Gerard Hehir: The Covid-19 Miracles

Gerard Hehir: The Covid-19 Miracles

A fantastic thing happened during the lockdown. We eliminated rough sleeping in New Zealand. It took a few weeks.

“It feels like an amazing achievement” one community worker told the media. “It is something we couldn’t have dreamed of being possible or actually happening two months ago.”

It certain was amazing, especially when you consider the politicking and hand-wringing that has gone on for decades about the “problem”. Council by-laws, public campaigns to stop giving to beggars and automatic water sprinklers in shop doorways didn’t work. Providing warm, dry, decent accommodation did the trick. Out-of-the box thinking at its best.

The community groups that seized the moment deserve unqualified praise for the achievement, but the question remains: why did the impossible become possible in a matter of weeks?

It would be comforting to think the only motivation was to protect the health of our homeless during a pandemic. But rough sleeping and homelessness has always been a major health hazard with the cold and damp, the overcrowding, the lack of sanitary facilities and constant exposure to street crime and violence. The difference is that Covid-19 – just one of many threats to the homeless – would have spread uncontrolled amongst them and then, inevitably, to others. That made their situation an immediate threat to everyone else, tucked up in our warm, dry bubbles.

Something had to be done, and so it was, just like that.

Too cynical? Well, a few other lockdown miracles suggest otherwise.

Supermarket workers and their union have been fighting – with limited success – to be paid the Living Wage ($21.15 per hour, increasing to $22.10 in September) for years. Then, during the lockdown they had to – literally – put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us fed.

Wonder of wonders, they were suddenly given (after public pressure) a ten percent pay rise. For a few weeks supermarket workers were paid around or above the Living Wage. But at the end of April, both major supermarket chains announced workers would be straight back to their subsistence wages (which is what pay less than the Living Wage is, by definition). Some miracles, it seems, are only temporary.

Then there is sick leave. For many working class employees being allowed to take a sick day before Covid-19 was always a struggle. First there is the bullying and intimidation used by managers to force sick employees to work. You can’t leave a message, you have to find your own replacement for the day, you are forced to get a costly medical certificate (but reimbursement takes weeks), and you are interrogated about every personal health detail. The managers responsible are often in an impossible position, already understaffed and expected to keep the eftpos machine beeping no matter how many staff are on the floor, themselves often working while ill.

Even if your boss will let you stay home there are economic pressures. Most workers only get the legal minimum five paid sick days a year, and you have to have been employed for six months to get that. In the hospitality industry, annual staff turnover of 70-90% is not unusual. In those places most workers will not have accrued any paid sick leave. They cannot afford to lose a day’s pay and so are forced to work even if they are they are a health hazard to their co-workers and customers (pause for thought next time you tuck into that burger).

But lo, another Covid-19 miracle. Under strict instructions from head offices, workers had their temperatures taken and the slightest cough or sniffle saw them packed off home to bed until they were completely recovered. But just like the supermarket workers’ pay rise, this will only be fleeting. Café, restaurant and fast food workers will soon be back at work, coughing and aching as they prepare meals and make ends meet the only way they can.

Of course, with no additional paid sick leave, and under strict instructions (from the Prime Minister down) to stay home if even slightly unwell, low paid workers will have to produce their own financial miracle to obey and still pay the rent.

But the most revealing miracle of all (half a miracle technically) was the overnight transformation of the unemployment benefit. Over the years there have been hundreds of reports and research papers that all came to the same inescapable conclusion: benefit levels are too low. Payments have been fiddled with and adjusted around the edges, but no government over the past thirty years actually undid Ruth Richardson’s brutal cuts of 1991.

And then the Minister of Finance waved his Covid-19 wand on May 25th and suddenly a redundant worker who would have faced immediate poverty trying to survive on $250 a week would now get $490. What’s more they would be treated as an independent human being and not penalised if they were in a relationship with someone who still had a job.

Many WINZ frontline staff would have breathed a huge sigh of relief that day. They were facing the prospect of a long line of well-heeled first-time clients, all demanding to see the manager to explain exactly how they are supposed to live on $250 a week and what the hell business is it of anyone else how many times a week their partner slept over. They will now be spared the worst impoverishment and indignities that a generation of beneficiaries have suffered.

Alas, Covid-19 miracles are only granted to the few, as we have seen. The worker without a job on February 28th (or too sick to work, or with a permanent disability, or looking after young children with no other income support) was excluded from this particular miracle. Why? The answer appears to be that the higher payment allows the newly unemployed the time to “adjust” i.e. existing beneficiaries are “used to it” – “it” being not having enough income to actually live on. This reprehensible logic has been used at one time or another by almost every privileged group to rationalise blatantly discriminatory policies. It’s but a short skip from ”they actually enjoy it”.

In light of this, the advice to the miraculously not-homeless would have to be don’t get too comfortable. Around late September, early October (the warmer weather you know, not related to any other event), they may find their miracle over. If they have to go back on the streets the least we could do is organise a mass eviction so the rest of us can stand at the end of our driveways and politely clap as they trudge back to their bridges and doorways. Maybe Countdown and New World could even spring for them to have new trolleys.


We can reject the line pushed at us for over a generation that we have to accept gross inequality because it’s “impossible” to fix it. The Covid-19 miracles show that when problems for the working class become a very real threat to the middle classes, the impossible very quickly becomes possible.

The changes we have made don’t have to be temporary or limited. This baby boomer was raised as a child in a time of almost zero unemployment when a working class wage would not only support a whole family but could actually buy your own home. This boomer paid no student loans or fees, was able to survive decently on the dole for months in the ‘80s, received a low interest state mortgage to buy their first house and never had a job where they were forced to work while sick. The economy that provided that was far less wealthy overall than ours today.

This boomer does not believe in miracles, because we don’t need them. What we do need is the political leadership so half the “team of five million” aren’t left behind now the other half feel safe again.

Gerard Hehir is National Secretary of Unite Union

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.