For Millie Di Maio, 31, the 2020 pandemic provided an unexpected opportunity to escape the rat race.
At the start of the year, Di Maio was living in Macquarie Park in northern Sydney with her husband and five-year-old twins, travelling to and from the Sydney CBD each day for a demanding job with KPMG. She’d leave home at 7am, then race back in the afternoon to collect her sons from after-school care by 6pm before hustling them through dinner and bed. “It was just jam-packed from start to finish,” she says.
These days Di Maio is the poster woman for two trends wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic: working from home and regional migration. The family sold up and moved to the Southern Tablelands in August.
Australia has had a very different pandemic to the rest of the world, but the social impact is no less profound. We’ve been spared the worst of the health ravages – leaving aside Victoria’s long lockdown and the death toll in that state’s aged care – and a vaccine could be just around the corner, vindicating our decision to be an island fortress. Yet the fallout from this extraordinary year will have deep and lasting effects.
Some people have found silver linings, particularly those who kept jobs and were able to work from a home base. Others, grappling with financial strife, mental health problems and supervising remotely schooled children, have found it just plain tough.
Ian Hickie, co-director health and policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, warns that even if it is highly effective, the vaccine won’t fix everything. “There’s a scarring effect for those who have been psychologically injured and that is ongoing – it doesn’t go away just because the contagion is under control,” he says.
Most of us have muddled through, spending time at home, finding new hobbies, rediscovering local parks and cafes, buying and trying to stay socially connected online. Along the way, our communal response has revealed plenty about our national character, for better or worse.
Catalyst for change
Di Maio doesn’t see herself ever returning to the city. KPMG has instituted a policy – not just for the pandemic but permanently – that lets staff work from home, the office or a client’s site.
After spending five months with her parents in the Snowy Mountains when the pandemic began, Di Maio and her husband bought a property near Braidwood, an hour from Canberra.
Now she gets up and logs on while her children potter around and eat breakfast. They catch the school bus from the end of the driveway, and Di Maio works with a view of lambs in the paddocks outside her window. She still considers herself “a career woman” but is relishing the change of scene and pace. (Reflecting another pandemic trend, the family also bought a puppy.)
It’s become a common refrain that lockdown has prompted many to think about what they really want from life. However that doesn’t necessarily involve going anywhere. David Landau from Rose Bay runs a recruitment business that was going gangbusters at the start of the year and then “fell off a cliff” when the coronavirus hit. Working from home with reduced hours, he took up hobbies that had been languishing on his bucket list. He had surf ski lessons, did a barista qualification, passed his boat licence and started joint guitar lessons with his seven-year-old son.
“There’s always an excuse for not doing something, but it’s just, more, what are you going to prioritise in your life?” he says. Landau’s business weathered the storm and he’s working as hard as ever, but plans to keep working a couple of days from home.
It’s clear not everyone will retain the right to work remotely when offices start to open back up and a push to revitalise the ailing central business districts gets underway.
In NSW the Public Health Order requiring employers to allow employees to work from home where practical expires on December 14. Already some companies, including big banks and government departments, have started asking staff to come back to the office, at least a few days a week.
Marian Baird, professor of employment and gender relations at the University of Sydney warns the pendulum will swing back the other way. “You should never underestimate the force of convention or the status quo,” she says. But working from home will certainly be more commonplace.
NRMA chief executive Rohan Lund does not believe his 500-600 call centre staff will ever return to an office. He says those workers have been just as productive, more engaged and more willing to work night shifts while home-based.
“I look back at all the meetings, the plans about how to do it and what it would cost and being afraid to have people working from home, then suddenly it was happening and it just seemed to work, and it seemed to work for most companies,” Lund says. Even when people start drifting back to the office, it’s unlikely to look like 9 to 5 any more. “You will see flexible hours,” he says. “That’s been the promised land by employers for so long, but I think it’s unavoidable now.”
Yet for many it hasn’t been an option. For the hundreds of thousands of workers in occupations such as health care, food delivery, warehousing, logistics and factory work, particularly in Sydney’s west, “the work-life balance didn’t change” says Andy Marks, assistant vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University. “In fact it became more complicated during the lockdown phase, with school closures.”
Di Maio is one of more than 47,000 Sydneysiders who moved out of the city in the first half of the year, according to ABS figures released in November. The net loss for Sydney – adjusting for people who moved to the city – was 14,000, with 8000 of those moving to other parts of NSW.
But social researcher Rebecca Huntley expects there to be a “boomerang effect”. “Some of those people will return – they’ll change jobs and then they’ll realise that the job wants them to be more in Sydney or we’ll be able to telecommute less,” she says.
There’s also been a shift from inner-city areas to the suburbs as the pandemic has changed the way people think about their homes and some renters have been able to score better deals. Huntley’s research reveals lockdowns and prolonged hours in the house have made both homeowners and renters generally less satisfied with lack of indoor and outdoor space, perhaps not having an appropriate place to work or study or sufficient in-home storage. Most say they’ll prioritise being near green space when they buy or move to their next home.
While there has been hand-wringing over the fate of the CBD, the pandemic has been a boon for local communities. The NRMA’s Lund says the data indicates local cafes are booming, up 90 per cent year-on-year in some cases. “We’re spending much more time eating, dining, playing and pursuing recreation in our local areas – that’s habit-forming and I think it will continue,” he says.
The role of technology
Technology played an enormous role in the way people adapted to the social restrictions imposed by the pandemic. For many, so much moved online – work, school, shopping, yoga, grandparents reading bedtime stories to grandchildren over Zoom, remote catch-ups with friends for drinks.
“Technology has been a godsend during this crisis,” Hickie says. “However, I think people have certainly reached the stage where 10 hours a day on Zoom is not a functional system.”
People have become more aware of its downsides – interference with physical activity, sleep cycles, and attention spans. It’s one of the reasons why old forms of entertainment have gained a new lease of life. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that during lockdown, half the respondents in a national survey were watching more TV and movies but almost as many were spending more time baking, doing art and craft, playing games and doing puzzles.
Sales of jigsaw puzzles soared, people started baking sourdough bread, and there was a mini-building boom of cubby houses.
Perhaps the most striking shift has been our embrace of e-commerce as online retail sales have increased by 80 per cent since the start of the year, according to the Reserve Bank.
That’s triggered a boom in delivery services, the stand-out being home food delivery via phone apps. A spending tracker developed by analytics firm AlphaBeta, a part of Accenture, and credit bureau illion, showed national spending on food delivery in the first week of November was about 280 per cent higher than the pre-pandemic norm.
Economist Andrew Charlton says the pandemic has made our lifestyles more “digitally driven”, from streamed exercise classes to telemedicine.
Netflix alone added 16 million paid-up viewers around the world through the first three months of the year. The effective shutdown of cinemas meant Disney Plus released its live-action version of Mulan at a special price on its service, in what may be a new model for movie releases.
Huntley says it will be interesting to see what happens when live theatre and music concerts start again in earnest. People might feel they have “done Netflix and they’re over it” and again want the vibe of a live audience, she says.
Significantly, for all its benefits, the technology boom has also highlighted a “digital divide”, something governments don’t yet have a comprehensive policy response for. Relationships Australia CEO Elisabeth Shaw says “We’ve heard stories of families having to go to McDonald’s to use the internet café because they [were too poor] to have secure or good enough broadband”.
For those struggling with job losses, physical isolation, or trapped in unhappy family situations 2020 has been a horrendous year.
By October, more than 960,000 people were unemployed, nearly 240,000 more than the same time a year ago. Young people have borne the brunt of that, with many twentysomethings moving back in with their parents or couch surfing.
The Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods has found psychological distress among 18- to 24-year olds is now worse than earlier in the year, and significantly worse than before the pandemic. Unicef has done similar research for the under-18 crowd, with successive surveys showing teenagers have been under tremendous strain.
Hickie says there might be an expectation that the year 12 class of 2020 has made it through past the most difficult time. But just as many challenges for this cohort lie ahead. “School actually provides the scaffolding and the structure of what you do every day,” Hickie says. “The great risk of the class of 2020 is what happens next – what do they do?”
Among negative indicators, there’ve been record numbers of calls to crisis lines, waiting lists for rehab clinics, increased use of alcohol for some people (though others are drinking less) and a boom in online gambling. Weekly betting doubled its pre-crisis level as people got on the punt from their lounge rooms and new home offices.
Support for social restrictions was high but that didn’t make them easy – especially in Melbourne which locked down harder and longer than anywhere else in the country.
For many, online connection has not been an adequate substitute for company in physical form. “Suddenly you’re just doing the same thing over and over each day, like Groundhog Day,” says West Footscray woman Melissa Griffiths, who has struggled with the isolation.
Relationships under strain
Physical health and relationships have also suffered. The ABS survey on household impacts found the number of people struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle or manage health concerns had doubled from June to October and the number of people experiencing relationship difficulties had trebled.
Working from home has not been as big a boon for gender equity as many predicted. “Women have really borne the brunt of the flexibility at home and the care and the domestic load,” says Baird.
Many services have reported a surge in inquiries about separation advice. In a May survey by Relationships Australia, 42 per cent said isolation had negatively impacted their partner relationship. Shaw says while many families have enjoyed spending time together, other couples have seen their partners in a new, not always more favourable, light.
For those who were already in relationship trouble before the pandemic, things have probably gotten worse. “They might have far more examples of why the relationship is not sustainable but they may not yet have separated because of circumstances,” Shaw says.
“Economically it’s very hard to separate at best of times but if one person has lost their job or has eroded mental health issues, then the challenge of how to separate safely and well is amplified.” She says the risk of domestic violence and elder abuse has been heightened during the pandemic, with people under strain from life circumstances and spending more time at home.
Online counselling is too big a risk for some kinds of services, when there’s no clear picture of who in the household might be listening nearby. “We have been particularly cautious around child protection and family safety services,” Shaw says.
In April, Hickie predicted that if Australia got the social response right to this crisis, it would leave us a more cohesive and resilient society better able to face future challenges. So how did we do?
On the one hand, there was the toilet paper fiasco, with people brawling in the supermarket aisles, and widespread stockpiling. The prime minister dubbed it “one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis”.
Yet plenty were willing to extend a helping hand too. Some suburbs and streets self-organised on Facebook and WhatsApp to help shop for the elderly, and to stock free community pantries formed by groups such as Peninsula Caring in Balmain and Rozelle, or Darlo Darlings in Darlinghurst.
Despite a few protests over lockdowns, Australians on the whole got behind the need for collective action. NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant says she’s been delighted with the public response.
Andy Marks observes wryly that “there’s this mythology around our larrikin culture, we supposedly oppose authority. That’s been obliterated. The level of compliance with public health orders reflects very well on the electorate, their ability to understand these issues if they’re explained.”
However, Hickie says he’s found the “over-emphasis on law and order very un-Australian” and is concerned that social cohesion could be damaged by a retreat into state and regional tribalism.
Huntley predicts one lasting social change will be a greater emphasis in future on health and hygiene. “I can’t imagine not having a lot of hand sanitiser in my life in a way that just never ever existed before – it becomes like a nervous tic,” she says.
You can read other stories in our series here.
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Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.