A message from Suzie Riddell, CEO, Social Ventures Australia on Covid-19
It feels as though we’ve woken to a new world.
So many things in our daily lives have changed as a result of Covid-19. Working from home, social distancing, panic buying and rising unemployment.
Yet the challenges that have defined SVA’s work remain. Many of these challenges have become more urgent.
Groups who were already excluded and who were already vulnerable, are doubly so as the virus spreads. The need is going to be great and we will have to respond in kind.
As we make haste to combat this new crisis, we should also keep an eye on the future. If we make wise decisions now, the investments we make today can yield the fruits of recovery tomorrow. That will be our focus at SVA.
We’re continuing to work… for the crisis today, and for the Australia we want tomorrow
Below I’ve shared some thoughts on issues and approaches that SVA thinks deserve some attention. It’s by no means a comprehensive list and like our current situation, it will change.
Like many of you we’ve been adjusting our routines and priorities. We were fortunate that we had well established practices for working remotely and so were able to make an early decision to ask everyone to work from home to protect our staff and the community.
Yes we’ve had to adapt rapidly. We’re continuing to work with our clients, partners and friends. We’re having conversations about how, in this new world order, we can work together to create an Australia where all communities and individuals can thrive. And we’re responding. For the crisis today, and for the Australia we want tomorrow.
It’s a terrible predicament that to safeguard our health, we’ve been forced to stall our economic activity and ask all but those in essential services to stay at home bringing many sectors to a halt. Many people have already lost their jobs.
The doubling of the Newstart allowance for people who have lost their job as well as the announcement of the new JobKeeper wage subsidy are certainly welcome. However, there are many groups – including those on temporary visas – who are currently not eligible for these payments but are just as exposed if their employers can’t afford to keep them on.
Those who were already at the margins of the labour market suddenly find themselves at the tail of a much longer queue. We know from previous shocks in 2008 and back to 1993, that some who lost jobs during those times never worked in paid employment again.
We also run the risk that large numbers of young people could find it very difficult to make the transition from education into employment as entry level jobs dry up.
What have we learnt that can help us prevent these outcomes? Is this the moment for example for those that can to turn their minds to a redesign of our vocational education system? Reskilling people to adapt to a changed labour market is surely going to be part of the long-term plan.
Education and early years
As more and more students move to home-based learning, it will be crucial to support our dedicated teachers and educators. We need to support our educators to have continued leadership in children’s learning, albeit in very different ways as they deliver home-supported learning.
Educators also need to stay connected with each other to share what’s working, and what’s not, in this rapidly changing environment.
Our schools can be a great leveler but not every family has the same resources to support home-based learning – whether it’s the tech to communicate with the teacher or a place quiet enough to study in.
We can’t allow the gap that already exists in learning achievement between students from high income backgrounds and low-income backgrounds to become a gulf.
Just as the pandemic has allowed us to rediscover our trust in expert advice based on the best available evidence, we’ll need its equal in education.
That’s why SVA is still a strong proponent of a National Evidence Institute to ensure that our teachers have access to the kind of information our chief medical officers are getting every hour. We’ve been tapping our global connections to produce rapid reviews of the evidence on home learning and have created a dedicated area on E4L’s website to assist educators as they prepare for, and deliver, home-supported learning.
High quality early learning is one of the best investments we can make to improve economic and social outcomes over decades. I’m very pleased that the Commonwealth Government has recognised the importance of the early childhood sector by making a $1.6 billion investment to support parents and ensure the viability of centres.
We will need to keep a close eye on how these changes are implemented. Although they were trumpeted as making early learning free for parents, the new payments cover half the cost of early learning and relies on the additional investment of the JobKeeper payments. It looks likely that some centres won’t be eligible for JobKeeper, such as those run by local government.
Like schools, it is important to keep early learning centres open so that essential employees can go to work. And like schools, we can’t forget that centres are also critical to the learning and development of our children, they are not just a babysitting service. Zero to five years is a critical time in brain development.
Children who are developmentally delayed benefit the most from high quality early learning and many also access allied health services like speech pathology through an early learning centre. We can’t afford for these children to miss out.
Never has philanthropy been more important even as many philanthropists’ incomes are also taking a hit.
My plea to philanthropists is: consider funding operational support to your partner organisations for a fixed timeframe to help them get through this crisis.
The non-profits that you know and believe in need your support now more than ever.
Now is the time to relax your requirements for how your funding is used and allow non-profits more discretion to put it to best use in the face of the crisis.
Now is the time to lean in and provide additional support over and above your planned commitments.
Many non-profits are seeing rising demand for their services at the same time that their income is falling. Flexible philanthropic support is exactly what many need.
Philanthropists can lead by example. This can have a ripple effect, influencing how governments fund, regulate and deliver services and how non-profits create outcomes.
A number of philanthropists have already taken positive steps with peak body Philanthropy Australia issuing a new set of principles for responding to Covid-19.
We also need some creative thinking about how to make philanthropy attractive in this new environment. Tax deductibility won’t be much of an incentive for people or organisations that are making a loss. Allowing deductions to carry over into future years or increasing the value of deductions (some have suggested to more than 150%) could be options to explore.
Even where there is demand for work, such as in disability services, heightened risks to worker and client alike could well exacerbate people’s social exclusion.
Some people with disability will be at higher risk from the direct impacts of Covid-19 due to health risks, employment changes or other factors. Many others who rely on personal services in their homes will lose out if the workforce is out of action or unable to secure personal protective equipment. Unfortunately, there are already reports of gaps in service delivery for people with disability – absolute essentials like food delivery, in-home support and medical therapies. People with disability are also facing increased costs of services, products and support, but don’t have access to additional resources.
There are incredible strengths and capabilities within this community – people with disability are some of our sector’s most experienced campaigners and are setting up their own online networks of support. There’s a great deal we can learn from our disability advocates about ensuring the voices of people most impacted are heard by our leaders.
The impact on people’s mental health of a prolonged crisis is likely to be widespread and profound. Social isolation and unemployment are known to contribute to mental ill health.
We’re delighted to see some of our partners like Lifeline get additional support to help manage the current demand. Changes to allow for more mental health services to be delivered by telehealth are also a welcome shift.
The health sector as a whole will come under great pressure. With the system triaging all kinds of treatments and procedures as the number of coronavirus cases rise, we’ll also need new ways to ensure people with chronic and acute illnesses can still access the treatment they need.
Housing is going to continue to be both an urgent issue, and one that requires planning for decades to come.
It’s a relief that renters will have security of tenure if they lose their job thanks to the interventions of Commonwealth and state governments. We still need clarity on how the moratorium on evictions will apply in practice to those who can’t pay their rent.
However, people who have inappropriate and unsafe accommodation or no home to go to will struggle to self-isolate. Those who sleep-rough on our streets are more likely to have underlying chronic conditions. The fastest rising type of homelessness is severe overcrowding which is a particularly acute problem in remote Aboriginal communities. Self-isolation will be impossible in these situations.
Many more women and children are experiencing domestic violence as they are confined in isolation with the perpetrator of that violence.
These are critical issues which front line services are confronting already. They will require further action from Commonwealth and state governments.
Part of the longer-term solution is more social and affordable housing for people that is fit for their needs in the right locations.
SVA recently published the findings of our joint research with Summer Foundation on the levels of demand and the pipeline for disability housing around Australia. Pre-crisis, we saw confidence amongst developers and a solid pipeline of Specialist Disability Accommodation (the Government subsidy) funded homes. We’re optimistic that there is still great potential here.
We’re also continuing our work with joint venture partners Federation, to grow our Synergis disability housing fund to invest in more stock.
And one of the most successful elements of the response to the last two economic downturns – in both the Global Financial Crisis and the 1993 recession – were investments in social and affordable housing.
These initiatives can create jobs, support the residential construction sector, deliver badly needed housing and help to stimulate private sector investment. We need to be designing the right policy mechanisms now, so that as people seek to return to work, these projects are ready to go.
Aboriginal communities risk losing both precious members of the community as well as invaluable cultural knowledge as so many – not only elders – are more vulnerable to illness and death from the virus. We need to take every step we can to work with Aboriginal communities to prevent it.
Self-determination for First Nations Peoples is not a fair-weather strategy
– something we contemplate when the skies are clear and shy away when grey clouds approach. Investing in our existing network of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, especially health organisations, is crucial to the rapid response. It will also provide an opportunity to strengthen and entrench these services in our communities to respond to other health crises affecting First Nations Peoples. Where these organisations ask for help, we should heed their requests.
Non-Indigenous services may be well equipped to bid to deliver crisis services. However they will need to show restraint and opt to partner with Aboriginal organisations, rather than compete with them. They’ve done it in the past when there were cuts to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. It can be done again.
First Nations Peoples also deserve our unwavering support for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, not because it will be any easier now, but because it’s what’s needed.
And what of the community sector and civil society itself? Like many of you, we are also bracing for the social and economic challenges that civil society will face as we seek to ensure the voices and needs of the most vulnerable groups are not lost in the cacophony of Covid-19 news and repercussions.
Charities and non-profits employ around 1.3 million Australians. Supports that are appropriate for small to medium business like low-interest loans are important but could be difficult for non-profits to use. Many non-profits won’t have the capacity to take on debt and those who do will need help to negotiate appropriate terms with lenders unaccustomed to conducting due diligence on non-profits. Similarly, many non-profits have little budget flexibility as their funds are tied to particular programs – so even those with increased demand may struggle to keep staff on. The financial relief already announced is welcome, but we need an ongoing dialogue with government about the best responses.
I worry particularly about a loss of diversity if many small non-profits are forced to close. Vibrant democracies require dissenting voices. This will be even more important as we move into a recovery phase to ensure that the ‘wartime powers’ that governments have assumed to respond to the current crisis – lock-downs and suspensions of parliament – do not become the new norm.
As the Prime Minister has said many times, this a health crisis and an economic crisis. It’s also a social crisis. We must take every step we can to ensure that the impacts are temporary and that we’re a stronger community in its aftermath.