Rebecca White

Rebecca White
Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Recovery from COVID-19 must not look like a return to ‘normal’

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on all our lives.

It has caused economic and social upheaval. It has turned life as we knew it on its head.
As we each struggle to make sense of this enormous disruption to our lives we also need to think about what recovery looks like.

When people speak about their desire to “return to normal” I can understand what they might mean, given how difficult the current circumstances are for so many.

There is a natural instinct to regain what we had, to retreat back to what feels familiar.
But “normal” wasn’t great for far too many Australians before this virus. In my home state of Tasmania one in four people were already living in poverty.

If we think that a “return to normal” is the best we can aspire to upon recovery, we are selling ourselves short.

After bushfires we don’t rebuild houses the same as they were.

We seek to understand what the structural weaknesses were, what made them vulnerable and how to make sure they are more resilient in the future.

And we work hard to understand how we can protect our community from future threats.
This is the opportunity we are presented with as we seek to shape our post-pandemic society. To build a fairer and better community that is resilient and strong.

Before this virus, Tasmania already had the highest underemployment rate in the country, with too many people piecing together casual jobs just to make ends meet. It’s a precarious way to earn a living, and these are among the people who’ve been hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses, and potentially pushed further into poverty.

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows Tasmania recorded the biggest job losses of any state or territory as a result of COVID-19, shedding 7.3 per cent of all jobs in the three weeks between 14 March and 4 April.

These figures don’t come as a surprise given Tasmania’s highly casualised workforce, due to the seasonal nature of tourism and agriculture, and our unenviable claim to the highest underemployment rate in the country.

There is an immediate need for the government to ensure casual workers, visa workers and students can access income support as the data from the ABS shows they have been hardest hit by the impact of COVID-19.

The opportunity in recovery is to reverse the trend of casualisation, insecure work and erosion of workers’ rights that means thousands of workers are just one paycheque away from homelessness.

This pandemic has also reinforced the importance of public services – none more important than our health system.

It is not just our hospitals that have been on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus. There are thousands of workers, including the public health officials who have been modelling the spread of the virus and providing advice to government on how to respond.
Right across government agencies, policy advisers have been designing and administering support packages to help businesses and our households and developing policies for the long recovery ahead.

We should remember these contributions and in future question the wisdom of budget cuts that reduce the intellectual capacity of our public service.

The cost of responding to COVID-19 has been enormous, and rebuilding an economy in its aftermath will not be cheap either.

We cannot expect to find a way back to prosperity through austerity.
We cannot fix an unemployment crisis with budget cuts.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder to all that prosperity is fragile.

We should not rush to go back to the ordinary. We should strive to create something extraordinary in its place.

A fairness agenda is a good economic agenda and this has never been more true than right now. If people don’t have their health or a roof over their head then they can’t participate fully in the community or economy.

Tasmania can be a beacon for fairness. We are small enough that no one should be left behind and clever enough that we can do great things that make us the envy of the world.

From this tragedy, let’s find a way to build hope for the future.


This article is a part of The Chifley Research Centre’s “After The Crisis: What Next for Australia?” idea series. During this time, we will be publishing the diverse perspectives of some of the Labor Movements greatest thinkers. If you have a contribution to make, please share no more than 750 words with us to ideas@chifley.org.au

About Rebecca White:

Rebecca White, Leader of the Tasmanian Labor Opposition