COVID-19 may hit poor hardest with a Great Depression

COVID-19 may be the making of this generation’s Great Depression, which would have profound long-term health implications for the socially disadvantaged, according to a health equality expert from The Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Sharon Friel, Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Governance at ANU, said the coronavirus does not discriminate when infecting people, but the impact of howAustralia’s economic and social services systems respond is very socially patterned.

“Poor people, the precariously employed, those with big existing debts, the homeless,people with disabilities, the socially marginalised – these are the vulnerable people who will feel the disastrous effects of this global pandemic most,” she said.

“They will suffer for many, many years to come.”

Professor Friel has written an article with the CEO of VicHealth, Dr Sandro Demaio, about this unfolding crisis for the Medical Journal of Australia.

“COVID-19 will have significant impacts on health inequities in Australia through the economic and social fallout resulting from necessary pandemic mitigation measures compounding an already inequitable society,” they wrote.

“The existing embedded inequities in the social determinants of health will amplify the COVID-19 response effects, exposing socially disadvantaged groups even more. Fourteen per cent of Australians already live in poverty, and income inequities have widened.”

Professor Friel applauded the Government boosting JobSeeker payments by $550 per fortnight in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but argued that the jobless should not lose this benefit.

“This extra cash in the pockets of the unemployed should be a mainstay of public policy, not just a temporary fix for the dire economic situation the country finds itself in,” she said.

Professor Friel and Dr Demaio wrote that the health sector has a vital role to play.

“An analysis of 266 health policies showed that while the rhetoric of the social determinants of health abounds in governments’ health policies, medical care and individualised behavioural change strategies continue to be privileged during implementation,” they wrote.

“These policies matter, of course, but they will not prevent massive health inequities. The health sector must engage in policy discussions about welfare, labour markets, housing and infrastructure, to name a few.

“COVID-19 may end up being this generation’s Great Depression. The determinants of health, and how they are distributed, should be our guiding measure of a successful Australia as we rebuild from COVID-19.”

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