Economic focus of government COVID-19 responses revealed by Social Progress Index

A new fact sheet by the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) reveals the extent that social vulnerabilities are addressed by Australian federal and state governments’ policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CSI has today released a new fact sheet mapping federal, state and territory government COVID-19 responses against a social progress framework that focuses on building socially inclusive communities rather than only economic recovery.

The fact sheet, Using the Social Progress Index to identify COVID-19 Vulnerabilities , highlights the different pain points for vulnerability in each state and territory which must be considered when planning recovery from COVID-19. If left unaddressed, these issues will likely be exacerbated and eventually create a greater inequality divide for certain sociodemographic groups.

The fact sheet shows that the majority of federal, state and territory policy responses to COVID-19 have focused on economic protection, specifically on protecting or supporting businesses. However, there has also been a large investment in basic healthcare that has been able to support rapid COVID-19 testing as well as necessary hospitalisations.

Lead researcher and co-author Dr Megan Weier from the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales (CSI UNSW) said that there have also been responses that could end up harming Australia’s social progress.

“Societies are made up of more than the economy and jobs. We have seen in this pandemic that there is also the need to think about issues such as personal safety for people experiencing domestic and family violence; shelter for people experiencing homelessness; and for school kids to be able to access education with adequate internet and technology when learning remotely,” Dr Weier said.

“The Social Progress Index shows that policies should be created with more than just the economic impacts in mind. Social and environmental impacts each play a crucial part. We found that COVID-19 responses across the country primarily focus on economic recovery and maintaining employment.

“We did find that some states and territories have prioritised ensuring there is adequate policy to protect personal safety, access to basic education, and inclusiveness.”

CSI UNSW researcher and co-author Isabella Saunders said that the fact sheet highlights the vulnerabilities many Australians already face with housing, employment and access to services.

“We all know how fragile the economy is. However, the Social Progress Index shows that we cannot put the focus solely on the economy. Investment into the economy does not necessarily mean that people will have a place to sleep or be able to receive adequate healthcare,” Ms Saunders said.

“When we compare each state and territory, we see there’s lot of room for improvement across the nation and within individual jurisdictions. In order for overall social progress to improve, all scores across the SPI framework need to improve.”

Key findings:

  • The Federal Government passed a number of strong economic-focused policy responses to COVID-19 including an economic stimulus package focused on business support and JobSeeker, Jobkeeper payments, HomeBuilder, JobMaker and JobTrainer – which are explicitly focused on supporting the economy through employment (particularly trades)
  • Many states and territories employed measures to monitor behaviour that ensures everyone follows social distancing and are not engaging in activities such as large gatherings
  • Some jurisdictions, such as New South Wales and Victoria, have given police authority to issue on-the-spot fines in relation to social distancing. A disproportionate rate of fines given to people from Indigenous or migrant backgrounds poses a risk to improving social progress
  • Most policy response across Australia focuses on funding healthcare infrastructure and operations, rightly prioritising nutrition and basic medical care needs
  • A focus on shelter, primarily through offering rent relief to either landlords or tenants, and offering rebates on utilities and rate payments. State and territories have tended to respond individually to the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Many measures are positioned as temporary, which poses a risk for the security of people experiencing housing stress or homelessness after the economic threat of COVID-19 is judged to be over
  • Some states and territories committed to stimulus packages that would allow community organisations and not-for-profits to increase their volume of social services