Canberra, Australia – Queues outside welfare offices stretched for blocks, the main government website crashed, and hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found themselves without a job as Australia this week tightened restrictions designed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
The federal government has warned that as many as one million Australians could find themselves out of work in the coming days as a result of the shutdown.
Rich was at work in a bar in the western city of Perth on Sunday evening when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a second stimulus package to support the economy. Rich, who preferred to share only his first name, said he immediately realised he and his colleagues were about to lose their jobs.
“All pubs, gyms, cafes are to be closed so we’re all out of work,” the 29-year-old explained. “I suppose I am still technically employed but who knows when the pubs and restaurants can reopen.”
Cafes and restaurants are still allowed to serve takeaway food and drinks, but the government has hinted that this could change if Australians do not practice adequate physical distancing.
Rich headed to his local Centrelink office to sign up for welfare payments.
“I got there two hours early to beat the queues,” he said. “Not sure what I’ll do going forward … hopefully, my partner keeps her job.”
Non-essential services were ordered to close this week across Australia as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continued to increase. Restrictions announced on Sunday evening have become progressively stronger, with new measures being announced daily.
To keep the economy going, the government announced two large stimulus packages worth 84 billion Australian dollars ($50bn) in quick succession. Both packages were passed by a reduced-in-size Parliament on Monday evening.
A key element of the stimulus is a fortnightly 550 Australian dollar ($332) welfare supplement for the unemployed, which will be paid for the next six months on top of existing payments.
The government has also announced that “individuals in financial stress” will be able to access their superannuation retirement funds early, while small and medium businesses are eligible for assistance if they agree to hold onto existing employees.
The announcement sent a flood of people to the government’s MyGov website, which crashed after nearly 100,000 people tried to access Centrelink – Australia’s government welfare agency – to sign up for the new payments on Monday.
It later emerged that while the website had been upgraded ahead of the stimulus announcement, it was capable of handling only 55,000 access requests at once.
The government services minister, Stuart Robert, admitted the authorities had not anticipated just how many people would need help.
“My bad [for] not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight,” Robert told 2GB radio on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, thousands of people were again queueing outside Centrelink offices around the country, with lines snaking around blocks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. Many said they had been in line since the early hours of the morning after being turned away the day before.
Greens MP Adam Bandt described the queues as: “Depression-era images.”
#MyGov has crashed, lines at Centrelink are winding around the block. These are Depression-era images and we need a Depression-like response to make sure no one is left behind. https://t.co/MeSNKKenEp
— Adam Bandt (@AdamBandt) March 23, 2020
In Sydney, Alex had been working at an aviation imports company since November. He found himself out of work at the weekend because of the dramatic drop in business.
“Once China went into lockdown, less cargo started to come through,” 25-year-old Alex told Al Jazeera. With one month left on his probation, Alex was eager to keep his job so offered to reduce his working hours. His employer agreed.
“I really tried to go above and beyond, so after they started cutting hours, I finally felt safe,” Alex said. “Then I was blindsided with a termination of employment letter and a meeting telling me to pack up and leave. Within five minutes, I was heading towards my car.”
‘Stuck in a loop’
Alex is currently trying to sign up to Centrelink to access welfare support but says the website continues to have significant problems and it’s “impossible to get someone on the phone”.
“I’m stuck in a loop,” he explained, unable to upload letters the registration process requires. “The queue for the Centrelink office near me extends out the doors and around the block from morning until closing.”
“The intense and widespread need for these payments is heartbreaking,” said Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).
“The current events highlight just how important it is for all of us that we have a strong, safe, adequate social safety net for everyone, and that the government provides adequate resources for it to respond, including in times of crisis.”
ACOSS is also calling for action on housing security such as temporary moratoriums on eviction and cash assistance for people who are already homeless.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, a 43-year-old travel writer and tour guide who prefers to be known only as Peter made the difficult decision earlier this month to return to Sydney with his wife from their home overseas. Peter has been unable to find work so has signed up for welfare.
“I visited the Centrelink office on Monday morning at opening time to verify my identity,” Peter told Al Jazeera, saying he preferred not to give his name because he was afraid the welfare agency might dislike his criticism.
“The line was about 50 metres long and the waiting room was already full … all trying to keep their distance from one another.”
“I believe some of these things can now be done over the phone, but the website is still down and the phone system isn’t working,” he added. “That’s why everyone is still going to the office.”
The MyGov website was working on Wednesday but phone queues were hours long.
Non-Australian citizens residing in the country are in a particularly difficult position. Centrelink provides support only to citizens and some permanent residents.
Sebastian, 32, came to Australia six years ago from South America to do a master’s degree and has been working in the aquatic industry as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at an inner-city council pool in Melbourne.
“They closed the pool and gave us one day’s notice,” Sebastian said. “The lifeguards are all casuals … No paid leave, nothing.”
Unable to access Australian government welfare, Sebastian says he has been forced to start working for Uber Eats, but “it barely pays the bills and if they shut down deliveries, I’m done”.