Australians 'distressed but resilient' amid pandemic – studies


The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered how Australians conduct their daily lives. The rate at which the virus spreads have pushed the government to hastily impose lockdown measures to curb transmission, leaving many ill-prepared for the impact.

In light of the crisis, ACT universities Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Canberra have published separate studies on how the pandemic has affected the wellbeing of Australians.

‘Hardship and distress’

ANU’s survey revealed that two-thirds of respondents “feel anxious or worried about their own and other’s safety”. Of these, four-in-10 said they “feel it is either very likely or likely they will be infected with the coronavirus in the next six months.”

The research, titled ‘Hardship, distress, and resilience: The initial impacts of COVID-19 in Australia’, also found out that many Australians were feeling extremely concerned about their job security.

A quarter of employed respondents were worried that they will lose their jobs in the next 12 months, with more than 25% said the likelihood of them being unemployed during the period to be more than 50%.

The study also found out that the country’s employment rate fell from 62% in February to 58.9% in April, displacing about 670,000 workers. 

Professor Matthew Gray, who co-authored the research along with Professor Nicholas Biddle, said: “This is unprecedented in modern Australian economic history.”

Data revealed declines in employment were largest for those aged 18-24 years followed by those for aged 65 years or older.

“If previous periods of high unemployment are any guide, the effect on the young is likely to be felt throughout their working life, and those who leave the labour force when close to retirement age may never return,” Professor Gray said.

According to the research, working hours decreased from 35.1 to 31.1 hours per week between February and April, with largest drops experienced by women and those born in non-English speaking countries.

Lost income equals lost life satisfaction

The study also found that the total loss to annual household income was an estimated $102bn.

Drops in average household after-tax weekly income between February and April was 9.1%, but the declines in per person income were larger still as household size increased and incomes needed to be spread over a greater number of people. Per person income went down by 10.4% or $740 per person per week in February to $663 per week in April.

"One of the most important findings from our research is that incomes have increased by 33.5%, from $160 to $213, for Australians at the very bottom of the income distribution,” said Professor Gray.

“This is probably due to the economic hardship measures the Government has put in place in the face of the pandemic.”

The survey also outlined the massive toll COVID-19 has on Australian’s mental health and wellbeing, with researchers estimating that the average change in life satisfaction observed in the data is equivalent to losing $581 per week.

Government trust rating increases

However, the researchers said the findings not only paint a picture of "hardship and distress, but also resilience.”

Professor Biddle said that “with Australians enjoying a greater sense of social trust because of the panic, a large majority observing social distancing and other directives to help stop transmission, and the Federal Government enjoying big gains in popularity.”

“Our study shows social trust has increased, with the extent to which Australians think most people can be trusted, that people are fair and that people are helpful all increasing between February and April,” he said.

The survey showed there were big increases in Australians’ confidence in the Federal Government, in state and territory governments and the public service.

Data revealed that between January and April the proportion of Australians who said they were confident or very confident in the Federal Government increased from 27.3% to 56.6%, in the public service from 48.8% to 64.8% and state/territory governments from 40.4% to 66.7%.

COVID-19 news brings ‘fatigue, anxiety’

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre conducted a survey on how and where Australians get information about COVID-19, which sources they found trustworthy and the impact the coverage had on their wellbeing.

The study revealed that 60% of respondents expressed concern about the coronavirus, with 71% of those concerned increasing their news consumption as a result.

Associate Professor in Communication Dr Sora Park, who led the research titled ‘COVID-19: Australian news and misinformation’, said that this excessive news consumption has resulted in Australians becoming fatigued and anxious.

“The results show there was a correlation between high levels of news consumption and higher levels of anxiety. This also leads to news avoidance,” Dr Park said.

“At a time of crisis, people turn to news media for reliable and fast information as it directly impacts on their lives,” she said.

TV preferred source of news

The research discovered that more Australians prefer TV news during the period of social isolation, with more than half of those surveyed turning to this medium as their main source of COVID-19 news.

Reliance on TV news has increased to 51% from 42% last year. In contrast, consumption of print and radio news has decreased due to social distancing restrictions implemented since the outbreak began.  

“It’s always the case in Australia that we rely heavily on television news but now those numbers are even higher,” Dr Park said.

Dr Park added that the data they gathered from the survey “gave some eye-opening indicators in terms of where Australians are at in terms of their wellbeing, mental health, and how they’re coping with the situation.”

“They’re doing everything they’re told to do and making right decisions, but the impact that an over-consumption of news is creating anxiety is of concern in the long run,” she said.

Trusting the experts

However, the survey revealed that Australians have turned more to the government, scientists and health experts – rather than the media – for accurate and credible information and updates on the virus.

Many of the respondents also said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have encountered ‘less than usual’ misinformation or fake news.

Only 23% admit to having encountered false information about the coronavirus, with the vast majority coming from social media.

Dr Park said it helped that Australians, especially the younger generations, were doing a good job at verifying news they think might be untrue.

“What is quite reassuring is that those who encounter this information on social media actually do something about it – they fact-check or they look for other sources to confirm the information they’re seeing,” she said.

Dr Park also said it was good that users were choosing to ignore false information and refrained from sharing it.