Indians are forced to change rituals for their dead as COVID-19 rages through cities and villages


Mass cremations in the city of Bengaluru, India, due to the large number of COVID-19 deaths.
Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Natasha Mikles, Texas State UniversityIn the past several weeks, the world has looked on in horror as the coronavirus rages across India. With hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and medicines, the official daily death toll has averaged around 3,000. Many claim that number could be an undercount; crematoriums and cemeteries have run out of space.

The majority of India’s population are Hindu, who favor cremation as a way of disposing of the body. But the Muslim population, which is close to 15%, favors burying its dead.

A worker digging a cemetery in Guwahati,  India.
Workers digging as they prepare to bury the body of a person who died of COVID-19 in Guwahati, Assam.
David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.

Hundreds of families want their loved ones’ bodies cared for as quickly as possible, but there is a shortage of people who can do the funerals and last rites. This has led to a situation where people are paying bribes in order to get space or a furnace for cremation. There are also reports of physical fights, and intimidation.

As a scholar interested in the ways Asian societies tell stories about the afterlife and prepare the deceased for it, I argue that the coronavirus crisis represents an unprecedented cultural cataclysm that has forced the Indian culture to challenge the way it handles its dead.

Cremation grounds and colonial rule

Many Americans think of cremation happening within an enclosed, mechanized structure, but most Indian crematoriums, known as “shmashana” in Hindi, are open-air spaces with dozens of brick-and-mortar platforms upon which a body can be burned on a pyre made of wood.

Hindus and Sikhs will dispose of the remaining ashes in a river. Many shmashana are therefore built near the banks of a river to allow for easy access, but many well-off families often travel to a sacred city along the banks of the river Ganges, such as Hardiwar or Benares, for the final rituals. Jains – who have traditionally given significant consideration to humanity’s impact on the environmental world – bury the ashes as a means to return the body to the Earth and ensure they do not contribute to polluting rivers.

The workers who run shmashana often belong to the Dom ethnicity and have been doing this work for generations; they are lower caste and subsequently perceived as polluted for their intimate work with dead bodies.

The act of cremation has not always been without controversy. In the 19th century, British colonial officials viewed the Indian practice of cremation as barbaric and unhygienic. But they were unable to ban it given its pervasiveness.

However, Indians living in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Trinidad often had to fight for the right to cremate the dead in accordance with religious rituals because of the mistaken and often racist belief that cremation was primitive, alien and evironmentally polluting.

Rituals and a long history

The earliest writings on Indian funerary rituals can be found in the Rig Veda – a Hindu religious scripture orally composed thousands of years ago, potentially as early as 2000 B.C. In the Rig Veda, a hymn, traditionally recited by a priest or an adult male, urges Agni, the Vedic god of fire, to “carry this man to the world of those who have done good deeds.”

From the perspective of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh rituals, the act of cremation is seen as a sacrifice, a final breaking of the ties between the body and the spirit so it may be free to reincarnate. The body is traditionally bathed, anointed, and carefully wrapped in white cloth at home, then carried ceremonially, in a procession, by the local community to the cremation grounds.

While Hindus and Sikhs often decorate the body with flowers, Jains avoid natural flowers for concern of inadvertently destroying the lives of insects that may be hidden within its petals. In all of these faiths, a priest or male member of the family recites prayers. It is traditionally the eldest son of the deceased who lights the funerary pyre; women do not go to the cremation ground.

Relatives gather around the body of a man who died of COVID-19 in India, to perform religious rituals.
Family members perform rituals at a crematorium for a person who died of the coronavirus in India.
Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

After the ceremony, mourners return home to bathe themselves and remove what they regard as the inauspicious energy that surrounds the cremation grounds. Communities host a variety of postmortem rituals, including scriptural recitations and symbolic meals, and in some Hindu communities the sons or male members of household will shave their head as a sign of their bereavement. During this mourning period, lasting from 10 to 13 days, the family performs scriptural recitations and prayers in honor of their deceased loved one.

The changing times of COVID-19

The wave of death from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced transformations to these long-established religious rituals. Makeshift crematoriums are being constructed in the parking lots of hospitals and in city parks.

Young women may be the only ones available to light the funerary pyre, which was previously not permissible. Families in quarantine are forced to use WhatsApp and other video software to visually identify the body and recite digital funerary rites.

Media reports have pointed out how in some cases, crematorium workers have been asked to read prayers traditionally reserved for Brahmin priests or people from a higher caste. Muslim burial grounds have begun to run out of space and are tearing up parking lots to bury more bodies.

The work of the dead

While other important rituals such as marriage and baptism may take on a new appearance in response to cultural changes, social media conversations or economic opportunities, funerary rituals change slowly.

Historian Thomas Laqueur has written on what he calls “the work of the dead” – the ways in which the bodies of the deceased participate in the social worlds and political realities of the living.

In India’s coronavirus pandemic, the dead are announcing the health crisis that the country believed it had conquered. As recently as April 18, 2021, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding crowded political rallies, and his government allowed the massive Hindu pilgrimage festival of Kumbh Mela to proceed a year early in response to the auspicious forecasts of astrologers. Authorities began to act only when the deaths became impossible to ignore. But even then, the Indian government appeared more concerned about removing social media posts that were critical of its functioning.

India is one of the world’s largest vaccine-producing nations, and yet it was unable to make or even purchase the needed vaccines to protect its population.

The dead have important stories to tell about neglect, mismanagement or even our global interdependence – if we care to listen.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Natasha Mikles, Lecturer in Philosophy, Texas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s the new coronavirus variant in India and how should it change their COVID response?


Prafulla Shriyan, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar and Giridhara R Babu, Indian Institute of Public Health, GandhinagarAfter genome sequencing of over 10,000 COVID-19 cases in India, researchers have discovered a new variant with two new mutations which may be better at evading the immune system.

In 15-20% of samples from the Indian state of Maharashtra (the state accounting for 62% of cases in the country) a new, double mutation in key areas of the virus has been detected. These are now known as the E484Q and L452R mutations.

What makes the variant different?

Both these mutations are concerning because they are located in a key portion of the virus – the spike protein – that it uses to penetrate human cells. Spike proteins attach via a “receptor binding domain”, meaning the virus can attach to receptors in our cells.

These new mutations include changes to the spike protein that make it a “better fit” for human cells. This means the virus can gain entry more easily and multiply faster. Given what we have seen with other similar mutations, it might also make it harder for our immune system to recognise the virus due to its slightly different shape. This means our immune system may not be able to recognise the virus as something it has to produce antibodies against.

The emergence of these new variants has only been possible because of the continued viral replication in areas with high circulation.

Though the Indian government has said the data on the variants circulating in India (including this new Indian variant and others including the UK strain) are not sufficient to link them to the rapid increase in the number of cases in the country, we think it’s the most likely explanation. The country had managed to bring down the rate in February, but a sudden increase in the number of reported cases is now being reported.




Read more:
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Implications

The implications of these developments are greatly concerning – not just for India, but for the rest of the world. Mutations can result in 20% more in-hospital deaths, as we witnessed during the second wave in South Africa. This is because some mutant variants have the ability to spread faster, resulting in sudden surges and, therefore, an overburdened health system.

But there’s hope. Places around the world with higher vaccination coverage such as the UK and Israel are witnessing a steady decrease in cases.

Most of the currently approved vaccines around the world have been found to evoke an immune response to some extent against multiple variants. But no trials have yet been undertaken on the effectiveness of vaccines against these new Indian mutations.

To make it difficult for the mutant strains to develop vaccine resistance, we have to ensure wider and faster vaccine coverage across the world.

What has to happen now?

Apart from vaccine manufacturers’ efforts to update the composition of vaccines to better deal with new strains, it is important to contain transmission across the world. Countries can use the World Health Organisation’s SARS-CoV-2 Risk Monitoring and Evaluation Framework to help identify, monitor and assess variants of concern, swiftly.




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To establish a direct link between a variant and a steep rise in cases in a short time, it is important to use genomic sequencing to link clusters together. But unless contact tracing is done meticulously, it isn’t easy to do so.

It is also important to understand the mechanisms involved in the infectiousness and virulence of the newer variants. For this, lab models are needed to mimic spread and virulence mechanisms efficiently.

To combat the consequences of mutations in India, its pandemic response will have to incorporate several measures. Genomic surveillance will have to be proactive and coincide with the epidemiological investigation of the cluster of cases for early identification and swift action.

As some variants can escape naturally induced immunity, vaccine manufacturers in India will need to develop better vaccines to cover these new variants. Ongoing surveillance and containment measures need to be strengthened to prevent the emergence of new variants by minimising viral replication.

And finally, swift and rapid vaccine coverage is not only necessary but essential for ensuring any modest levels of success in tackling this pandemic.




Read more:
The UK variant is likely deadlier, more infectious and becoming dominant. But the vaccines still work well against it


The Conversation


Prafulla Shriyan, Research Fellow, Public Health Foundation of India, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar., Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar and Giridhara R Babu, Professor, Head-Lifecourse Epidemiology, Indian Institute of Public Health, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Build-to-rent surge will change apartment living for Australians, but for better or worse?


Megan Nethercote, RMIT University

Australia’s emerging build-to-rent sector is growing — “booming” by some accounts with a 70% jump in value in the past year. Under this model, institutional investors develop purpose-built rental apartments to retain and operate under single ownership. In Australia, it will change how apartments are designed and developed, how we are housed and how our tenancies are managed.

With 40 projects under way, an estimated 15,000 units worth more than A$10 billion are in the pipeline. Site availability has made Melbourne popular, with over 50% of the national market. Investors are active in Sydney, Perth and Queensland too.




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Build to rent could shake up real estate but won’t take off without major tax changes


Sought-after neighbourhoods are earmarked for large developments. Many have 300 or more units, most at market-rate rents.

Build-to-rent is new to our shores, but hardly uncharted territory abroad. In the UK, the sector expanded exponentially from 2013 with government support. It now accounts for one in five new homes built in England and one in four in London.

In the US, the built-to-rent sector is relatively mature. It makes up almost two-thirds of the rental stock in many of the largest cities. Heavyweight corporate landlords operate as many as 400,000 units each.

In Australia, we need more data and more informed public debate to guide tax, design, planning and tenancy reforms to secure the best possible urban and social outcomes from the build-to-rent expansion.

The build-to-rent promise

Build-to-rent presents an enticing vision. For households, it promises several things:

  • flexible long-term tenancies

  • client-centric onsite management

  • hotel-style amenities and services

  • allowances for pets and personalisation, such as painting and decorating.

couple painting an apartment
One of the appeals of built-to-rent apartments is they offer tenants more options to personalise their homes.
Shutterstock

For cities, the model promises high-amenity, well-located, purpose-built rental apartments that cater to diverse and changing housing needs.

Proponents hail build-to-rent as a win-win. It’s seen as a salve for various housing woes, including concerns about housing supply, affordability, the private rental sector (including insecure tenancies and inexpert property and tenancy management) and apartment quality.




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Since the COVID-19 downturn, the model has been hailed as an economic lifeline too: good for the construction sector, good for jobs.

Rise of a new asset class

For build-to-rent investors, the rental revenue returns appear relatively modest. Under current market conditions, however, secure margins and “lower (but) for longer” investment prospects appeal.

Advocates continue to push for tax reforms. They point to a growing “weight of capital” awaiting more enticing returns. But many international build-to-rent behemoths, superannuation/pension funds, private equity firms and real estate investment trusts are entering our private rental sector regardless.

Institutional investors’ entry into our rental sector contributes to a broader paradigm shift in urban housing systems dubbed the financialisation of (rental) housing.




Read more:
Explainer: the financialisation of housing and what can be done about it


States have endorsed build-to-rent, improving its viability with land tax concessions, exemption from foreign investor surcharges, privileged planning pathways and pilot projects (e.g. in Queensland). The federal government’s position has been more ambiguous.

Crucially, the rise of build-to-rent sets in motion two important structural shifts

  1. institutionalising the private rental sector

  2. diversifying residential development models.

Historically, small-portfolio “mum and dad” landlords have owned and managed our rental stock. They are motivated by many of the same benefits (such as tax concessions and capital gains) and exposed to the same risks as owner-occupiers.

So we’ve had a high degree of integration between the private rental and owner-occupier sectors: few dwellings were purpose-built for renting and most homes were readily interchangeable between sectors.

Build to rent disrupts this integration. It replaces the fragmented ownership of apartment buildings under strata title laws with a single institutional owner.

Build to rent also diverges from familiar speculative build-to-sell development geared towards short-term profits. Its longer-term investment horizons give developers a new incentive to minimise a building’s running costs and to create apartments that appeal to and retain tenants.




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So will it deliver?

Will build to rent provide high-quality, high-amenity, professionally managed rental homes? And at what scale, for how long, and at what costs to whom?

In the longer term, will this model disrupt the socio-political twinning of home ownership and home?




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Ideas of home and ownership in Australia might explain the neglect of renters’ rights


Could build to rent be a catalyst for more progressive tenancy reforms, leading towards tenure neutrality/equality where ownership isn’t seen as automatically superior to renting?

These questions matter. One in three Australian households now rent their housing. Some argue we’re headed for a “post-ownership” society in which most people rent their homes.

Private rental was once a route to ownership. Now it’s a destination. Ownership has been delayed, become unattainable or been “traded off” for flexibility and being able to live in desirable locations.

Tenants are also more diverse. There are more lower-income and higher-income earners and more families than ever before.

Renters endure short leases on often poorly maintained properties owned by a cottage industry of “mum and dad” landlords. Social housing options are few and far between in a sector that has been marginalised and residualised. More renters, uncapped rents, weak tenant protections and stagnating wages make for a toxic mix of housing stress and financial risk.




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‘Build to rent’ could be the missing piece of the affordable housing puzzle


Reasons to proceed with caution

We don’t have robust evidence to answer these questions, but limited evidence suggests caution is well advised.

In Australia, build-to-rent properties look set to attract rents of about 10-15% more than comparable non-BTR housing, just as they have in London. Without government subsidies, market-rate BTR will not provide more affordable housing.

Overseas, these rental premiums, alongside planning leniency (which reduced the affordable housing required of these developments), have been blamed for poor outcomes, such as residents being priced out of neighbourhoods they could once afford.

In Ireland, permissive planning concessions enable build-to-rent developers to circumvent design standards. This has raised concerns that build-to-rent may deliver smaller, less diverse and lower-amenity housing (less storage, for example) than standard build-to-sell development.

In New South Wales, BTR developments cannot be subdivided for 15 years (without clawback of land tax concessions). This ensures buildings remain in use as rental stock for that period. But what will happen after that?




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Why NSW is skewing its tax system toward build-to-rent apartments and away from mum and pop landlords


The Conversation


Megan Nethercote, ARC DECRA Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why COVID-19 might not change our cities as much as we expect



Brian S/Shutterstock

Christian A. Nygaard, Swinburne University of Technology; Iris Levin, Swinburne University of Technology, and Sharon Parkinson, Swinburne University of Technology

What will be the normal way of urban living when the COVID-19 crisis passes? What aspects will remain with us and what will disappear?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into a moment of rapid change. Like all change, it is difficult to predict. But lessons from history provide us with two important insights.




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Cities will endure, but urban design must adapt to coronavirus risks and fears


First, temporary change sometimes has remarkably little lasting effect.

Second, what looks like a lasting effect is often the acceleration of existing trends, rather than new, crisis-caused trends.

COVID-19 impacts provide an opportunity for our cities to shift to new ways of urban living. But only if we couple this opportunity with technology and deliberate collective action will sustained and equitable change happen.

What does history tell us?

Right now, COVID-19 impacts are front of mind. In thinking ahead, we might therefore overemphasise what a crisis will do to how we live in cities. To put it simply, history shows us that the ways we organise our cities are often resistant to abrupt change – even in response to catastrophic events.

In Japan, changes to population distribution as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had disappeared by the early 1960s.

Almost 40% of Europe’s population died during the Black Death (1347-1352). Much of Europe’s urban hierarchy nevertheless returned to its pre-plague distribution over time.

Even the collapse of the urbanised Roman civilisation had little lasting effect on the urban hierarchy in France. It did lead, though, to a resetting of the urban network in England.

The reason for this urban inertia is that momentary change often does little to change the fundamentals of our cities. It doesn’t greatly change locational advantages, built environment legacy, property rights and land ownership.

London, for instance, has experienced slum clearance, Spanish flu, wartime bombing and the introduction of greenbelts and planning over the past 100 years. However, the location of the city’s rich and poor continues to be shaped by infrastructure investments in the Victorian era. And the Roman-period road layout has strongly influenced the street layout of central London today.

After all the upheavals London has endured through two millennia, the influence of the Roman road network can still be seen in the city today.
Fremantleboy, Drallim/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

At the same time, cities do of course change. In some cases dramatic events – like fires or earthquakes – are the enablers of change that is already underfoot. That is, business and policy coupling opportunity with technology and determination.




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How are business practices responding to COVID-19

Businesses will not – and should not – be slow to couple opportunity, technology and determination to achieve particular outcomes.

For instance, working from home has overnight (temporarily) become endemic. Higher education institutions (temporarily setting aside the challenges for teaching) switched remarkably quickly to almost exclusively online platforms.

COVID-safe shopping has popularised some automation. Demand for “contactless” service delivery has advanced some smart and robot technology into common use.

Some have argued that well before COVID-19 the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and online platforms had catapulted us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s a world of work and cities that are digitally smart, dispersed and connected.




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Working from home, online teaching and automation couple opportunity (as a result of COVID-19) and technology (digital communication) with longer-term trends.

Between 2001 and today, the office space per worker in many knowledge-intensive jobs shrank from 25 square metres to just 8sqm in new developments. Flexible working arrangements and casualisation across a range of sectors enable businesses to manage wage bills when wage rates cannot be reduced.

Automation also reduces business wage bills and has long been touted as a way to increase productivity. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, automation may affect 25-46% of current jobs.

The “death of the office” has long been predicted. Rumours of its death are likely exaggerated this time too.

Face-to-face interaction between workers often increases productivity in service and knowledge-based industries. Research shows face-to-face contact enhances co-operative and pro-social behaviour.




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Similarly, research suggests concentrating workers and their skills in one location (agglomeration economies) can increase much-needed labour productivity. This is required to offset the shifting labour-force balance in an ageing society.

What’s the role of public policy?

Our cities today work better for some than for others. Sustained and equitable change requires public sector action and will.

Temporary measures during the pandemic have brought home just how viable telecommuting is for some jobs and how achievable online teaching modes can be.

This will leave winners and losers. Unlike change itself, the winners and losers are often far more predictable. Women, renters, lower-income and migrant-dominated jobs are more vulnerable.




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What is imperative, therefore, is that governments similarly couple technology and opportunity with a vision for cities that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. This sort of urban future requires economic innovation. Change is confronting us with an opportunity and necessity to redress entrenched privilege.

History tells us critical events such as COVID-19 often do little to change the fundamentals of our cities. An important step in envisioning different urban futures is to recognise it is people, businesses, institutions and political will that collectively make change.The Conversation

Christian A. Nygaard, Associate Professor in Social Economics, Swinburne University of Technology; Iris Levin, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology, and Sharon Parkinson, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Goodbye to the crowded office: how coronavirus will change the way we work together



from http://www.shutterstock.com

Rachel Morrison, Auckland University of Technology

As lockdowns are relaxed around the world and people return to their workplaces, the next challenge will be adapting open office spaces to the new normal of strict personal hygiene and physical distancing.

While the merits and disadvantages of open plan and flexible workspaces have long been debated, the risk they posed of allowing dangerous, highly contagious viruses to spread was rarely (if ever) considered.

But co-working spaces are characterised by shared areas and amenities with surfaces that need constant cleaning. Droplets from a single sneeze can travel over 7 metres, and surfaces within pods or booths, designed for privacy, could remain hazardous for days.

Even in countries such as Australia and New Zealand where efforts to “flatten the curve” have been successful and which have relatively easily controlled borders, it’s fair to ask whether communal workspaces might be a thing of the past.

Perhaps – if vigilant measures are in place – some countries can continue to embrace collaborative, flexible, activity-based workplace designs and the cost savings they represent. But this is unlikely to be the case in general in the coming years. Even if some organisations can operate with minimal risk there will be an expectation they provide virus-free workplaces should there be future outbreaks.

Working from home

Worldwide, there will undoubtedly be fewer people in the office – now workers have tried working from home, they may find they like it. And organisations may have little choice but to limit the numbers of workers on-site. Staggered shifts, enforced flexitime, and 24/7 operations may become the norm, along with working remotely.

Video meetings, even within the same workplace, could become the new normal.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The open plan model has been criticised for everything from lowered productivity, less interpersonal interaction, antisocial behaviour, reduced well-being, too much distraction, a lack of privacy, and making workers feel exposed and monitored.




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Get out of my face! We’re more antisocial in a shared office space


But it has also been shown to improve cooperation and communication. Whether these innovative spaces are within a large organisation or are communal workspaces where start-ups, freelancers, and contractors can sit together (such as GridAKL in Auckland or The Commons in Sydney), their popularity is undeniable. The sense of community and the ability to share knowledge and ideas are key attractions of co-working.




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Open plan offices CAN actually work, under certain conditions


Riding the shared/flexi-space wave have been companies such as WeWork – popularising communal tables within co-working hubs and providing “pods” for private conversations. But there is now little doubt WeWork will be an early casualty of COVID-19. Already in financial trouble before the pandemic, WeWork will cut more than 1,000 jobs this month.

But what about the thousands of organisations that retooled their densely populated work environments to encourage flexibility, activity-based work, and movement within and between spaces?

James Muir, CEO of sustainability start-up Crunch and Flourish has no doubt using co-working offices in central Auckland has been a positive: “We benefited from the great community at GridAKL,” he says. “And before long we were collaborating with other start-ups on marketing and design as well as getting great advice from more experienced entrepreneurs.”

Shared workspace company WeWork is expected to be another casualty of COVID-19.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Missing social cues online

Those fortuitous conversations and information exchanges will inevitably become rarer as we avoid the risk of interpersonal contact – and they are almost impossible to mimic online. Personal interaction (even within the office) will be replaced with the already familiar virtual video meeting – or even, as TIME magazine reports, holograms and avatars.




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How women’s life-long experiences of being judged by their appearance affect how they feel in open-plan offices


However, communication is more challenging when conducted remotely. We are more persuasive in person, particularly if we know the person. Being on a video call is more draining than a face-to-face chat because workers must concentrate harder to process non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language. Anxiety about technology is another barrier, and some find lack of eye contact in virtual meetings (mimicked by staring at the “dot” of your own camera) disquieting.

New norms of hand sanitising, cleaning equipment and wearing masks will emerge. Handshaking or friendly pecks on the cheek may soon be things of the past, as will family photos and mementos on desks, if they prove too difficult to sanitise.

Aside from behaviours, policies, and attitudes, the physical office will need to change. Already, a company in the Netherlands has coined the term the “6 feet office”, aiming to redesign workspaces to help workers maintain social distancing at work.

We may even see the return of the high-walled cubicle, and the introduction of wide corridors and one-way foot traffic, already found in some hospitals. Activity-based work and hot-desks (which oblige people to move throughout the day) could be replaced by assigned desk arrangements where workers sit back to back.

New builds might incorporate touch-free technology such as voice-activated lifts, doors and cabinets, touchless sinks and soap dispensers, improved air venting and UV lights to disinfect surfaces overnight.

In the meantime, will James Muir resume running Crunch and Flourish from his co-working office after the pandemic? “Yes,” he says, “once the risk of any new cases is under control.”The Conversation

Rachel Morrison, Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Yes, we’re too dependent on China, but changing that is easier said than done


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

After the COVID crisis, what will be the “new normal” in Australia’s relations with China?

The short answer is, probably both worse and more complicated than pre-COVID.

This week has seen a fresh low point, with the Chinese government threatening economic retribution in response to the Morrison government’s call for an independent international inquiry into the origin and handling of the virus.

More generally, the pandemic has put front and centre two questions. The first is long-standing: has Australia become too dependent on China? The second has taken on a new urgency: can the dependency be reduced?

Appropriately, in the health crisis this dependency has been highlighted by the issue of medical supplies, much of which we import from China, including the vital but simple product of masks.

At a Wednesday news conference, Health Minister Greg Hunt celebrated mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s securing for the federal government of 10 million COVID-19 tests from China (for which the government will pay).

Forrest stressed his close relationship with, and gratitude to, the Chinese company that provided the $320 million worth of testing gear. Unbeknown to Hunt until the function, “Twiggy” had repaid the favour by inviting along the Chinese consul-general to Victoria, Long Zhou, who was accorded a platform to defend his country’s handling of the pandemic (which was “open and transparent”, he said).

Hunt had been ambushed; the government was furious.

Forrest is one of many in the business community who don’t want the China boat rocked.

Media magnate Kerry Stokes was quoted this week saying, “If we’re going to go into the biggest debt we’ve had in our life and then simultaneously poke our biggest provider of income in the eye it’s not necessarily the smartest thing you can do.”

Former resources minister Matt Canavan, usually on-song with business, declared that “too many of our business elite are concerningly vague about whether we should have an independent foreign policy”.

A separate strand of criticism of the government has come from those who argue its call for an inquiry lacked diplomatic acuity. They say it was made without lining up international partners to reinforce it, and came too hard on the heels of President Trump’s announcement he’d stop funds to the World Health Organisation.

Be that as it may, the inquiry proposal is logical enough, given the enormity of the pandemic’s consequences, and sub-optimal performances by both China and the WHO.

No doubt the government expected China to react, but the bite-back was ferocious, with the Chinese threat of retribution delivered by ambassador Cheng Jingye followed by the leaking of a conversation between him and Frances Adamson, secretary of the foreign affairs department.

Sources say Morrison feels personally affronted by China’s bullying. Also, they say, he has toughened his attitude towards China in the past year.

As well as showing its defensiveness over COVID-19, the Chinese reaction is just the latest manifestation of its approach in foreign relations.

It is a familiar playbook. In his recently-published memoir Malcolm Turnbull, referring to China’s “bullying tactics”, writes, “If a foreign nation disappointed China – for instance by criticising its conduct in some manner – then it could expect both criticism and economic consequences”.

COVID-19 has simply brought to the surface, in dramatic fashion, the deep and long-term bind Australia is in. As China has become more powerful, and in recent years its regime increasingly assertive and diplomatically aggressive, the problems of Australia’s dependency are more obvious.

The pandemic has sparked calls for diversification of both our export markets and import sources, and greater self-sufficiency.

Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie, chair of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, urges a review of “all industries and sectors that are vulnerable to supply chain disruption and that are also essential to our strategic resilience as a country”.

Canavan said the pandemic had clarified that “we must reduce our dependence on one country”. He wants to see Australia working with other countries to “diversify the world’s production of materials critical to the international economy. This is already happening with the processing of rare earths”.

Canavan says Australia, as the world’s largest producer of iron ore and the largest exporter of coking coal, has “a strategic interest in developing alternative customers for those products”.

But diversification is achievable only to a degree. Australia’s high level of economic reliance on China will inevitably continue for the foreseeable future. Most immediately, for instance, Australia’s recovery from the looming recession will need the help of the Chinese economy.

China’s purchases of iron ore and coal are bedrocks of our exports. Wider markets for them would depend on demand in other countries.

Nevertheless, the pandemic will lead to some rethinking and changes.

For example, the over-reliance of many Australian universities on Chinese students has been recognised for some time. It is now obvious this should be rectified.

It may be COVID will do that anyway, with the border closure producing a longer-term reset.

On the import side, Australia needs to address the issue of certain medical supplies. This is a matter of national security, broadly defined.

Beyond such products however, Australian consumers are best served by markets operating: the last thing we want is a return to protectionism.

Foreign investment is an interesting area.

To protect Australian companies made vulnerable during the crisis, all proposals (not just those above certain thresholds) currently must go to the Foreign Investment Review Board.

This is temporary but post crisis, there is likely to be public pressure to have a tougher approach to certain Chinese investment bids.

For some time, however – probably since the controversy around a Chinese company acquiring the lease of the Darwin port – Chinese investment proposals affecting key areas, such as energy and infrastructure, have been scrutinised more critically.

Crucially (although not a FIRB matter) Huawei was excluded from the 5G network.

At the same time as COVID is highlighting some harsh realities of the China relationship, it is also providing a reminder that the nature of the regional situation Australia will face in the next few years is something of a lottery.

Trump’s behaviour during the pandemic has been worse than erratic. Can anyone doubt if he is re-elected, his conduct would likely become even more unpredictable? The consequences for the US’s engagement in the region – or disengagement from it – are deeply worrying for Australian foreign policy.

If Joe Biden wins in November, there’d be considerable relief around Canberra’s foreign policy establishment. Morrison, wooed by Trump as a “bestie”, would have to do something of a pivot, but we know he’s the ultimate pragmatist.

Biden would mean US policy in the region would be more predictable and thus better for Australia.

But it would not make Australia’s long-term relationship with China any more straightforward.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s links with China must change, but decoupling is not an option


Hans Hendrischke, University of Sydney

Two events this week have illustrated two fundamental tensions in Australia’s relationship with China.

The first event was China’s ambassador to Australia suggesting a Chinese boycott of Australian exports, due to Australia pursuing an independent inquiry into the early response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In an interview on April 27, ambassador Cheng Jingye said Chinese tourists and students might have second thoughts about a country “not so friendly, even hostile”.

“And also,” Cheng added, “maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef.”




Read more:
China-Australia relations hit new low in spat over handling of coronavirus


The second event was the “blindsiding” of federal health minister Greg Hunt at press conference with mining magnate Andrew Forrest on April 29, when Forrest invited China’s consul-general for Victoria and Tasmania to speak.

The diplomatic kerfuffle wasn’t the most significant aspect. It was the point of the press conference: Forrest’s procurement through Chinese business contacts of 10 million coronavirus tests – increasing Australia’s testing capacity 20-fold.

These two events point to two fundamental realities about the economic relationship between China and Australia.

First, the two nations are deeply important to each other.

Second, this coronavirus pandemic has exposed the need to increase local manufacturing and reduce dependence on imports of critical supplies.

Australia’s recovery planning must include policies to underwrite local manufacturing capability. It means our economic relationship with China will change.

But despite the veiled threats from the Chinese government, and the desire in some parts of the Australian community for a split, a great economic decoupling is not an option.

Mutual dependence

Australia depends on exports to grow employment, tax revenue and welfare expenses.

About a quarter of all corporate tax revenue comes from mining. Most that is from exports to China, Australia’s largest trading partner by far. Coal and iron ore exports sales have been holding up well. Fortescue, in fact, expects to export more iron ore (177 million tonnes) this financial year.



There are no substitute markets of a similar scale to take up Australian exports in mineral resources, nor in agricultural produce or international education.

But China has few viable alternatives to Australia as well.




Read more:
Australia depends less on Chinese trade than some might think


Certainly not in the supply of iron ore, gas and coal.

Not for agricultural produce, where Australia has high a reputation in China.

Nor for education. There are few English-speaking countries to begin with, and the biggest market for Chinese students, the United States, is looking decidedly more hostile and unsafe.



So our dependence is mutual. Decoupling won’t happen.

Onshoring on the agenda

But nor it is an option to return to the pre-COVID-19 status quo.

The model of Australia “being willing to export commodities and import finished goods is old and broken”, declared a member of the federal government’s new National COVID-19 Coordination Commission this week.

The commission was established last month to advise the government on “actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic”.

Liveris is a Darwin-born chemical engineer who rose to become chief executive of The Dow Chemical Company (now DowDupont, the world’s biggest chemical maker. Top of the agenda he signalled this week is “onshoring”. In other words, restoring local manufacturing capability.

“Australia drank the free-trade juice and decided that offshoring was OK. Well, that era is gone,” he said. “We’ve got to now realise we’ve got to really look at onshoring key capabilities.”

A new form of globalisation

There is a clear national interest in developing our own manufacturing in critical export industries such as health, cybertechnology, renewable energy and agribusiness.

Doing so will include Australia in a global trend to reduce reliance on one continent or one country.

Some might call this deglobalisation. It is not.

Diversifying production and bringing it closer to markets and consumers is simply a new form of globalisation.

To achieve it, Australian businessess will need to invest heavily in new technology to take advantage of digital manufacturing, automation and artificial intelligence.




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A fourth industrial revolution is powering the rise of smart manufacturing


With the possible exception of some critically important services or products, only globally competitive manufacturing will be sustainable. It will need to be high-tech and innovative manufacturing. It will not mean the return of traditional manufacturing industries.

We’ll still need each other

Australia needs China to make this transition.

Advanced digital manufacturing requires substantial investment in technological capability and production facilities. China is already manufacturing and exporting advanced production equipment.

China will also be a crucial market for any exports, with many opportunities for Australian manufacturers that align with demand in the huge Chinese market. Chinese investment will help develop these export opportunities, as it has with exports like dairy.




Read more:
Vital Signs: Why can’t Australia be friends with both US and China?


So neither Australia nor China stand to gain from decoupling the two economies. Our economic co-operation will change with onshoring. But mutual dependence will not.The Conversation

Hans Hendrischke, Professor of Chinese Business and Management, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How might coronavirus change Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’?



Scott Morrison attends the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in 2019.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Tess Newton Cain, Griffith University

Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted countries and governments to become increasingly inward-looking. Australia is not immune to this. One of the effects of this situation has been that the “Pacific Step-up” appears to have dropped entirely off the political radar.

The step-up is – or was – the signature foreign policy of the Morrison government. Although it predates Scott Morrison becoming prime minister, under his leadership it had really come to the fore. We saw an increase in ministerial visits to the region, a ramping up of labour mobility opportunities for Pacific islanders, and the establishment of a A$2 billion infrastructure financing facility.

So, how does the Pacific Step-up need to evolve to help respond to the challenges posed by coronavirus?

It’s important to acknowledge that Australia and the island members of the “Pacific family” share more than just an ocean. They have many common challenges. Addressing them requires sharing resources. The coronavirus response presents an opportunity to move the Pacific Step-Up from something that is done “to” or “for” the Pacific to something that Australia does “with” the Pacific.




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It is too easy for the Australian media (and indeed the Australian public) to perpetuate the trope that Pacific people are helpless – chronic victims who need to be rescued from whatever calamity has most recently befallen them. Now is the time for Australian policymakers to step up and demonstrate real respect for their Pacific counterparts.

On top of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, Pacific island countries are now managing the twin challenges of a potential public health emergency and its severe economic ramifications.

When it comes to the former, the focus has been on prevention. Many countries took swift and significant steps to minimise the risk of the virus entering their communities. Borders have been closed, restrictions on movements enforced and health and medical systems enhanced.

Pacific island countries are also already feeling the economic impacts of the global shutdown. This is particularly evident in those countries that rely on tourism and remittances for revenue, livelihoods and employment.

Several countries have moved quickly and decisively to introduce economic support and stimulus packages to meet some of the most pressing needs of their populations. Maintaining these into the medium and longer term will be a challenge.

In Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, the impacts of the recent Tropical Cyclone Harold are presenting additional challenges. Reaching Category 5 strength, it caused more than 30 deaths and left large amounts of damage and destruction in its wake. Australia and other partners (particularly France and New Zealand) have provided assistance to government agencies in the region that are charged with responding to disasters of this type.

In the Pacific, and among many Australian commentators, it is widely acknowledged that the step-up is driven largely by geo-strategic anxiety about the growing influence of China in the Pacific islands region. Coronavirus has done little to dilute this angst. In some instances, it appears to have accentuated it. Certainly, China has made it abundantly clear it is ready, willing and able to be a friend in need for Pacific island countries.

A more sophisticated and nuanced Pacific Step-up that addresses the challenges posed by coronavirus provides Australia with an opportunity to demonstrate to Pacific counterparts its ability and willingness to offer something that is different and more valuable than is available elsewhere.

This can take one or more of several forms. First of all, Australia should continue to advocate to the global community the need to provide tailored financial support to Pacific island countries. This must include lobbying for meaningful debt relief to underpin economic recovery.

The IMF has already made some moves in this regard. Australia has also moved quickly in relation to its most recent loan to PNG. When the Pacific Islands Forum’s finance and economic ministers meet online in the near future, this will likely be on the agenda. Australia should look to have something concrete to put forward in support of this, including offers to lobby the G7 and G20.




Read more:
Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


Recently, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters raised the possibility of a New Zealand-Australia “bubble” based on low numbers of infections in both countries. He saw this as a basis for reopening the borders to allow for freer movement of people and goods.

Pacific island countries that have no COVID-19 cases – there are several – should look to be part of a “Pacific bubble” if this conversation goes forward. This would maintain Pacific islanders’ participation in labour mobility schemes.

Australia and New Zealand are also the key markets for Pacific tourism. The sooner tourists can be welcomed back to the resorts and beaches, the sooner island livelihoods can be restored.

The rhetoric of the Pacific Step-Up has been couched in terms such as “Pacific family”. We now need to know what this means for how Australia can and will support Pacific states and communities in the face of coronavirus.The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As coronavirus widens the renter-owner divide, housing policies will have to change


Rachel Ong ViforJ, Curtin University

What began as a global health crisis in the form of COVID-19 is now also an economic crisis of historic proportions. Much of the housing policy focus during the pandemic has rightly centred on the plight of people who are insecurely housed or homeless. Another strand of commentary has focused on a likely fall in property values.

But what does the pandemic mean for housing market inequalities in Australia? And what are the policy implications?




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Homelessness and overcrowding expose us all to coronavirus. Here’s what we can do to stop the spread


The renter-owner gap will widen

Despite concerns about house prices plummeting, the spread of COVID-19 is exposing a widening gap in housing markets between those who own zero housing wealth (renters) and those with substantial housing wealth (owners).

Australians with little to no housing wealth were already experiencing at least three key types of vulnerabilities before the pandemic in the form of work insecurity, financial stress and ill-health.

The charts below show the comparisons between renters and home owners in these three categories of vulnerability, using data from the HILDA Survey. Owners are ranked in quintiles by housing equity, from the bottom 20% (Q1) to the top 20% (Q5).

Renters were much more likely to be unemployed or in casual jobs than people with high housing wealth.

Note: Sample includes all persons aged 25+ no longer living in their parents’ homes. Housing equity is defined as family home value minus mortgage debt. Population weights have been applied.
Author’s calculations from 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey data, Author provided

Both renters and owners with low housing equity were more likely to have difficulty paying their rent, mortgage and utility bills on time. They were less likely to be able to raise emergency funds when needed.

Note: Sample includes all persons aged 25+ who are no longer living in their parents’ homes. Housing equity is defined as family home value minus mortgage debt. Population weights have been applied.
Author’s calculations from 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey data, Author provided



Read more:
Rents can and should be reduced or suspended for the coronavirus pandemic


Renters were also more likely to report poorer physical and mental health.

Note: Sample includes all persons aged 25+ who are no longer living in their parents’ homes. Housing equity is defined as family home value minus mortgage debt. Population weights have been applied.
Author’s calculations from 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey data, Author provided

The spread of coronavirus has added to these existing vulnerabilities. Casual workers have been particularly vulnerable to job loss.




Read more:
Coronavirus puts casual workers at risk of homelessness unless they get more support


The social gradient in health is well-known. People on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to be in poorer health. They are then more likely to develop serious health problems from the coronavirus.

Post-pandemic markets will add to inequalities

COVID-19 is making existing economic inequalities worse. And even in a post-pandemic world it can be expected to slow down wealth accumulation among renters.

Hysteresis is a term used to describe an economic event that persists into the future, after the factors that led to the event have disappeared. In labour markets, the long-term unemployed also suffer long-term damage to their job prospects as their skills deteriorate and they are regarded as less employable.

This hysteresis effect will likely spill over into housing markets. Any crisis-driven falls in house prices may be short-term as housing values remain relatively insulated by record low interest rates. People who are exposed to job loss, insecure work or ill-health during the crisis will face a greater struggle to regain their economic footing after the pandemic than those from more affluent backgrounds.

This means the wealth-accumulating capacity of people with little to no housing equity is further compromised during and after the pandemic. In short, renters could fall further behind in their ability to buy a home. The gap between the haves and have-nots will grow.




Read more:
Fall in ageing Australians’ home-ownership rates looms as seismic shock for housing policy


3 principles for post-pandemic policy

An even more unequal housing future for Australia is undesirable. The post-crisis housing debate will need to be conducted with three key elements in mind: equity, solidarity and security.

Equity in access to housing opportunities must not slide off policymakers’ radar. It is not a debatable fact that governments have long provided generous concessions for property buyers. These measures include capital gains tax discounts, family home exemptions from land tax and income support means tests, and negative gearing for investors.

These preferential tax treatments have far exceeded government spending on renters. Notwithstanding the benefits commonly associated with home ownership, restoring some balance in the distribution of subsidies between owners and renters is essential to narrow the widening chasm between them.

Solidarity between generations will be more crucial than ever before to preserve Australia’s social and economic fabric. The surge in national debt created in response to the crisis will likely be a multi-generational burden.




Read more:
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Some might be tempted to return to pitting the young against the old in housing debates. Policy thinking that encourages solidarity, rather than stoking tensions between generations, will be increasingly important. For instance, abolishing stamp duty together with levying land tax on all land will remove a key financial barrier to home purchases for both young first-time buyers and older downsizers.

The formation of the national cabinet to oversee the response to COVID-19 also provides a post-pandemic forum to forge federal-state cooperation on the required reforms. Federal support will be needed to help cover state revenue shortfalls in a gradual transition to land tax. On the other hand, the release of housing equity by older downsizers should ease pressures on the federal retirement incomes system.

Finally, it is time to reprioritise housing security as a foundation for fostering good health and economic participation. Critical public health measures to avoid the spread of disease, such as social distancing and staying at home, are inherently shelter-related. These measures are rarely achievable for people who are homeless or in overcrowded housing.The Conversation

Rachel Ong ViforJ, Professor of Economics, School of Economics, Finance and Property, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why coronavirus may forever change the way we care within families



AAP/Maria Zsoldos

Leah Ruppanner, University of Melbourne; Brendan Churchill, University of Melbourne, and William Scarborough, University of North Texas

The global spread of COVID-19 has illuminated the “care crisis” that has been building for decades.

Women, through their unpaid housework, childcare and elder care, have kept families functioning. However, COVID-19 is putting a strain on women’s abilities to keep the cogs of daily life turning. We are now starting to see the impact of what happens when women are unable to do it all.

What is the care crisis?

For decades, scholars have warned that the bulk of the unpaid domestic work carried by women is unsustainable. The ageing of populations across Western nations will add to the burden even more as women care for elderly parents, spouses, friends and family. This will in turn significantly reduce the employment pool and add strain on those providing the care.




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Mothers do almost twice as much housework as fathers, even when they are earning most of the family income. Greater time in housework is at the expense of their time in employment, leisure and sleep.

Without free childcare or flexible work, families are patching together a tenuous web of caregivers and family members to smooth before- and after-school transitions and to tend to sick children. COVID-19 exposes our care system as being held together by a thread, based on the unpaid and perpetual labour of women.

For decades, researchers have shown women are stressed, pressed and emotionally unwell from the constant struggle to manage these competing demands. The data are clear – women’s larger share of the care is making them sick.

Once COVID-19 started to spread, the world changed dramatically. Now, the invisible unpaid work started to become visible. And someone has to do it.

Worried about childcare? What our searches can teach us

To better understand how childcare during coronavirus is worrying Australian parents, we draw data from Google searches over the past 30 days from the United States and Australia. The US is further along in the coronavirus journey, so can offer some insights into how worry about the virus changes over time.

At first, Americans were more concerned about the economy. But as schools, workplaces and non-essential services start to shut down, the threat of the care crisis has emerged – the concentration of Google searches for coronavirus that include “daycare” and “elderly” intensifies. The work is coming home. Who is now going to do it?



Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Australia is now preparing more aggressive social-isolation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, with school and non-essential service closures reported only this week and only in some states.

However, Australia, too, has been slow to respond and the federal government has resisted school closures in part because 30% of healthcare workers in Australia are women. What will happen to this group of workers if they have to look after their children and those affected by COVID-19?

Do all states exhibit the same worry?

Across the US, trends in search terms vary dramatically across states. In the past week, searches in most states have been concentrated on how coronavirus will impact the economy.

But something interesting is happening to the states in the middle of the country – Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota. In these states, searches for daycare and coronavirus are more common than searches related to coronavirus and the economy, grocery stores and the elderly.



Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Our research shows mothers in these states have access to better childcare resources – more affordable childcare, longer school days and more expansive after-school care. A forthcoming book, Motherlands, shows mothers in these states are more likely to work full-time, including right before and right after childbirth. These states are exemplars, offering parents the best childcare resources.




Read more:
Sharing the parenting duties could be key to marital bliss: study


But what happens for families in these states when everything shuts down?

When we dig a little deeper, we see searches for daycare centres being open during coronavirus soared by 100%. Questions about whether those centres will charge fees even while closed increased by 400%. Nebraskans are also worried about their financial futures, but theirs are more tightly linked to daycare.



Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Over the past week, Australians are increasing their searches of daycare, with some regional variation. People in Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria are most likely to ask Google about daycare. Families in these states average 31 hours of weekly childcare, or equivalent to another full-time job – time that families will have to fill.

What is the future of care?

COVID-19 will be devastating in its effect on our health, families and economy. But, as we face this new brave world together, it is important to understand the role of caregiving and the importance of carers in this crisis.

To date, women have done this work freely for families. But now the burden is too big and we need to see this work for what it is – important, essential and of great economic value. Individuals can use this as an opportunity to try something new, but also take stock of what we value as a society.

It is an opportunity to realise that the unpaid labour of grandparents and women is not enough – we need real solutions for a problem that, until now, has remained invisible.The Conversation

Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor in Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, University of Melbourne; Brendan Churchill, Research Fellow in Sociology, University of Melbourne, and William Scarborough, , University of North Texas

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.