State’s recovery from COVID needs to protect Victoria’s most vulnerable communities

November 19, 2020 |

Victoria needs to ensure all Victorians are supported as it recovers from the impact of COVID-19, especially those who faced greater economic, cultural or social injustice before the pandemic, the Federation of Community Legal Centres has warned.

Serina McDuff, Federation of Community Legal Centres CEO, said the Victorian Government had implemented a range of positive measures to support Victorians through COVID-19.

However she said more will need to be done as the effects of the pandemic will continue for the longer term.

“It was fantastic to see this week’s $5.3 billion social housing announcement. We know that having a secure home is vital for people’s mental, physical and social wellbeing,” she said.

“There is still more that we can do to make sure no one is left behind as we start to restore our state. We need to protect Victorians from the ongoing impact of this pandemic – and that means all Victorians.” 

The Federation has set out 43 recommendations across six key areas of concern to help ensure no one gets left behind as the state rebuilds following the pandemic.

In the plan A Just and Equitable COVID Recovery, the Federation recommends the government:

  • expand and entrench vital protections for financially disadvantaged Victorians
  • improve the fairness and resilience of our housing systems
  • make sure no workers are left behind in Victoria’s economic rebuild
  • embed access to justice for all victim-survivors of family violence and build on best practice legal supports in measures to respond to the ‘shadow pandemic’
  • protect the welfare and human rights of people in prison throughout the COVID recovery, and move towards a safer prison system
  • protect children and young people impacted by the crisis and ensure they are kept out of the justice system

In October, a report from the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne found more than 20% of people were feeling financially stressed, and were having difficulties paying for essentials. People experiencing financial troubles are vulnerable in multiple ways: from exploitation by dodgy ‘payday loan’ companies, to the compounding effects of rental arrears, utilities bills, mortgage stress and health expenses, to adverse action in relation to unpaid fines and escalating infringements. Sustained financial difficulty can lead to poorer outcomes across many aspects of people’s lives, from educational outcomes for children through to chronic physical and mental ill-health.

Beyond the financial impact of the pandemic we know acts of family violence have increased, and the isolation has placed them victim-survivors at greater risk.

“The ‘shadow pandemic of family violence has been experienced around the world and Victoria has been no different. Greater financial, employment, health and housing insecurity and social isolation measures make it easier for perpetrators to control and harm victim-survivors.

“We need to ensure people can access legal support alongside other essential services as early as possible. Early help from a community lawyer means victim-survivors can understand their options, receive legal protections and prevent financial abuse from escalating.

Ms McDuff said that when a disaster swept through a community there was often a lag on legal, community and social needs.

“For some people, problems that had been postponed by COVID responses at State or Federal levels, will return before those people can actually recover. Things such as mortgage or rent payments returning to pre-COVID levels leading to the risk of evictions as the moratorium ends.

“For others, continuing and worsening financial hardship through the slow economic rebuild may create new legal problems, such as falling foul of predatory lending practices, or struggling to pay infringements or utilities bills.

“We need to protect Victorians against predatory behaviours that target people experiencing hardship and change parts of our legal and administrative systems that will end up entrenching hardship within our community.

“And it is vital that those experiencing or at risk of family violence have access to support structures, including improved access to legal help connected to other social services.”

Ms McDuff warned that young people and people in or at-risk of entering the prison system had been among those most heavily impacted during the pandemic, but who were often forgotten or overlooked.

“The serious health risks posed by COVID-19, and its potential to spread through the prison system, meant many highly restrictive measures were implemented. While this helped avoid the spread, we need to ensure the use of these new powers does not unacceptably infringe on the human rights of people in prison and remains proportional to the changing risks,” she said.

“Equally, the government introduced some really innovative uses of technology to maintain connections between the prison population and their loved ones and legal assistance, these should be retained.”

Ms McDuff said that as Victoria begins to recover from the health crisis and moves to an economic and social recovery phase, governments needed to continue with its existing support systems while building in new mechanisms to protect those at risk of falling through the cracks.

You can find a full copy of the report here.

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