The legal, social and economic impacts of our government’s response to COVID-19 are wide ranging. Already, the average household is facing a loss of income, changes to work and family roles, mounting debts, housing stress and uncertainty over how long this will last. Beyond this, public health measures intended to slow the transmission of COVID-19 have the potential to detrimentally impact some groups who are already marginalised from social services.
Amidst all this, as state governments implement varied social distancing measures, there is mounting confusion and uncertainty around what exactly people are and are not allowed to do. Legal services have quickly transitioned to remote service provision in order to maintain continuity of services for those most disadvantaged. Many legal services are also banding together to provide coordinated responses to address emerging needs.
- Access to legal information and advice
One of the main priorities for legal services is to provide reliable, up-to-date information to the community in a way they can understand so that people don’t unintentionally do the wrong thing.
Legal assistance services like Community Legal Centres and Legal Aid are working closely with social services on the ground to reach members of the community who are vulnerable and might not be able to ‘zoom in’ or phone a lawyer.
Larger commercial firms are providing pro bono advice to various not-for-profit organisations, Indigenous corporations and charities on employment law, governance and business continuity plans.
- Broader social and economic reforms
The legal profession more broadly – through member associations, such as the Law Society of New South Wales, Bar Association of New South Wales, Pro Bono Counsel, Community Legal Centres of NSW, and legal academics, are calling on the state and federal governments to implement broader measures to prevent legal, social and economic impacts from escalating. For example, by asking the federal government to make permanent the increases to Centrelink payments to address rising rates of poverty and inequality; to call on utilities companies to suspend debt collection while the crisis continues; and to release non-violent prisoners to avert the pressure and exposure of risk to our already overcrowded prisons.
- Those most impacted by social isolation
While few would dispute the value in social isolation measures as a way to slow the rate of transmission of COVID-19, there are some groups who face added risks to their health and safety as a result of being forced to stay home.
The NSW Public Health Order directing people to stay at home specifically recognises an exception for a person who is homeless, but this is not enough. Many people who sleep rough or have insecure housing are reliant on public facilities and direct service provision for hygiene, food and shelter. The NSW government has provided an increase in temporary accommodation for those most at risk who may be required to self-isolate, but broader and longer-term measures are required, particularly as the number of people losing income and homes is expected to rise.
For those who already experience family and domestic violence, staying at home could mean added danger, even death. While obtaining support services is a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home, most services have had to move supports online and to isolate clients within emergency housing, so for some victims leaving home is not an option. Just as rates of family and domestic violence tend to spike after a natural disaster has hit, so too will we expect to see a greater demand for support services for victims leaving home once the social gathering restrictions are lifted.
People with disabilities, including those who rely on formal and informal supports under the National Disability Insurance Scheme, are disproportionately affected as existing health conditions may make them more vulnerable to contracting infection or more vulnerable to suffering poorer mental health due to social isolation and services having to cut social activities. Other groups, such as sex workers whose employment has ceased, and migrants who are restricted from obtaining alternative employment or Centrelink support due to visa categorisations, may turn to riskier ways to earn income where their work health and safety is at risk.
On social media, messages of positivity have abounded with the #allinthistogether. If a family member of friend is facing debt, work, service disruptions or mental distress, put them in touch with a service that can help. We are all in this together, and will do what we can to minimise the impacts on the most vulnerable members of our community.