The burden of COVID-19 has not been shouldered equally

15 June 2020

Today I'd like to begin by drawing attention to the impact of COVID-19 on regional coastal communities across Australia like mine on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

These are communities built on the shoulders of tourism, retail, hospitality, construction and the service industries. These communities were hit hard when restrictions were introduced, and in these communities the road ahead to recovery is long and bumpy.

We haven't all quarantined equally and we won't snap back to normal come September, when the last of the government's supports are wound back. In recent months Australia has faced ongoing drought, bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact has hit hard in regional and remote Australia.

In late May the Grattan Institute released its job losses caused by COVID-19 report by electorate. My community saw a sharp fall of 5.7 per cent. Our local economy, as I mentioned, is built on hospitality, retail, tourism and construction.

The impact of restrictions on small businesses and local jobs has been devastating. I've heard from families where both parents have lost their jobs on the same day. Danny of Norah Head works in gaming and his wife has her own graphic design business. They're both now on JobKeeper, and Danny tells me he can't see himself earning a normal wage for up to two years.

Far too many people have fallen through the cracks and missed out on support together. Around Australia up to 1.1 million casual workers will miss out on a wage subsidy and potentially be forced into the unemployment queue because the Morrison government has stuffed up on JobKeeper.

They are young people like Ryan of Bateau Bay in my electorate. Ryan is a heart transplant recipient who lives with a daily regime of immuno-suppressant medication. Ryan strictly followed medical advice and quarantined at home, but his employer didn't meet the turnover test and he's too young to be considered independent, so he's relying on his parents to get by.

I wrote to Minister Robert over a month ago on Ryan's behalf and I am still waiting for a response.

It was Labor who pushed for a wage subsidy when the government was stubbornly ruling it out. Then for weeks the Morrison government has been telling casuals and other excluded workers that the JobKeeper program was full, when in reality it was three million workers short. Thousands of hard-working young people like Ryan shouldn't miss out because the PM and Treasurer were wrong by three million workers and $60 billion.

As we face COVID-19, one group who have been doing it particularly tough in my electorate and across Australia are parents of children living with disability. The costs of NDIS programs have gone up, while face-to-face supports have fallen away, making life that much harder for these people and their families.

Yet parents on carer payment have received very little additional financial support from the government as COVID-19 continues to unfold.

These are parents like Karen, of Hamlyn Terrace in my electorate of Dobell, a mother to eight with seven still at home, four home schooled and two living with disabilities. Karen receives the carer payment and carer allowance and asks why she is now worse off than other single parents as we face COVID-19.

Parents like Karen deserve better from this government, as do those caring for the aged and others more vulnerable to COVID-19, who have found their responsibilities just that much harder with increasing social isolation. They've faced higher costs, shortages of essential items such as medicines and flu vaccines, and the very real fear of what will happen if their loved one catches COVID-19.

Patrick, of Bateau Bay, called me. He has cared for his 91-year-old mother since his father, a war veteran, passed away 11 years ago. She's immobile and living with dementia. When not caring for his mum, Patrick volunteers at Lifeline and is undertaking a Certificate III in Alcohol and Other Drugs.

He told me he feels that carers at the front line, like him, who are keeping older people safe, protecting them and keeping them out of our hospitals, are being disrespected. He asked why service providers can get a 10 per cent loading, while he struggles to get by and take care of his mum. He says, 'Carers for older Australians have been forgotten.' Carers like Patrick deserve better from this government.

The impact of this pandemic has not been shouldered equally. We don't all quarantine the same. This has been particularly true for women, with many finding themselves out of work at the same time as their caring responsibilities have grown.

Across the board, we've already seen worrying evidence of this inequality, and sadly the Morrison government has only made it worse, not better. The first release of ABS data since COVID-19 showed not only that were women more likely to have lost their job after the emergence of COVID-19; they had also lost more wages than men in the same period.

Sadly, many are now facing homelessness, and some are facing family violence. I spoke to a woman with a disability who had faced years of family violence and was at risk of losing her homea home that had been modified to meet her specific needs. Women and children need more support, not less, as we face COVID-19.

It must be said that Australia's world-class healthcare system, underpinned by Medicare, has largely been the foundation of our success in the fight against COVID-19. But well before this pandemic reached our shores we'd been raising concerns that basic health care is becoming unaffordable and out of reach for many Australians. Medicare figures confirm what Australians already know: the out-of-pocket cost to see a doctor is higher than ever before.

The government's own data shows that the average out-of-pocket cost to see a GP in my electorate of Dobell, on the New South Wales Central Coast, is $32.65, up over $7 since the Liberals were elected. The same is true for the cost of seeing a specialist. The average out-of-pocket cost to see a specialist in Dobell is now close to $90, up $28, or 50 per cent, since the Liberals were elected.

These costs, particularly as we face COVID-19, are pushing household budgets to breaking point. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the government's own experts, say that 1.3 million Australians a year delay or avoid Medicare services due to cost. That's worth repeating: in a country that prides itself on universal access to health care, over a million people each year can't afford basic health care. According to the ABS, 961,000 people a year delay or avoid taking prescribed medicines due to cost. As a pharmacist, and one who worked in our local public hospital for many years, I've seen the consequences of people delaying or avoiding essential treatment.

What that means to them, their prognosis and their health outcomes, and what it means to our economy, is well understood and must be addressed. The rate of people skipping prescriptions is twice as high in the most disadvantaged areas as it is in the least disadvantaged areas, which means that the cost of medicines is contributing to health inequality in Australia today.

Mr Deputy Speaker I now turn to mental health. I know it's something close to your heart. The Black Dog Institute's report Mental health ramifications of COVID-19 highlighted four groups at increased risk during an outbreak: people with pre-existing anxiety disorders and mental health problems; healthcare workers; people in quarantine; and people who are underemployed, unemployed or find themselves in casual work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australian shores, we saw an immediate spike in demand for mental health support. In March, Lifeline answered almost 90,000 calls for helpcalls taken by people like Patrick in my electoratean increase of 25 per cent compared to the same period last year, or one call every 30 seconds. It was the highest call frequency in Lifeline's 57-year history.

Black Dog saw a 30 per cent spike in contacts to their support service in the last two weeks of March. On some days, a third of contacts were COVID-19 related. A survey by Black Dog released in May found that 78 per cent of respondents reported that their mental health had been worse since COVID-19 and over 50 per cent of respondents were moderately to extremely worried about their financial situation.

We know the consequences of unemployment and financial distress and the mental health anguish they can cause. Suicide Prevention Australia's Turning the tide report, which was released in March, showed that well-established link between unemployment, financial distress and a crisis in mental health. People who are unemployed are nine times more likely than working people to take their own life.

As hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs and businesses have folded, lives have been broken. People across Australia who are in financial distress and facing financial hardship deserve better from this government. Whilst we welcome the investment that they've made, there is still much more to be done, and it's urgent.

I would like to finish with some heartfelt thanks on behalf of my community. To the health professionals, from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer through to the frontline staff in ICU and mental health, our hospital cleaners and those running COVID-19 testing centres: you've all done an outstanding job, often putting yourselves in harm's way. Your dedication and selflessness have meant Australia has avoided some of the devastation seen in other countries. To the retail workers, cleaners, transport workers, childcareworkers and age and disability workers, who have gone to work so we can stay safely at home: thank you. An unfortunate truth is that many of these people are the worst paid and hardest-working Australians. I'd also like to acknowledge the Centrelink staff and give a shout-out to those at Wyong Hospital.