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COVID-19 And Australia’s Class Divide

By Anna Eames

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We shy away from talking about class in Australia. And yet it is there. Lurking in workplaces, in media, and in social interactions. I heard someone say last week that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate based on social class. This isn’t the whole story. 

There is class division amidst the global pandemic.

You’ve seen the images of people driven by fear and uncertainty panic shopping (groceries, medicines and now alcohol!). These are individualist approaches. This disadvantages people on low incomes; people relying on public transport who can only buy what they can carry; people who are frail or disabled who struggle to get to the shops regularly;  and those people who chose not to panic buy. Empty shelves do not only affect the disadvantaged, but the impacts may be felt by them more strongly. If you can’t get ingredients for a meal from the supermarket, you can order restaurant takeaway and still get a good nutritious meal. If you can afford it. This is an impact of social class. 

It’s not only in buying groceries and medicine that there is social disparity.

Many organisations are asking or mandating that their employees work from home. Working from home is already the norm for some. But it can take a while under optimal circumstances to get used to working from home. Even when you have the time, the physical space and all the required equipment, it takes time to adjust. Under current circumstances it can be overwhelming. Not everyone has the space at home to dedicate to work, nor the required equipment and not all workplaces are able to quickly afford unbudgeted remote access equipment. This can be an impact of social class.

Many jobs are not possible to do from home. Truck drivers, medical staff, cleaners, supermarket cashiers, and schoolteachers, are all either challenging or impossible to do from a distance. Some of these roles (other than medical professionals) are those that are least socially valued in usual circumstances. This is evident by the pay and working conditions in these positions. However, these are clearly essential roles. And without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) being provided to these workers, we are indicating that some of these lives are dispensable. This is discrimination of social class.

There are impacts that are beyond social class.

COVID-19 doesn’t check your bank balance before infecting you. And the attitude with which we face challenge is dictated by character, not by class. There has been a tsunami of shock reverberating across Australia as many organisations adapt to evolving physical distancing measures, close doors and let go of staff. For many, the loss of income will have immediate impact. Some will access their financial reserves and the impact will be delayed. For others, with the economic support packages of government, their lifestyle will be affected, but they will not be in hardship.

Some are moving from distress and reaction and are now sharing their silver linings of how much more time people have to cook and craft and reconnect with their families. This is true for some. But will not be the experience for all. For some, home is not a safe place to be stuck. For some home is already under immense pressure of too many people living in too small a space with limited resources to meet everyone’s needs. 

Resilience is not dependent on class.

Resilience can be developed in times of challenge. Those whose lifestyle will be dramatically affected may be struggling to see how they will get through this. They don’t need to look back to the days of their grandparents during The Great Depression, or war times, to learn how to cope. Those who are already living on the poverty line, or who remember the days when they did, already have long tested skills to adapt their lifestyle and menu to limited resources. The impacts may shake up your world, but your new norm may be what someone else is already living. You might learn a thing or two about coping from them.

And kindness and compassion transcends class. Growing up in poverty I observed those who had nothing, often shared the most. My Granny lived in poverty for all her life, yet always shared with someone else in need. Class doesn’t dictate kindness. Behaviour can be contagious – think of panic buying. Share examples of acts of kindness to encourage others to do the same to spread a pandemic of connection and compassion. Significant research indicates that when we receive support, we do better at facing challenges. However, the support we provide to others has a bigger impact on how we cope, than the support we receive. This is an opportunity to connect, show kindness, compassion and support our own mental wellbeing while we’re supporting others. Be classy. Be kind.


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