With Melbourne spending almost three-quarters of 2021 in lockdown and Sydney just shy of a third, it’s yet to be seen how these major cities emerge from such a tumultuous time. For one, both cities have experienced residents leaving in droves as they head to Brisbane or the regions in search of a better lifestyle, more affordable housing, and greater opportunities. But what else has changed as a result of last year spent locked down, and will our biggest Australian cities ever be the same?
Big cities bounce back
We’ve all been unintentionally dedicating more to our savings accounts lately, and as restrictions have eased, so have our purse strings. Upon the easing of restrictions, city-dwellers flocked to rectify neglected beauty routines, sip on espresso martinis, gratefully tip hospitality workers, and get their wardrobes festive season ready. Commonwealth Bank card-spending data pointed to a strong rebound, with spending nearly 19% higher than a comparable pre-lockdown week. Unsurprisingly, the big category winners when it came to post-lockdown spending across both Sydney and Melbourne were:
- Hairdressers and beauty salons
- Department stores
- Eating and drinking out
Long-term economic predictions are positive too, with the Reserve Bank of Australia expecting the economy to bounce back, and with increased household savings (which have jumped almost 20%), there’s plenty of scope for some serious spending to be done.
Impacts beyond the economic
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives and our society in ways we never could have imagined. With so many months of restrictions in Melbourne and Sydney, once busy streets became emptied, hospitality hot spots were open only for takeaways, and having kids home 24/7 became the norm. Whilst all these measures were put in place to protect our physical wellbeing, what impacts are we experiencing as a result?
- Mental health – social isolation through lockdowns (particularly for those that live alone or have pre-existing health conditions) can have a huge toll on mental wellbeing. A survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that as many as one in five Australians are reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, with young people, women, and those living with a disability the most affected by poor mental health. This number is thought to be higher in states that experienced more prolonged lockdowns such as NSW and Victoria, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting that 27% of Victorians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with the rest of Australia (at 18%). It’s important to remember that lockdown-induced isolation impacts people in different ways too – not everyone lives in a happy family home, meaning issues like domestic abuse and exploitation of young people (that are usually in school) also become heightened. Anxiety and fear post-lockdown have also taken hold – while many welcomed the easing of restrictions, the return to some sort of normality also causes anxiety for some.
- Disruption to healthcare – many regular health services came to a grinding halt across Melbourne and Sydney, with surgeries, appointments, and treatments all being delayed as the focus shifted to coping with COVID-19. At the same time, people with other conditions have become reluctant to go to the hospital for fear of becoming infected. While the impacts of this aren’t fully understood just yet, studies such as this are pointing to negative non-COVID-related health outcomes being a long-term reality.
- Disruption to schooling – according to UNESCO, by March 2020, over 87% of the world’s student population had been disrupted due to COVID-19, and in Australia, K-12 education has been disrupted in every state. While some children have been able to connect virtually with their teachers, it, unfortunately, isn’t a level playing field. In Victoria, one report found more than 10% of students from disadvantaged schools were absent from remote learning. Meanwhile, an organisation working with disadvantaged children in Sydney has reported more than 3,000 public school students have not returned to their classrooms since the remote learning period ended. Access aside, virtual classrooms aren’t a substitute for in-person learning environments. While it will be some time before we know the full impact of this disruption, some are predicting a potential inequality in earnings driven by COVID-related school closures and the resulting mental health issues.
- Mass movement out of the cities – with net migration to Australia’s regions the highest on record (with the ABS reporting a net 43,000 moving from capital cities to the regions), people have been embracing the accidental by-products of COVID-19. Remote working has become more accessible, meaning commutes and pint-sized properties with hefty price tags in Melbourne and Sydney are fast losing appeal. However, Australian National University demographer Liz Allen believes the trend may be short-lived – as employers start asking workers to return to the office, and the realities of distance and inadequate infrastructure kick in.
What does the future look like in our two biggest cities?
While it’s too soon to see the long-term impacts of lengthy lockdowns across both Melbourne and Sydney, it’s not all doom and gloom. From an individual level, the global pandemic has reignited a sense of community spirit in our (sometimes soulless) big cities, made working from home a viable option for those previously tied to the city, boosted our gratitude for essential workers, renewed our relationship with nature, and rekindled our love of home cooking. At a more collective level, with the economic situation looking positive and vaccination rates across the main centres strong, we can now move forward with a degree of cautious confidence.
Remember, if you or a family member or friend need extra support at this time, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia) 0800 543 354 (New Zealand) or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 (Australia).