Reinstating free childcare permanently is among the key recommendations health experts are calling on the Federal government to implement to ensure inequality in Australia doesn’t burgeon in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.
A new report from the Australian National University’s Menzies Centre for Health Governance analyses the policy measures taken in response to COVID19. It commends the ‘impressive’ wide-ranging and rapid policy responses at Federal and State/Territory levels.
But it highlights the growing gap in health outcomes between the lowest and highest socio-economic groups, which the authors say will be exacerbated without targeted, long-term action.
“This pandemic is touching everyone’s life, but the risk of COVID-19 and its impacts are distributed unequally,” lead author Professor Sharon Friel says. “The physical and mental health of older people, people living in poverty and marginalised racial and ethnic groups are at elevated risk now and well into the future. Australia is going backwards in terms of social inequality and this is a matter of life and death for those most disadvantaged.”
To prevent an accumulation of disadvantage and health inequities throughout the life course, the report calls for the continuation of free childcare – at least for socially disadvantaged households.
“Maintaining initiatives such as free childcare long term is a chance for Australia to bounce back better than before,” Prof Friel says. “Free childcare not only benefits children from socially disadvantaged households with access to vital cognitive and emotional development opportunities, but is a huge benefit to the economy.”
To ensure Australia’s recovery from COVID-19 leads to a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable future, the report urges political leaders to use this unfortunate event to drive positive societal change. And uses a number of the COVDI19 responses to illustrate that when “there is political will action can happen”.
The impact of COVID-19 on the health and wellbeing of Australian society is not limited to the direct morbidity and tragic loss of life. A healthy society requires that people have enough material resources to live life with dignity and a sense of control over their lives. Without these, the physical and mental health of people suffer. Sadly, COVID-19 has rocked these already unstable foundations: many people are struggling with widespread economic insecurity, uncertainty about the rules of society post COVID-19, and anxiety about the future.MENZIES CENTRE FOR HEALTH GOVERNANCE REPORT, AUGUST 2020
“Free childcare really helps low income households,” Professor Friel says. “It does that by enabling children to be in childcare which is very important for their cognitive and emotional development, in learning to interact and making social connections and that really matters for their lifelong trajectory.”
Professor Friel is especially focused on the potential power of free childcare to address inequality in health outcomes.
“The early childhood education and care setting is very protective for health, not just for children now but for those children later in life,” Friel says. “Free childcare helps reduce inequalities in health in adult life and that’s because education is one of the most protective things for a person’s wellbeing.”
Healthy development during the early years provides the essential building blocks in social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. Childcare is therefore an extremely important setting for children’s health, and provides a mechanism via which to reduce social and health inequities across the life course. The evidence tells us that once a child starts from behind, the prospect of catching up to their peers, in schooling and in life, is much diminished. The evidence also tells us the effects of disadvantage begin before birth, escalate in the first thousand days of life, and continue over the life course.
Aside from being great for children, free childcare is fantastic for parents too. Professor Friel says because it facilitates parents in lower-income households to earn money they couldn’t earn without free childcare, it can alleviate some financial pressure which is good for parents and children.
“Having greater financial resources is good for a household. It means children can be fed and the housing stress whether they’re renting or not is much less acute, which has multiple advantages for the children and adults in those households,” Professor Friel explains.
“And if you’re concerned about economy – which I think we all are at this point – it’s a good thing from that perspective too. People say “It would cost too much!” But if we create healthy and ultimately productive children that’s a good thing for the economy long-term. And more women working creates more economic growth in the short-term.”
For all of the challenges COVID19 has presented, it has also create an opportunity to do things differently.
“Right now there is a window of opportunity to recalibrate systems like income support and childcare,” Professor Friel says.