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem” mantra. Trump hints after Easter he may let the economy rip, whatever the health cost.

But our politicians like the PM are trying to delicately balance health, economic and social benefits and costs for all Australians.

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