What Impact Will COVID-19 Have On Regional Australia?

By Rosie Bogumil

Undoubtedly, the current coronavirus crisis has widespread global effects – it wouldn’t be called a pandemic if it didn’t. But in a healthcare system already known to be failing communities outside of major cities, how are isolated regional areas coping with the virus?

Access to health care services outside of major cities is already limited. Although two-thirds of the Australian population live in major cities, the remainder are spread across the entirety of the country in areas classified as inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote areas. Regional communities may have hospitals with only a very small capacity, while others lack emergency departments. Any influx of patients therefore has massive potential to overwhelm hospital systems which are struggling to cope even with current demands.

The coronavirus is known to be more dangerous for specific demographics, and one of the populations most at risk is the elderly. It is common for regional centres to have higher retiree populations, with proportionally lower numbers of people aged 25-44 years and higher numbers of people aged 45-74 years. The larger elderly population thus increases the risk of overwhelmed hospital systems.

People suffering chronic illness are also among those most vulnerable to coronavirus complications, and will typically require more complex management than the general population. However, regional communities often have limited access to specialist medical services, and these patients may fail to receive timely healthcare. From personal experience, it can take many, many months to be allocated specialist appointments through the public health system. Accessing these services privately is not an option for many, and certainly never was for my family; private specialists come at massive cost, not just for the appointment, but in terms of travelling to and finding accommodation in the nearest capital city where those specialists are invariably located.

The danger of social isolation is compounded in regional areas, which are already physically isolated. Furthermore, mental health services in regional areas are more limited than the major cities. Accessing the right help is difficult when Medicare only funds ten sessions – does the government really expect lifelong issues to dramatically resolve themselves in ten weeks? Additionally, psychiatry is notoriously difficult to access in country towns. Larger regional hubs may have visiting psychiatrists, but the waiting lists are normally six months minimum. In areas with already disproportionately high rates of suicide, particularly among adolescent and Indigenous populations, it is possible the virus could have a startling impact on the mental health of entire communities. At UNSW, it is a real blessing to have access to free health professionals through the University Health Service and CAPS.

As if the healthcare system wasn’t enough trouble for the regional population, the urban population is making times even tougher. The impacts of ‘panic buying’ are spreading far beyond the major cities. In small towns such as Walpole, Western Australia, there are now obligatory licence checks by supermarkets and pharmacies, to ensure that the needs of locals are prioritised. When there’s only one supermarket in town, and one delivery every few days, regional communities cannot cope with an influx of outsiders pillaging produce and stockpiling staples.

There may be a silver lining, however. I am especially glad now more than ever to have family to return to in the Great Southern region of Western Australia (search for the locality ‘Kronkup’ if you want to have your mind blown). I certainly can’t speak for everybody living regionally, but my parent’s hobby farm is practically self-sufficient, with water-tanks, solar panels, chickens and guaranteed access to fresh fruit and vegetables, either through our own gardens, or charitable neighbours. Social distancing is also a breeze when you’re already isolated physically, and this measure is easier to cope with when there’s fifteen acres of forest to maintain and explore.

All Australians may be finding the current regulations imposed by the pandemic situation distressing.  It is also important to think of our regional Australians, who may ordinarily experience greater difficulty accessing health care, particularly mental health support, and may struggle even more in the current pandemic state.

And stop stockpiling toilet paper. It is a real luxury if you can drive two hours away to purchase essentials. For country residents, there is no other supermarket; there is no other pharmacy. Don’t be a Stockpiling Susan.