Vulnerable Australians

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10 November 2020

This year has been tough. Australians have faced the 'black summer' bushfires, floods and of course the virus. It is often said we're all in this together, when we're not. This virus has exposed the fault lines in society, and the most vulnerable Australians are falling through the cracks. The government has failed Australians most at risk, struggling before the virus and not helped by the government's patchy response. This year, more than any in recent times, Australians have relied on mental health support to support them through. Since March, Beyond Blue has seen an increase in demand for counselling services of between 30 and 40 per cent, peaking at the height of the pandemic in May. ReachOut saw a 48 per cent increase to its youth, parents and school services between March and May. More than 184,000 people accessed additional support, with most seeking COVID-19 specific support.


Before coming to this place, I worked as a pharmacist and, for much of that time, in acute adult mental health in-patient units where each day I saw firsthand the circumstances of people's lives—the mental health crisis, the emergency that led to an acute adult in-patient admission. Where you are born, live and grow up in Australia matters. The government has the opportunity, as we emerge from this crisis, to address the underlying inequalities in Australia which mean that those most at risk are carrying the burden of this crisis. They have the opportunity to boost employment, to create safer housing, to make sure that everyone has a fair shot at education and, most importantly, to make sure that everyone has health care when they need it.


I worked in teams, stretched with growing demand and scarce resources, where people were discharged to the circumstances that made them sick. We need to, in Australia, not have this narrowcast view of provision of services that fail to look at the underlying cause. I look across to the member opposite me, who grew up in the same home town as me. He understands this and he knows this. We cannot continue to send people back to the circumstances that made them sick; nor can we leave older Australians and those who love them at risk and vulnerable.


I lost my dad to younger onset dementia and, through the crisis, people have spoken to me about their family members living with dementia, about the isolation, about the loneliness, about them not being able to understand why people can't visit them or why they're not having visitors. We know that health measures matter and that provisions put in place were well intended. We also know that it has left many people vulnerable and at risk. Before COVID, the royal commission had laid bare the neglect in some aged-care homes, and the impact of COVID has struck those most vulnerable. There are 102,000 older Australians waiting for home-care packages. The 23,000 additional home-care packages, though welcome, are simply not enough. For the past two years there have been consistently more than 100,000 older Australians on the waitlist, many of them waiting for level 4 packages, most of those living with dementia.


The government needs to understand the urgency to act, whether it is for young people living with major mental health problems or for people living with dementia in their homes. During COVID, support has fallen away, and carers have stepped up. When the government fails to act, they have no other choice. Through COVID-19, unpaid carers of children with disability, frail elderly parents and partners of those with chronic health problems have taken on more responsibility than they can bear and more than they should have to. The value of informal care in Australia is estimated to be at $78 billion yet, at the same time, the government's financial support for carers is only a small fraction of this amount. The budget did not do near enough; carers will only receive an extra $500 over six months, less than $20 a week, which is not enough to meet the extra costs they've faced as a result of the pandemic. It is no surprise then that many carers feel overlooked and left behind by this government, like my friend Bev, as she cares for her husband, Steve.


It is clear that there is a growing gap in our society, that health care is not universal, that not everyone has a fair shot at education and that not everyone lives in a safe home. As we emerge from this virus, the government has a chance and a responsibility. It is incumbent on them that we come out of this crisis a fairer, more equitable country. Those who have the least, the poor of this country, should not be shouldering the burden of this pandemic. It is not fair and it is not right, and we are risking the lives of vulnerable Australians and those who care for them through the government's response to this crisis. Australians deserve better.