COVID-19: A force for good?

In a crisis there is opportunity, the saying goes. Ironically, given current geopolitical tensions, that saying is a misreading by US President John F. Kennedy of the Chinese word for crisis. But the idea itself holds appeal – when faced with a challenging situation, make necessary changes.

The coronavirus has enabled radical policies and spending that would have been unthinkable without a lockdown. And being confined to quarters has forced dramatic changes in our work and living habits, not all of them negative.

This ordeal has had a heavy impact and we could all do with reminders of positive thinking. Here are a few of the good things that might come out of COVID-19.

Social housing
The Victorian government has committed $58 million to build 168 new units and upgrade 23,000 existing apartments to tackle the state’s 80,000-strong social housing waiting list. The building blitz is aimed at providing jobs and economic stimulus, but social welfare experts are lauding the effect it will have on homelessness.

“It is a really smart thing to do to get tradespeople to work, assist the construction industry, as well as the amazing social good of being able to house people who are homeless much more quickly,” Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith told The Age.

A further $125 million will aim to improve housing options for Aboriginal people and women and children fleeing family violence.

With public transport out of favour due to social distancing concerns, there are fears of gridlock on the roads. A recent survey from Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies found the number of people who thought travelling by car was the safest form of transport had grown by 84 per cent.

But cycling has experienced an “unprecedented surge in popularity” during lockdown, with a 270 per cent increase on Melbourne’s key bike paths and a 50 per cent rise in Sydney’s west.

Cycling advocate Stephen Hodge says there’s now a “perfect storm of opportunity” to reshape Australian cities by making our roads more bike friendly, thereby easing road congestion and bringing massive benefits to public health and the environment.

Already Melbourne’s city council has said it will create 12km of temporary bike lanes, and in New South Wales Transport Minister Rob Stokes has announced councils can apply for grants of up to $100,000 for the same purpose.

KPMG Economics & Tax Centre partner Grant Wardell-Johnson supports a rethink of childcare subsidies.

“Now is the time to look at this with a (blank) sheet of paper,” he said, also raising concerns women’s participation in the workforce could decline without an overhaul of childcare costs.

“We have an opportunity for a long-term productivity boost now. It’s incredibly important that we deal with this structurally.”

Grattan Institute budget policy and institutional reform program director Danielle Wood agrees.

“There’s a real opportunity here to introduce some bigger reforms. Pre-COVID, the out of pocket costs for childcare were really high by international standards,” she told The Age.

“This was a disincentive for secondary income earners, mainly women, to take on more hours. There’s an opportunity to fix up some of these issues and it could be a really good story for the economic recovery.”

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian says the national cabinet forum of state premiers and Prime Minister Scott Morrison operating during the COVID-19 crisis has shown how to fix the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

“Our federation is ripe for economic reform – our federation hasn’t changed in decades, assumes all the states have the same population, economic diversity, which we don’t. This process has really highlighted that,” Ms Berejiklian said.

“The national cabinet has demonstrated what can be achieved.

“To be frank, COAG can sometimes be very clumsy, can be very bureaucratic and full of red tape, and I think the national cabinet has really empowered us as leaders to take things forward in a considered but timely way, without being bogged down.”

A new report from consultancy SGS Economics and Planning for the Committee for Melbourne lobby group suggests a co-ordinated economic corridor, stretching from Geelong in Victoria to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, would deliver a $268 billion lift to gross domestic product by 2050.

It says integrating planning of land use, transportation and infrastructure development would deliver “extensive economic and social benefits”.

Measuring success
Jun-E Tan from the Association for Progressive Communications says using gross domestic product (GDP) to measure if a country is doing well is simplistic and misleading. “That number does not differentiate between ‘good’ economic activities (money spent on education, health, etc.) and ‘bad’ (criminal activity, deforestation, etc.); its derivative, the GDP per capita, also does not take into account income inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

“For the longest time, advocates of sustainable development have asked policy makers to focus on indicators that look at the quality of life, and not quantity. Now would be a good time to double up the efforts on that.”

If some of the workers who have been forced to stay home during the crisis choose to do so after social restrictions are lifted, there could be a significant impact on transport congestion and pollution.

Individually, it saves time and money to work from home. We can become more productive and relaxed with a stressful commute subtracted from our life. Fewer meetings and more time with family are also by-products of an escalation of working from home.

“Changes in working habits may also encourage employers to switch from outdated business models that are over-reliant on face-to-face meetings and fixed working hours,” says Jun-E Tan.

National parks and tourism
Nick Sawyer, president of Tasmania’s National Parks Association, believes the pandemic offers a “heaven-sent opportunity to rethink the whole approach” to Australia’s parks.

Mr Sawyer says popular attractions need smarter crowd management rather than bigger car parks. And he suggests stimulus funding target lesser-known attractions.

“There’s a huge maintenance backlog of existing facilities,” he said.

“In a lot of our parks, the facilities in the remote areas are getting terribly run down.”

Tourism Australia is also set to highlight hidden local gems as Australians unable or unwilling to go overseas turn to their backyard.

“We really are looking to our domestic market to get our industry back on their feet again,” managing director Phillipa Harrison told the ABC.

“We probably will see for a little while people wanting to control their own environment a little more, so we do expect to see people staying a little closer to home and taking their own transport.”

She expects interest in “new ways of travelling”.

“There has been a rising interest in sustainability and making sure you leave a light footprint when you travel,” she said.

“We think this is going to accelerate people’s desire to travel more sustainably.”

The industry group will encourage Australians to visit friends and family first, then broaden their horizons.

“We are going to be promoting some really great road trips you can do either intrastate or interstate, and also some great epic national road trips.”

Our animal friends
“The lessons learnt from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species,” says Charles Foster, Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford.

And that may not be the only benefit for other species.

“China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.”

What positives do you see coming out of the coronavirus crisis?

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