Social isolation before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic
Social isolation has taken a new meaning under COVID 19. But we know that some people suffered from social isolation before the pandemic, are suffering during the pandemic and will continue to do so long after it has ceased.
Social isolation, in this context, is defined as having minimal contact and interaction with people, community, and services. Social isolation is a barrier to the things which fill life with meaning. It prevents people from finding belonging and connection in their community, and it locks out vulnerable people from economic opportunities.
Social isolation is distinguished from loneliness. While the concepts are related, social isolation is an objective state, whereas loneliness is a subjective feeling regarding the perceived quality of a person’s relationships.
Actions for state government
SGS Economics and Planning recently worked with the Southern Metropolitan Partnership  to develop a submission to the Victorian Government, clearly prioritising the actions the Government could make to help the region address its problems with social isolation. The submission was informed by experience elsewhere, drawn from a detailed literature review, analysis of regional data sets, and an extensive community engagement program.
The submission defined social isolation, identified its causes and impacts, before going onto to develop a package of State Government interventions that would make the most impact in addressing the region’s social isolation issues.
We also developed a high level cost benefit analysis, highlighting how the cost of delivering the regional intervention program compares with the benefits that will be generated.
While the full submission is yet to be publicly released, our Issues Paper was recently tabled in Victorian Parliament.
Who is affected by social isolation?
While social isolation can impact anyone, some groups are more susceptible. These groups include older people, people with low incomes, unemployed people, people with a physical disability, young families, and those with a combination of these characteristics.
These groups of people are all over-represented in the Southern Metropolitan Region when compared to the rest of Melbourne. The submission also notes that at a sub-regional level there is significant variation across these groups, reflecting the region’s high degree of diversity.
Social isolation manifests in various ways across the region. For example, a single mother in Rosebud has to turn down a job in Frankston because buses only run once an hour. In another example, a newly arrived family of refugees in Dandenong struggle to navigate services that are geographically disparate and often lack the mechanisms for client-centred coordination.
What are barriers to effectively tackling social isolation?
The principal barriers to addressing social isolation in the region identified in the submission:
- Lack of transport services and the vast distances involved in physically accessing services and communities
- Lack of coordination of available services meaning a holistic approach to client servicing is elusive
- Income and time constraints for socially isolated people, along with their difficulties in engaging with services due to low awareness of available services and issues linked with self-confidence, proficiency with English language, access to technology, and/or cultural barriers.
Survey responses from regional service providers exemplify the complexity of issues at play, for example:
The lack of public transport on the Peninsula is one of the main reasons people struggle to reach services the Shire providers or that external groups/businesses facilitate. Consider this, the Shire has three main offices (four if you include Somerville) across one of the largest geographical councils in Victoria. One side of the Peninsula is serviced by an out of date bus system, rail times and frequency are terrible, and the train line only goes through one half of the Peninsula.
Many of our rooming house residents are on Newstart and are paying in excess of 60% of their income on rent/housing; they are often limited to accessing services when they have phone credit, money for transport.
We hear of many people who are too vulnerable to even leave their own homes and struggle to get out of bed. These people are disempowered to the point that they have no will power to take physical steps to access even basic services such as a free meal. Additionally, particularly for men, the stigma attached with receiving assistance is too much to bear for some people in desperate need and even a subtle suggestion of giving them a food staple hamper is too wounding for their pride.
Some people are not aware of the accessible services in their local area. Even if they do, they are afraid to reach the services assuming these services will be expensive and hard for them to afford. Lack of awareness can be considered as one of the primary reasons for this issue. Sometimes the service providers such as GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists and other health professionals also not aware of the available services in their areas.
We have a large Aboriginal population in Casey. When a non-indigenous worker reaches out to discuss services that are available to them, the community often does not respond. However, when an Indigenous worker does the same thing, the response rate is much higher (due to feeling culturally safe, feeling understood, having trust and rapport, etc.).
How state government can help
The Southern Metropolitan Partnership’s submission priorities ten interventions that need leadership and coordination efforts and funding from the Victorian State Government to be successfully delivered. These interventions span transport, service accessibility, service provision and policy integration initiatives.
The Southern Metropolitan Partnership’s submission details the scope of each of these ten interventions and includes the results of a high level cost benefit analysis of their collective delivery. These details will be made available when released.
 The Southern Metropolitan Partnership includes representatives from state government, regional service providers and the six local governments within the southern region of Melbourne (Kingston, Greater Dandenong, Frankston, Casey, Cardinia and Mornington Peninsula).