Australians became more satisfied with federal public services, and more trusting of them, during the first months of COVID-19, according to survey results released by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Between February and June this year, satisfaction with the public services delivered by the Commonwealth increased from 69% to 78%. In March 2019 it had been 71%. People were asked how satisfied they were overall with the Australian public services they had accessed in the last 12 months.
Trust in the federal public services rose from 57% to 65% from February to June this year, and compared with 59% in March 2019.
The results are in line with trends in trust and satisfaction in institutions and leaders that academic and other surveys have shown.
The Citizen Experience Survey, done regularly and nationally, measures public satisfaction, trust and experiences with Australian public services. It is led by the Prime Minister’s Department .
In total more than 15,000 Australians were surveyed over five waves. The first wave was in March 2019 and surveyed about 5,000 people; this was followed by four more waves, each surveying about 2,500 people.
These results dealt with services delivered at Commonwealth level, not state delivery.
The survey put a series of propositions to people who had accessed any federal services in the last year.
It found 57% agreed information from the service was easy to understand; 60% said the staff were knowledgeable; 62% said the staff did what they said they would do, 51% said the amount of time it took to reach an outcome was acceptable, and 66% said they were treated with respect. All the numbers had risen since February.
While there’s no question these women did the wrong thing, evidence from past health crises shows us shaming and stigma don’t necessarily encourage compliance with public health advice. Public shaming could instead further marginalise already vulnerable groups.
We’ve seen a lot of public shaming during COVID-19
But it’s important to consider the role privilege plays when individuals become the subject of our collective outrage and condemnation.
We might compare the treatment of the Queensland women with a similar controversy in March, when a Melbourne couple contracted COVID-19 while on a skiing holiday in Aspen, Colorado. They tested positive back in Australia but reportedly flouted the directive to self-isolate.
The Melbourne couple were wealthy white Australians, and their case has been dealt with quite differently to the young Queensland women who are African Australian.
While both cases elicited public backlash, most publications didn’t name the Melbourne couple, citing “legal reasons”. Conversely, the young women from Queensland were identified by name, and photographs were taken from their Facebook accounts.
The online anger directed at the women became increasingly racial in nature. They were identifiable as non-white and had attended an African grocery shop while potentially infectious.
Within hours of these details being published, members of the African community in Brisbane reported intense racist harassment on social media.
The public backlash against the Melbourne couple was muted by their relative anonymity. They were protected from the level of doxxing — having one’s identity and personal information shared widely online — the young women have experienced.
Public shaming also contributed to significant psychological distress for people exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Public shaming of those who spread COVID-19 may feel cathartic in a time of collective anxiety, but the consequences can be serious. Ultimately, members of our community may become reticent or afraid to be tested — especially already marginalised groups.
A pandemic in the digital age
Traditional news media has a powerful role in public shaming, as seen in the case of the young Queensland women. The media creates long-lasting records and sets the tone for public debate.
While public shaming has a long history, COVID-19 has intensified social media-fuelled scrutiny and public shaming, exacerbating the effects of virus-related stigma.
We may assume seeing this kind of backlash might pull us all into line and deter us from behaving in the same way. But experience of shame and stigma in previous pandemics shows it’s an ineffective way to encourage compliance with public health orders.
Instead, public shaming is more likely to reinforce and inflame existing social inequalities.
The toughest lockdown imposed on residents of public housing in Australia has been lifted, but their COVID-19 ordeal isn’t over – and recovering from their traumatic experience will take time. Recent events have highlighted the inequalities that make residents of the locked-down Melbourne housing towers highly vulnerable in the COVID-19 emergency. Nearly 350 residents have been infected to date.
This article draws on our interviews with residents and community and religious leaders after the buildings were locked down. The interviews followed a two-year study of the housing conditions of migrants from the Horn of Africa living in inner Melbourne estates.
These are places of social and economic disadvantage. The current crisis has laid bare the conditions that endanger this community. These include large extended families (up to nine people), low incomes, high unemployment, limited access to education, challenges of communicating in English and poor internet access.
The lockdown made existing problems worse. Tewelde Kidane, who chairs the Melbourne Eritrean United Community, spoke of family tensions increasing in confined spaces, which combined with lack of privacy results in increases in domestic violence. Sultan Abdiwali, the imam of the North Melbourne mosque at the heart of the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency (AMSSA), also referred to increased family violence and drug use, as did Awatif:
Some young people get sometimes drunk, scream at night, [and use] drugs.
However, the lockdown also showed the community’s capacity to support their fellows in need. “We have been receiving support and help from our local community even before this extreme lockdown,” the resident Iman said.
Asked how the African communities were supporting their members, the imam said:
[A] Somali community group collected donations and provided help to public housing residents. Other groups found it hard to manage such activities.
Most residents do not question the lockdown, but object to the lack of information. Anisa said:
I do know that if we, the residents, were treated with some decency and respect and received enough information on the lockdown, our concerns would be a lot more at ease than they are now.
Carlton estate residents volunteered to assist health professionals with door-to-door COVID-19 testing. The volunteers helped overcome language and cultural barriers. Muhubo explained:
People are scared about being ill so they are happy to get tested. People know that they need to get tested and they help with that.
Residents use social media, WhatsApp and Zoom to maintain communication within the community. However, many lack internet access. Muhubo said:
[…] for the families that do not have the internet at home and have kids it is difficult. The school gave some kids a small modem with some internet access, but it is slow and the data is limited.
Good communication between authorities and residents is crucial to understand and manage the risks, but this requires proper risk governance. As Tewelde explained:
Many people just live here and rely on the community and don’t know what happens in the rest of the city. We sometimes feel disconnected from the rest.
Language barriers and low literacy in our community members is a big issue. Some people might even have troubles calling emergency numbers like 000.
Building trust will take time
Mutual trust must be built. Yet, surprisingly, government agencies often do not communicate directly with residents.
These days the Carlton public housing residents receive regular communication from Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre (CLNC). The centre has gained their trust by working with vulnerable communities for many years. Muhubo said:
Even now we do not get more information from the housing commission. These days we get messages and updates from the school [CNLC], although most of the messages are in English.
Community members’ social networks are part of what has been called an “economy of affection”, a collective support structure characteristic of African communities.
Government agencies need to start building communication channels that acknowledge existing community leaders and networks. Awatif said:
They [the government] need to link the leader and community workers to work with them, teach people how to use sanitisers, make them aware of social distancing, bring professional cleaners.
Understanding these communities and the risks they face will lead to better and more inclusive prevention, response and recovery from COVID-19.
A target of 70% private and 30% public dwellings is an accepted standard for public housing renewal projects in several Australian states. This level of private ownership is said to be necessary to counter stigma and the supposed demotivating impacts of concentrated disadvantage. When we looked at the impact of applying this model to the planned Waterloo redevelopment in inner Sydney, the demographic projections were revealing.
Our analysis shows the project would reduce the suburb’s proportion of social housing dwellings from 30% to about 17%. About 30% of households in the suburb would be owner-occupiers. Private renters might rise to more than 50% of households.
State housing authorities favour a mix of public and private residential tenures when they redevelop large public housing estates. Authorities can then sell the majority of new dwellings to private owners and investors.
As Kate Shaw, Janet McCalman and Deborah Warr have explained in The Conversation, the strategy doesn’t always work as promised. Drawing on extensive empirical research into mixed-tenure renewal neighbourhoods, the evidence shows simple mathematical “one size fits all” targets do not work. Decisions on the residential mix need to be sensitive to local settings and needs.
Nonetheless, an orthodoxy has emerged among some housing authorities that social housing tenants should make up 30% of households while 70% should be sold to owner-occupiers and investors.
In Waterloo, limitations of the fixed-ratio approach relate to the likely composition of the post-renewal resident population.
The Waterloo estate site now contains about 1,900 public housing units. The renewal plan proposes retaining this number in the context of a three-fold increase in dwellings with a 70:30 private-public tenure mix. This will result in a total of about 6,500 dwellings.
At the suburb or neighbourhood level, Waterloo had 6,151 dwellings in 2016. As the table below shows, almost exactly 30% of these were let to social housing tenants.
The table also shows the large variation in tenure mix across five Sydney suburbs and the Greater Sydney area. Some 44% of all dwelling stock in Waterloo was already rented privately. That’s almost 50% more than the Sydney-wide average of just under 30%.
Importantly, 63% of private dwellings in Waterloo are privately rented – double the Greater Sydney proportion.
Located close to three universities and the CBD, Waterloo is dominated by investor-owned rental housing. Future occupation is likely to follow this pattern.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has emphasised working from home will be one of the last measures the state will ease.
But even when restrictions are relaxed, do we all need to go into the office as much as we used to?
Working from home has become the “new normal” for many of us, and we’ve learnt a lot about how to do this successfully. Employers have adjusted too, with some indicating they will encourage increased remote working moving forward.
So one of the obvious things we can do to reduce the numbers of people using public transport is to continue to work from home where possible.
Another option is for workplaces to implement flexible start times. If we can reduce the numbers of people using public transport during peak times, this will make a significant difference in reducing crowding.
Public transport providers and governments
State governments have introduced additional cleaning practices on public transport networks. These will continue, and may even be increased, as more people return to public transport.
Although increased cleaning is important, physical distancing remains the key to safely moving large numbers of people again. Governments will need to consider some changes to ensure people can keep a safe distance from others on their commute.
As we’ve seen with the easing of restrictions, different states will take different approaches.
For example, New South Wales has imposed limits on how many people can board a bus or train. A maximum of 32 people are allowed in a train carriage (normally one carriage holds 123 passengers), while buses are limited to 12 passengers (capacity is normally 63).
Further, markings on the seats and floors of buses and trains indicate where people can sit and stand.
Marshals are also being stationed around the public transport network to ensure commuters are following the rules.
In a similar move, the South Australian government revealed they will remove seats from Adelaide trains.
In contrast, Queensland is not imposing any passenger limits, instead asking commuters to use their common sense. The government says there is plenty of room on public transport in Queensland at present, and the risk of virus transmission is low given the small number of active cases.
Similarly, Victoria has not imposed passenger limits. But the government has indicated commuters will be able to access information about which public transport services are the least crowded to assist travel planning.
Some states have flagged extra services may be needed to avoid overcrowding, though the extent to which this will be possible is dependent on resources.
In addition to extra services, NSW has indicated it will boost car parking and enhance access for cyclists and pedestrians.
What can you do?
The main responsibility around keeping virus transmission suppressed as we relax restrictions rests with us as individuals to behave sensibly and responsibly.
The same principles apply when we use public transport as when we navigate all public spaces.
Maintaining physical distance from others and washing our hands regularly are possibly even more important when we’re using public transport, given we potentially come into contact with a lot of people in an enclosed space.
We know SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is more likely to spread indoors than outdoors. We also know prolonged contact with someone infected with the virus increases the risk of transmission, as compared to a passing encounter.
So public transport commutes have the potential to pose a significant risk of virus transmission, especially if you’re sitting next to an infected person on a long journey.
Taking hand sanitiser when you use public transport is a good idea so you can clean your hands while travelling. You may be touching contaminated surfaces, for example the bars and handles for balance.
In addition, washing your hands thoroughly with soap as soon as you arrive at your destination should become a part of your routine.
Importantly, if you’re sick you should not be leaving the house, let alone taking public transport or going to work.
Authorities have imposed significant restrictions on the size, purpose and location of gatherings in public space to slow the transmission of COVID-19. The massive impacts of these escalating restrictions over the past two months show us just how significant public spaces are for the life of our cities. A longer-term concern is the risk that living with these measures might normalise restrictions on, and surveillance of, our access to public space and one another.
Right now, public health is the priority. But access to public spaces was already significantly and unjustly restricted for many people before the coronavirus pandemic. Current restrictions could both intensify existing inequalities in access and reinforce trends towards “locking down” public space.
We must ensure these restrictions do not become permanent. And once the crisis is over, we also should act on existing inequitable restrictions.
Restrictions have inequitable impacts
Unless public health interventions are enacted with an awareness of their profoundly uneven consequences, we may well “flatten the curve” in ways that add to existing inequalities and injustices.
Research suggests restrictions on public space have greater impacts on people who have less access to private space. People without stable homes, and those with restricted access to domestic space, tend to live more of their lives in public. Public space restrictions have far greater consequences for these people.
We can see this relationship very clearly: the restrictions are paired with instructions to stay at home. This applies to everyone. But, while it’s inconvenient for some, it’s impossible for others.
Research also shows us restrictions on public gatherings and public space were a feature of everyday urban life for many people well before physical distancing came in.
Young people of colour who gather in small groups in public spaces frequently report being stopped, searched and moved on by police and security guards. People on low incomes were already excluded from commercial public spaces like cafes and shopping malls. People asking for spare change or leafleting passers-by were barred from quasi-public spaces that are subject to special restrictions. People who cannot climb stairs were unable to use basic public infrastructure, like train stations, that lacks lift or ramp access. The list goes on.
These pre-existing restrictions were the product of exclusion and injustice. We should not have tolerated this before the crisis and it demands our renewed attention after the crisis.
We also know authorities responsible for regulating public space, including police, tend to enforce rules and restrictions selectively. In New South Wales and Victoria, police chiefs have been explicit that police will use their discretion in enforcing current restrictions.
The problem is this use of discretion can be informed by stereotype and prejudice. For communities who already felt unfairly targeted by police, statements about the use of discretion will be far from reassuring.
We must guard against a common tendency for temporary measures to become more permanent. Some of the extraordinary powers given to police to break up gatherings and fine people who fail to observe restrictions have been time-limited. But having been used once for a particular problem, the risk is such powers might be enacted more often in future.
We have seen this happen with closures of public space for commercial events. Each closure is justified as being only temporary, but such closures have become increasingly common. The cumulative effect is a creeping commercialisation of public space.
Coronavirus-related restrictions are obvious to us because they have been imposed so rapidly. However, we should reflect on how other restrictions have become normalised precisely because they happened gradually, making them less visible and contested.
For example, over the past decade we have seen a creeping “gating” of a public spaces like parks and school ovals. Free access to those spaces has been greatly reduced when they are not in use for organised education or sports.
Interestingly, as urban authorities try to provide large populations with access to public spaces in which they can maintain recommended physical distance, some existing restrictions are being rethought. Cities are closing streets to cars to give pedestrians more space rather than having to crowd onto footpaths. It will be interesting to see if such measures persist once physical-distancing restrictions are lifted.
Let’s hope our experience of the inconvenience and frustration of restricted access to public space will translate into a more widely shared determination not only to end these restrictions when the health crisis is over, but also to act on the unjust exclusions and restrictions that were already a feature of urban life.
As with so many other aspects of our society, it is not enough simply to go back to how things were before. We must ensure our public spaces are not unjustly restricted when the next crisis comes along.
Minimising health risks has rightly been the focus of discussion during the coronavirus outbreak. This includes efforts to protect both frontline public transport employees and the travelling public. But we should also be concerned about the strategic, financial consequences for transport operators and their workforces.
Most urban public transport systems in Australia are “gross cost” regimes. This means operators are paid on a per kilometre basis regardless of the number of passengers carried. These operators are much less susceptible to changes in demand.
Transport operators who work off “net cost” contracts – meaning they keep their fare revenue – are facing huge financial pressures. This in turn has implications for the cash flows of their suppliers, including vehicle manufacturers and consultancies.
Hong Kong rail operator MTR (which has businesses in Melbourne and Sydney), already battling almost a year of protests, has been forced into significant service reductions. In Japan, some Shinkansen services are being suspended as patronage plummets. Many Asian operators have diversified revenue streams from property developments, but large falls in patronage also affect the ability to collect rents (such as from retail).
Any service reduction has major ramifications for public transport workforces. Permanent staff may have their work hours reduced, while casual staff will struggle to get rostered. This will add to the psychological impacts on staff.
Beyond government-contracted public transport there are many intercity coach operators and small-to-medium-sized charter operators (many family-owned). These operators serve the school, tourist, airport, hotel and special-needs markets. They are all private commercial operators.
A major issue in these circumstances is how to provide incentives for transport operators to go above and beyond what is required as part of their usual remit. Do operators merely “comply” with their contract specifications, or do they see an opportunity to extract value from proactively deploying, for instance, an enhanced disinfection regime? Should the contracted operator bear the extra costs, or should government share these costs?
Reshaping the industry
COVID-19 brings enormous unknowns for the public transport sector. Cost and revenue pressures may lead to transport operators fighting for survival. The result could be market consolidation and less competition in the industry.
In the longer term, how can future contract design for both transport services and transport assets ensure resilience to “black swan” events and encourage a proactive, rather than reactive, response? Too often, a myopic focus on cost reduction has governed these discussions.
Finally, is there a way to protect commercial operators from huge swings in demand?
The coronavirus pandemic demands an urgent operational response by our public transport systems. But it should also encourage a strategic rethinking of our institutional structures and how public services are procured. Let us create an opportunity for longer-term reform out of the crisis.
Private hospitals will be on the frontline in the coronavirus battle, under an arrangement with the federal government that makes available the sector’s more than 30,000 beds and 105,000 workforce, including more than 57,000 nursing staff.
The government will offer agreements to Australia’s 657 private and not-for-profit hospitals “to ensure their viability, in return for maintenance and capacity” during the COVID-19 crisis.
The agreement makes available more resources to meet the virus crisis, preserves the private hospital workforce, and is designed to allow a speedy resumption of non-urgent elective surgery and other normal activity when the crisis has passed.
The states will complete “private hospital COVID-19 partnership agreements”, with the Commonwealth paying half the cost.
“In an unprecedented move, private hospitals, including both overnight and day hospitals, will integrate with state and territory health systems in the COVID-19 response,” the government said in a Tuesday statement.
These hospitals “will be required to make infrastructure, essential equipment (including ventilators), supplies (including personal protective equipment), workforce and additional resources fully available to the state and territory hospital system or the Australian government”.
Private hospitals will support the COVID-19 response through:
Hospital services for public patients – both positive and negative for COVID 19
Category 1 (urgent) elective surgery
Use of wards and theatres to expand ICU capacity
Accommodation for quarantine and isolation cases where necessary, and safety procedures and training are in place, including:
Cruise and flight COVID-19 passengers
Quarantine of vulnerable members of the community
Isolation of infected vulnerable COVID-19 patients.
The cost of the move is estimated at $1.3 billion.
Last week the government announced a ban on non-urgent elective surgery. While this freed up beds and staff, it would also strip the hospitals of core income and threaten the collapse of some hospitals without government action.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the agreement dramatically expanded the capacity of the Australian hospitals system to deal with COVID-19, at the same time as the curve of new cases showed early signs of being flattened.
The private hospitals “are available as an extension now of the public hospital system in Australia. So, whilst we’re not taking ownership, we have struck a partnership, where in return for the state agreements and the commonwealth guarantee, they will be fully integrated within the public hospital system”.
Hunt said the $1.3 billion estimated cost was not capped. “If more is required, more will be provided. If it turns out that it’s not that expensive, then those funds will be available for other activities. That takes our total additional investment to over $5.4 billion within the health sector.”
In a letter to private hospital providers, Hunt stressed: “A fundamental principle of this agreement is that it contributes towards to your ongoing viability, not profits or loan/debt repayments”.
Commonwealth deputy chief medical officer, Nick Coatsworth said intense efforts were being made to ramp up rapidly the number of ventilators.
He said there were some 2,200 ventilated intensive care beds in Australia. Currently just over 20 were being used for COVID-19 patients.
With immediate expansion, including repurposing and use of the private sector, this could be increased to 4,400.
“Our target capacity for ventilated intensive care beds in Australia currently stands at 7,500.
“We are working around the clock to procure ventilators,” he said. “Locally, we will have 500 intensive care ventilators fabricated by ResMed, backed up by 5,000 non-invasive ventilators, with full delivery expected by the end of April.”
The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association welcomed the “ground-breaking agreement” with private hospitals for ensuring both the best use of resources and the stability of the health system for the future.
The Australian tally of cases as of Tuesday afternoon was 4557, with 19 deaths; 244,000 tests had been completed.
No more than two people are to gather together in public spaces, and playgrounds will be closed in the latest restrictions in the coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile the government will now scrutinise all foreign investment proposals as well as impose longer time frames on examining applications “to protect Australia’s national interest” during the crisis.
The only exception to the two-person rule, endorsed by the national cabinet on Sunday, will be for people of the same household going out together, funerals (maximum ten), weddings (maximum five) and family units.
But it will be up to individual states and territories to decide whether to make the new rule enforceable. A ten-person limit is currently enforceable in most states and territories.
As of late Sunday, more than 211,000 tests had been undertaken and there had been 3,966 confirmed cases in Australia, with 16 deaths.
The government is hopeful the curve of the virus may be flattening but the national cabinet warns that in some jurisdictions retail outlets should be prepared for further measures.
States and territories have agreed they will put in place additional measures specific to their own regions, including closing categories of venues, where medical advice supports this.
Announcing the latest restrictions on Sunday night, Scott Morrison said public playgrounds, outside gyms and skate parks will now also be closed, adding to the extensive list of closures already in place.
This means the earlier limit of 10 people for an outdoor bootcamp, set last week, comes down to an individual and their trainer.
Morrison reiterated that in general, people should stay at home except for shopping (as infrequently as possible) for necessary items, medical care or compassionate reasons, exercise, and work or education that can’t be done at home.
He also said the strong advice for those 70 and over was to self-isolate to the maximum extent practicable for their own protection; this applied to those over 60 with chronic illnesses, and indigenous people aged over 50.
Asked why, given the two-person rule, shopping centres were still being allowed to remain open, Morrison said people needed to buy things other than food.
He gave the example of his own family. “Our kids are at home now, as are most kids, and Jenny went out yesterday and bought them a whole bunch of jigsaw puzzles.
“I can assure you over the next few months, we’re going to consider those jigsaw puzzles absolutely essential.
“It’s important that parents and families and households can get the things that they need to completely change the way they are going to live for the next six months at least.” This included people buying sporting equipment for home exercise.
The national cabinet agreed on principles for commercial and residential tenancies.
There will be a moratorium on evictions over the next six months for those in financial distress who can’t meet their commitments due to the virus.
Commercial tenants, landlords and financial institutions are being encouraged to find ways to ensure businesses can survive.
The federal government is working on a huge third support package expected to include wage subsidies.
Announcing the foreign investment changes, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg stressed this was not a freeze on foreign investment and was temporary, lasting for the duration of the crisis.
“Australia is open for business and recognises investment at this time can be beneficial if in the national interest,” he said.
Under the foreign investment regime there are various thresholds for triggering scrutiny, according to type, value and source of the investment.
But now all proposed foreign investments that are subject to the the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act will need approval.
To ensure enough time for scrutiny the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) would work with existing and new applicants to extend the review time from 30 days to up to six months, Frydenberg said.
The government would give priority to “urgent applications for investments that protect and support Australian business and Australian jobs,” he said.
“The Government recognises that foreign investment will play an important part in helping many businesses get to the other side – securing jobs and supporting our economic recovery.
“However, these measures are necessary to safeguard the national interest as the coronavirus outbreak puts intense pressure on the Australian economy and Australian businesses.”
UPDATE – 30 March
Frydenberg told the ABC on Monday “we don’t want predatory behaviour, which is not in the national interest occurring.”
He said that in the current circumstances “distressed companies” might be targeted, but he denied the clampdown was directed particularly at China.
The coronavirus pandemic is already affecting Australians’ daily travel, with suspension of public transport services a possibility as the number of COVID-19 cases grows. A common goal underpinning containment strategies in pandemic-like conditions is that the impacts should be borne as equitably as possible across the community. So would a public transport shutdown in Australian cities hit lower-income households harder than their higher-income counterparts?
In many countries this would certainly be the case. In these countries, public transport is largely the domain of the lower classes while wealthier households enjoy the comfort and convenience of their cars.
The data on Australians’ use of public transport and the distribution of services across our cities tell a more complex story. And not all users are equally at risk, because of how the virus spreads and the structure of public transport networks.
The interiors of trains and buses, and stations and stops along the network, are the perfect environment for a droplet-spread disease like COVID-19 to thrive. Masses of people congregate in these areas, increasing the risk of direct contact with an infected person.
About 1,000 passengers can crowd into a single train carriage. This greatly increases the virus’s potential spread through droplets if an infected person coughs or sneezes.
And the handles and seats inside trains and buses, and other surfaces such as escalator handrails at stations, are prime surfaces to host infectious nose and throat discharges. According to new research, this virus can live on surfaces for hours to days.
But the actual evidence is weak
Although public transport shutdowns are common in most contagious virus response plans, evidence of a relationship between public transport use and respiratory infection is actually relatively weak.
The most commonly cited study is based on the travel patterns of 72 people in London presenting for treatment of flu symptoms in 2008-09. It found those using public transport were up to six times more likely to pick up an acute respiratory infection than those who don’t.
This study also found, however, that regular public transport use was associated with less likelihood of contracting an illness. This was potentially because regular users develop protective antibodies to common respiratory viruses if repeatedly exposed. Unfortunately, this safeguard does not apply to a novel virus such as the COVID-19 coronavirus.
A wider cross-section of the Australian population owns and uses cars than in many other countries. Cars are not the domain of the wealthy. Rather, they are a necessary expense to navigate life in our low-density, poorly serviced cities. Car use dominates the outer suburbs where housing is more affordable.
In Melbourne, for example, 61% of the most socially and economically advantaged population live within five minutes’ walk of quality public transport services, compared with just 41% of the least advantaged. If you are one of the richest 20%, you are more likely to be able to walk to good public transport than anyone else in Australia.
Particularly in our larger cities, higher-income people are more likely to use public transport to get to work, as the table below shows. In Sydney, for example, 33% of high-income earners commute by public transport, compared with just 25% of those on lower incomes.
How might people handle a shutdown?
The data seem to suggest the impacts of a public transport shutdown will be felt more keenly in the top end of town than in low-income suburbs. But those numbers say nothing about what alternatives people have.
High-income households are far more likely to own more than one car. They are also better placed to absorb the costs of driving to work, such as parking, petrol and tolls. They can drive if public transport shuts down.
Residents of inner-urban areas, where property prices are high, are also more likely to have a shorter trip to work. They may be able to replace a public transport trip with a walk or cycle.
We don’t know the extent to which different employment groups will be able to innovate and adopt remote working practices under these unusual circumstances. However, people who can currently work from home are more likely to be high-income, highly educated white-collar workers. Almost half of workers in the financial services sector and 32% of the telecommunications sector use public transport – many of their roles are relatively easy to convert to working from home.
Remote working is not an option for most low-income workers in the services sector. They must travel to their workplace if they want to be paid.
If these workers do rely on public transport to get to work, they are less likely to have a spare vehicle to commute with. This leaves few options for these households, especially in Australia’s dispersed suburbs.
A related issue is the impacts of a public transport shutdown on the all-important healthcare sector. Again, Australian journey-to-work data suggest the impact would not be as dire as some international research suggests. On census day in 2016, just 9% of Australia’s healthcare and social assistance workers travelled to work by public transport.
In general, the effects of COVID-19 will no doubt be borne inequitably by lower-income Australians. They are more likely to be employed in industries worst hit by the coming economic downturn. For low-income households that depend on public transport, a shutdown would rub salt in their wounds.