Public health apathy shows how far public trust in government has fallen
A man skirts a barricade at Bondi Beach (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Some of Sydney and Melbourne’s richest postcodes have more cases of COVID-19 than anywhere else in their states according to recent health department data.

Following a series of well publicised cases involving wealthy people making fools of themselves and ignoring calls to self-isolate, a narrative seems to be emerging about who is getting, and spreading, the virus. But is this true, or just cathartic anecdata?

Eat the rich?

Some early data seems to suggest there are higher infection numbers in some very well-heeled parts of the country.

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An analysis of NSW cases broken down by local government area found Waverley, which includes Bondi, Bronte and other beachside suburbs in Sydney’s eastern suburbs had 105 cases, as of Thursday, followed by the City of Sydney (69), the Northern Beaches (68) and Woollahra, also in the east (66).

Waverley and Woollahra, which include four of Australia’s 10 wealthiest postcodes, accounted for around 15% of all confirmed cases in NSW. 

It’s a pattern that is also reflected in Victoria, where the Stonnington local government area, containing the blue ribbon suburbs of Toorak and South Yarra, leads the pack with 57 cases. It’s followed by the Mornington Peninsula, with 36, and Boroondara (which includes Hawthorn and Kew) on 29.

The crowds at Bondi beach last week, which caused disappointment among politicians and arguably accelerated the statewide shutdown in NSW, helped fortify the presumption that people in Sydney’s east felt insulated from the virus. 

Some rich people have done little to dispel that narrative. Yesterday, The Age reported on a finance industry figure and his wife who returned from a skiing trip at Aspen with COVID-19 and refused to self isolate. 

Not so fast

But Heather Booth, director of research at the Australian National University’s school of demography, says we shouldn’t jump the gun and point the finger at the rich, and be wary when making assumptions about COVID-19.

“You’ve got to look at three things when you look at these numbers,” Booth said.

“One is the number of people, the second is the testing rate and the third is the behaviour of people and what they’re doing.”

South-eastern Sydney and northern Sydney health districts, which account for three of the top four local government areas in NSW, both have the highest testing rates in the state. The areas with the most cases in the state, like central Sydney, also have some of the highest populations in Australia.

Booth, and University of Melbourne sociologist Brendan Churchill suggested you could theorise that people in wealthier areas are more likely to have travelled overseas, and mingle with foreigners. Currently a majority of COVID-19 cases in Australia are still linked to overseas travel. 

But Booth also says we could hypothesise the other way:

“I would think that affluence would keep people safer. They have bigger houses, they don’t have to use public transport”

The upshot is that the COVID-19 crisis is rapidly evolving by the minute, and given that, it’s still quite hard to draw firm conclusions. It could be a long time before we get the kind of robust demographic analysis we need. 

Meanwhile, the trend of wealthier areas displaying higher numbers isn’t even playing out nationwide.

In Queensland, data shows the highest infection numbers in Brisbane’s metro north health district (144), followed by metro south (123), the Gold Coast (91) and Sunshine Coast (56) — hardly the kind of split along income lines we’re seeing in NSW and Victoria.

And in the longer term, it’s poorer people, not just in Australia, but across the world, who will bear the brunt of a twin public health and economic crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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