Re-Uniting WA

Amanda Hunt, CEO of Uniting WA, shares her hopes for a socially inclusive post-COVID world.

In the last few months we stopped visiting friends and family, eliminated social interactions, radically adapted our work practices and made drastic changes to our lives as we raced to avoid the impending disaster. We understood that social distancing would save lives, and we watched with joy and dismay that crisis brings out the best and the worst in us.

We learned that what we really value is relationships.

We found new ways to care for and reach out to each other. We found proof that families, neighbourhoods and communities are as stable and cohesive as we always hoped and dreamed they would be. Who wasn’t moved by the dawn curbside vigils on Anzac Day?

This pandemic has exposed how interconnected and interdependent we really are. But the sense of disorientation has been compounded for those who were always socially isolated.

Rising inequality has never been more evident than for people with no place to ‘stay home’.

The vast majority of the estimated 1 000 people who sleep rough in Perth every night have had nowhere to be safe. And the increase in domestic violence has left women and children unsafe in their own homes.

So how do we prevent this from happening in the future, and ensure that we emerge on the other side of this crisis inspired by people, and confronting injustice? How to do we re-write a narrative in which all people are included in society?

Because the next wave is not simply the risk of re-infection, it is the risk of moving into a welfare crisis.

While social and economic inequality is influenced by the tax system, welfare systems and government policy, it’s our society’s attitude that can make the most difference. It’s not just governments who need to take responsibility for creating the supports that will lead us to recovery. It’s up to all of us.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in our community who already live with complex challenges such as mental illness, disability and homelessness, and far too many children experiencing vulnerability who rely on community services for support.

Thought leader Margaret Wheatley says that we can “create possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil… we can create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community and love to be evoked.”

It is this possibility that can drive us to resolve the disconnection of those who were previously left out.

Together, we can co-create a community where people are not blamed for their experience of hardship or vulnerability. We can bust the myths and stereotypes about people doing it tough. We can realise that homelessness really can happen to anyone.

Our new-found ability to work from home means that we have no excuse not to include people with disability, who have historically been ‘locked out’ of employment or meaningful participation in community life by discrimination or the lack of universal physical accessibility.

The World Health Organisation has recently warned that the mental health effects of the pandemic could exceed the consequences of the virus itself. Lifeline already answers 131 calls a day, and by all accounts the pandemic has accelerated a pre-existing mental health crisis.

In ‘Australia Re-imagined’, Hugh Mackay called out the anxiety pandemic that is already ravaging our community, and suggested that this can be relieved by focusing on someone else’s needs – being compassionate is the great antidote to anxiety. People who are marginalised and already feel socially isolated are at a greater risk of depression and despair. When we offer friendship and engage with people in a meaningful way, the connections we build can literally save lives as well as the economy.

The economic effects of the crisis cannot be underestimated. Looking at unemployment alone – which the Gratton Institute predicts will rise to 14-26% – we will see much greater numbers of people in financial and housing stress.

While government recognised the need for an immediate welfare safety net at the start of the pandemic, we risk seeing a new wave of long term disadvantaged individuals and families when this is removed. For years, the social sector has urged the Federal Government to acknowledge that income support payments are inadequate for people to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. That it takes a crisis to act on this, albeit temporarily, is a bitter pill to swallow for those who value a just society and have long called for income support that is above the poverty line.

Thinking of people as ‘others’ can exacerbate social exclusion. So instead of giving labels like – ‘homeless’, or ‘refugee’ – we can take this opportunity to shift our thinking from the ‘needs’ of people to the ‘gifts and contributions’ of people, creating positive identities. People with severe disability or mental illness are poets, lawyers, and scientists. A hotel in Perth had VIP guests who were previously ‘homeless’.

By focusing on the strengths and capabilities of people, we have the opportunity to reset, to reinvent, and to recreate our community values of connection and care.

If we are going to emerge stronger, healthier and more resilient, we have to uncover the ‘common good’ that can address the inequality in our community. Things that move people out of hardship and vulnerability are relationships, belief in a future, employment, and education.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that disadvantage is an issue for our entire community and that loneliness and isolation can be destructive.

To create change together we can do some really simple things:

We can shift our conversations from the problems of community to the strengths, assets and possibilities. By uniting, we are committing to creating a future that is distinct from the past.

We can harness the entrepreneurial spirit of our young people; ignite their imaginations by giving them opportunities in new and different types of employment instead of leaving them feeling powerless and unable to re-enter the job market.

We can choose not to sustain imbalance, with surplus on one side and scarcity on the other, which happens when we are disconnected from what’s important. In bridging the divide between the have and have-nots, we are intentionally bringing in those who live on the margins.

We can engage in practical support for people experiencing hardship, busting the myths about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor by truly hearing, without judgement, the stories of those who are struggling, and relating to them as neighbours and fellow contributing citizens.

We can reconnect our kinship to Country – follow the lead of Aboriginal people whose connection with nature and our precious land kept us sustained and strong for tens of thousands of years.

Our social rebuild will co-create a version of Western Australia where no-one is left behind or locked out of living a ‘good life’ that we all cherish. We can forge a society in which no-one is an outsider, and ensure that each person is afforded rights as a contributing citizen.

Uniting through shared joy, passion and beliefs we can rally in hope and build strong and solid social bonds.

We can be proud to live in a community where all West Australians are connected and belong.

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