A Fairer Start

Visions of a brighter future post COVID-19

Dr Caroline Briggs provided Welcome to Country and asked that we see the power of diversity acknowledged through our First Nations people. Dr Caroline who is known as Aunty Caroline also expressed the importance of honouring and respecting our history in every aspect.

Professor Calum Drummond (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation and Vice President, RMIT) provided some background: 6 years ago RMIT renewed its research constructs  with the aim to produce research that was impactful, world standard and meaningful beyond the realm of academia. The result of this was the Restart Initiative with five key domains: a greener start, a healthier start, a digital start, a better work start, and the focus of the Roundtable session: a fairer start.

Kristen A Hilton (DJCS) – Commissioner of Victoria Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission – discussed how COVID-19 has tested the basis of human rights. Kristen acknowledged that human rights have never been as openly discussed as they have during this pandemic. However, even though there is a need for our country to come together in unity, we are coming together on unequal pathways. Kristen spoke in-depth about gender inequality and racism, which are only some of the human rights issues that have amplified because of this pandemic. The inequality affecting women – who throughout this pandemic have been over-represented in the essential worker roles and being more exposed to the virus – needs to be addressed. Kristen highlighted the hope that historically we have seen pandemics breaking with past ways of living and created a new path. This hope is to rebuild as a community and country with a human rights approach as its recovery.  

Bevan Warner (CEO, Launch Housing) discussed how this is an opportunity to address some of the root causes of inequality, framing the discussion around social housing and homelessness. Victoria spends less than half of the average amount on housing than the other states do, despite no serious contest about the long-term economic cost-benefit of investing in social housing. If we know the way to end homelessness is more housing and more support, why aren’t we doing just that? Bevan states that the problem is within the way that we accept and rationalise homelessness as ‘inevitable’, and that politicking entrenches these ideological positions further. Bevan believes that campaigning for a better start in this domain is campaigning for greater investment in social housing, which not only offers many social benefits but would benefit the economy as well.

Katherine Ellis (CEO Youth Council Victoria) highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our young people. Katherine noted how young people are not given the same level of understanding during these difficult times. Youth culture has had to be drastically altered with lifetime events such as formals, graduations and milestone birthdays all having to be ceased. Also, with their coping mechanisms such as socialization and hobbies that have had to change, there needs to be awareness to show support to young people and their circumstances. Katherine explained how moving forward we need to stop viewing our youths as a problem and realise they are an essential part of our society and need to be respected as such. 

Bianca Brijnath (National Aging Research Institute) highlighted the impact that COVID-19 has had on racism within the community. Bianca reminded us that 1/3 of older Australians are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD), and are a large proportion of the workforce is as well.  Bianca spoke of the great impact that COVID reporting in the media has had on exacerbating racism, as well as the struggle many CALD Australians are experiencing in trying to keep up with ever-changing information in extremely complex systems. Bianca believes that a fair start means recognising that mental health is fundamental to our enjoyment of life and wellbeing across all communities and age groups. Bianca stresses that citizenship, inclusion, and access to services are key, and stresses that this is our chance to think differently. 

The panellists all agreed that COVID-19, as well as the political and media response to it exacerbated pre-existing social inequalities.  The key take-home message from the panellists was that human rights and empathy are key to a fairer start.

Written by Kate Hepworth and Matthew Ledwich, Social Work Placement Students.