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Post COVID-19 in rural, regional and remote Australia



The social and economic impacts of drought, fires and now COVID-19 will have profound impacts in parts of regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia. The economic shock of natural disasters or events like the unprecedented COVID-19 health crisis create impacts that are immediate — and that is to be expected. What is often not expected or well understood is the effect of ‘lag time’ aftershocks in our regions following economic crisis. Lag time is an attribute of some RRR communities and is most often seen in economically path dependent and single industry communities, many of which of course, comprise RRR Australia.

Highway in Whyalla (Brian Yap/Flickr)

When a crisis hits in these communities, there is often a period where workers have received payouts and redundancies, or other special forms of support. The effects of those payouts and redundancies can act almost as a stimulus in local economies because the workforce is quite concentrated in a single geographical location. A good example is the Upper Spencer Gulf, in South Australia which felt the impact a few years ago of the ‘perfect storm’ of mining downturn, the misfortunes of (then) OneSteel and the closure of the Playford and Northern power stations. Anecdotally, car dealers in one local community said they experienced their best six months ever, immediately following the closures as payouts and redundancies were spent locally.

Research undertaken by the Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise indicates that this ‘bubble effect’ of local spend can be quite significant. The research showed that for every dollar invested in local services another 2.3 more dollars are generated. While this effect was observed in a small study and the single context of social services, one could imagine that the same effect could be expected in other domains, and anecdotal evidence would at least suggest this.

In part, it creates a time-limited buffer that that can mitigate immediate negative impacts and that is positive. However, this lag time can create false hopes and expectations for the future. Indeed, even in this current crisis, we are seeing the effect to some extent. The immediate cash injection of stimulus funds into our communities is welcomed and making a difference. There are reports nationally that the increase in the sale of freezers has been huge during COVID-19 as people sought to stockpile otherwise perishable foods. And panic buying, with all its inherent problems of leaving the most vulnerable more vulnerable, has had some effect on the local economic bubble through its local spend. In the local electrical stores across my region for example, it is currently impossible to buy a webcam as more of us move to work from home. Much of that initial spend is supporting local economies, despite some economic leakage to supermarkets and national chains.

There are deep concerns however, that beyond the initial spending, and beyond the government-initiated stimulus packages, such lag times will create a false sense of security. Social services providers like Centacare Catholic Country SA saw the pain bite harder and more deeply in the second six months after the events that precipitated the downturn in the Upper Spencer Gulf. House prices fell and we saw significant depopulation, particularly in Whyalla, as those who were economically able and with transferable skills moved on.

The exodus of a workforce created a hollowing out of the community and for those who couldn’t leave, the hard times bit harder. There was a cohort of people who couldn’t leave because of debt. Some had purchased investment properties and with the exodus of a skilled workforce, were left with properties they couldn’t sell or rent. Indeed, during this period, our financial counsellors and family dispute resolution practitioners saw much more debt than equity in property settlements.


'The social and economic, particularly in RRR communities, do not operate in isolation. They are connected, interwoven and interdependent. Impacts in one domain will also be evident in the other.'


At the community level, it is wonderfully heartening to see and experience kindness and care and beautiful acts of shared giving during this pandemic. But it would be awful to lose that in the reality-bite of the COVID-19 aftermath. When others are on a path to recovery, the lag time effect in RRR communities may create a level of negativity and hopelessness that builds and is difficult to counteract, and this is intensified in the dense social networks of smaller communities, in just the same way that giving and kindness are spread.

In our RRR communities, the many aspects of community social and economic wellbeing, relationships and lifestyles that are such positive features will be impacted by the aftermath of COVID-19. School enrolments; service and retail businesses; community volunteers; and sporting and social club memberships will likely continue to decline beyond the immediate impacts, should we see significant depopulation. Decreased disposable income in the remaining population leads inevitably, to a decrease in community resilience and — and worse — to a situation where there is little capacity in the residual workforce to respond to new economic opportunities if they present.

Of great concern, for example, is the potential decimation of our disability workforce in RRR Australia. In the context of the existing thin NDIS market in many parts of RRR Australia, the pandemic has created an immediate decrease in demand for services, as people undertake social distancing and implement the other practices enacted to stop the spread of the virus. In some cases, providers have lost up to 80-90 per cent of their income. This has led to stand-downs and decreasing the hours of staff. In a workforce that is already casualised and where sub-contracting is the norm in many RRR communities, we can expect to see lasting impacts on this workforce. Many qualified workers will enventually leave the regions to return to the cities where there is a perceived sense of greater stability. In disciplines which are already quite difficult to attract to country areas, e.g. allied health workers, rebuilding this workforce will be difficult. Indeed, it was already difficult.

A high level of responsiveness, deep understanding of community and engagement practices that are ‘fit for purpose’ are essential to mitigating these challenges. Embeddedness of services in community, understanding how social networks operate and how community decision-making functions are critical components of providing an engaged response to both crisis and its longer-term effects. Programs that can support both individual growth and change will be important, but programs that can help to build community confidence and resilience are equally important in rebuilding a sense of hopefulness in our communities and in counteracting the effects of lag time.

Any of the benefits of increased economic opportunity when recovery begins will be difficult to realise in RRR Australia without significant attention to the twin challenges of social and economic capacity building including workforce development, a rebuilding of community cohesion and a sense of confidence that the robustness of any such opportunities will present longer-term sustainability rather than short-term (and possibly cyclic) economic gains. So it is imperative that both social and economic challenges are addressed simultaneously to best support our RRR communities to address recovery, and both need to be the focus of policymakers.

The social and economic, particularly in RRR communities, do not operate in isolation. They are connected, interwoven and interdependent. Impacts in one domain will also be evident in the other. The links between disadvantage and the social determinants of health have strong implications for economic policy — particularly in how this might be enacted in RRR Australia. Recent research undertaken to examine persistent disadvantage in Australia found that federal electorates in regional Australia are well below the national disadvantage average. Most of these federal seats are currently held by Members of the National Party. Any post-pandemic adoption of austerity policy is thus likely to have greatest negative impacts in conservative constituencies.

Our policy responses need to be well thought through, and, importantly, those with specialist expertise and experience in RRR Australia need to be included in the discussions and decision-making about the future and how to create it. COVID-19 has wrought havoc and devastation across our world. In combatting it so well in Australia, we have created for ourselves the space and time to think. Now, more than ever, is an opportunity to create lasting change in RRR Australia. When we emerge from the COVID-19 cocoon, let it be with a deep and fully articulated policy commitment to our heartlands.


Jen ClearyDr Jen Cleary is the CEO of Centacare Catholic Country SA, a for purpose agency providing social services across a footprint of some 980,000km2 in regional, rural and remote (RRR) South Australia. Dr Cleary is a human geographer with a special interest in RRR communities, where she is recognised for her expertise and experience in social services, social policy, and community and economic development.  She continues to write and contribute to policy directions in regional, rural and remote Australia through her connection with the Centre for Global Food and Resources at the University of Adelaide, where she holds an adjunct position as Associate Professor. Dr Cleary is also a member of the SEGRA (Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia) National Steering Committee and a member of the TAFESA Board.   

Main image: Highway in Whyalla (Brian Yap/Flickr)


Topic tags: Jen Cleary, rural, regional, remote, Australia, COVID-19, economics



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Existing comments

Thanks to Eureka Street for amplifying Jen Cleary's message from regional and rural Australia, that needs to be heard in Canberra, state capitals and across the country: one size won't fit all as we work to emerge from the COVID-19 world, with 'programs that can help to build community confidence and resilience'

Denis Fitzgerald | 13 May 2020  

Thanks Jen for this timely analysis ... not sufficiently in evidence among fed pollies in recent times. As an active geriatric policy/advocacy volunteer with ANTaR Qld, I have noticed the enthusiastic marketing of the cashless debit card by fed Nat pollies in rural Qld. While there is superficial appeal in implementing this to be a positive aid to addicts and/or financially fractured families, there are several other layers of this matter to be addressed. Do you have any comment on this ?

Wayne Sanderson | 13 May 2020  

The cashless debit card is always going to polarise views. I can only speak from the experience of supporting people on the card in one of the communities in our patch. And it is complicated, with some negative and some positive, but not necessarily intentional consequences. It doesn’t really help with addiction though, because addiction is not fundamentally a financial problem. What we found to be most important, was to have robust and wraparound social service supports to assist people who were on the card. Doing so is critical.

Jen Cleary | 13 May 2020  

I spent most of my life living in mining towns or small country towns, all dependent on one or a few industries; when the mining company down-sized, the town population halved and the workers had to find jobs elsewhere, and losing their long-term friends. This federal government has no ideas on how to change this loss of rural workers- the drain continues. I also have friends who are NDIS providers in country towns, so I understand what you say. The LNP has no interest whatsoever in helping people in distress. Our only chance is to remove them from power.

John Willis | 15 May 2020  

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