Alcohol consumption during COVID-19 significantly impacts vulnerable communities: The case study of Miller

by Andrew Reid

A national YouGov poll commissioned by The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found one in five (20 percent) Australian households buying more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. Within these households, 70 percent are drinking more, with 34 percent drinking now daily. This is  likely to be a result of job loss, financial stress, family pressures, social isolation, declining mental health and a loss of structure and routine during the pandemic.

While we are waiting on further research and study results to uncover the full extent of the impact caused by alcohol consumption during COVID-19, it is highly likely those Australians who are already poor, unemployed or underemployed, with high levels of existing debt, suffering homelessness, or facing existing difficulties with access to health and social services, will be most affected. This is supported by available evidence that suggests disadvantaged communities have more significant alcohol-attributable harms compared with individuals from advantaged areas for given levels of alcohol consumption, even after accounting for different drinking patterns, obesity, and smoking status at the individual level.

Community profile of Miller

Miller is a suburb within the Liverpool Local Government Area (LGA). In 2016, Miller had a population of 3,237 people, an unemployment rate of 15.5% more than double that of NSW (6.3%), 3.9% of the population were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, 43.4% of Miller residents were in social housing, many with multiple and complex needs. Miller remains one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs in the state with the SEIFA Index of Relative Social Disadvantage (IRSD) score of 701 in 2016.

Alcohol Related Assault

Figure 1: Incidents of Alcohol Related Assault, July 2018 – June 2020, Miller

(Source: New South Wales Bureau of Crime and Research Statistics (BOCSAR), 2020)

The latest figures for incidents of alcohol-related assault from New South Wales (NSW) Bureau of Crime and Research Statistics (BOCSAR) show incidents of alcohol-related assault in Miller in May 2020 increased to 58.5 compared to 13 for NSW (see Figure 1). 

A breakdown of the data reveals incidents of alcohol-related assault (non-domestic assault) in Miller in May 2020 also increased to 58.5 compared to 4 for NSW. Compared to this time last year (May 2019), incidents of alcohol-related assault (non-domestic assault) in Miller was 0 compared to 8.5 for NSW

Incidents of Assault (Domestic Assault)

BOSCAR data for the same period (May 2020) showed incidents of assault (domestic assault) in Miller increased to 117 compared to 30.3 for NSW. While this may be due to several factors, existing evidence has found this could be linked to alcohol consumption. In 2010, research revealed alcohol was “present” in 41% of domestic assaults in NSW. Other studies since have found alcohol was involved in up to half of partner violence in Australia and 73% of partner physical assaults. The same studies also pointed out that alcohol features prominently in police data, although not all jurisdictions keep consistent records.    

Significant factor – access and availability of alcohol

There currently are 2 packaged liquor outlets and 1 hotel in Miller.

While the NSW Government COVID-19 restrictions forced the pubs and clubs to close between March 23, 2020 and 1 June 2020, Miller residents were still able to purchase alcohol from packaged liquor stores. The normal trading hours for one of these outlets in the area includes Monday to Saturday, 8:00am to 9:00pm and Sunday, 10:00am to 8:00pm. These alcohol outlets in Miller are in a Statistical Areas Level 1 (SA1) quadrant of approximately 280 households belonging to the lowest 1 percent of the most disadvantaged quantile in NSW.

In addition to this, Miller residents also had the option of buying alcohol online. In April 2020, Retail Drinks Australia reported one national retailer’s deliveries were up 300% from December 2019 to March 2020, while the size of the average order had increased by 50%. Around the same time, the Commonwealth Bank data showed a 34 percent increase in spending on alcohol over a week from March 27, 2020, compared to the same week in the previous year.

Despite no locally available data, Miller residents may be subject to the unsavoury and illegal delivery practices of some of the most popular online alcohol retailers in Australia. A study in January 2020, found 69 percent of these retailers advertised that they were willing to leave alcohol unattended at an address without verifying the purchaser’s age.

Conclusion

Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impact all Australians. However, it can potentially further affect vulnerable communities. More research is needed to understand the full extent of the impact on these communities. In the case of Miller, preliminary data shows alcohol has contributed to an increase in incidents of assaults (non-domestic) and, most likely, incidents of assault (domestic assault). Access and availability of alcohol is a major contributing factor. Therefore, there needs to be more action taken around managing the economic and physical availability of alcohol, as well as provision of support for disadvantaged communities. We must remember this is an avoidable burden on our communities.  Let’s act now before it is too late!

The social gradient of COVID-19

by Andrew Reid and Siggi Zapart

While COVID-19 does not discriminate, the impacts of the virus will not be equitably distributed. Vulnerable populations living in low socioeconomic disadvantaged communities will feel its health and educational impacts far more strongly than those living in more affluent areas.

 Health impacts
 Reduced access to essential healthcare

Some health experts suggest the COVID-19 pandemic could infect up to 70% of Australians. Based on estimates of current infection, more than 45,000 Australians will have COVID-19 by 10 April, 2020. At least 2,254 people would require ICU beds, (more than the current Australian capacity of 2,229). People in lower socioeconomic disadvantaged communities generally have poorer health and higher rates of heart and respiratory disease, and chronic illnesses. This means they could make up a large proportion of people likely to need ICU beds, and/or find it a lot harder to receive critical healthcare for their other illnesses in their local hospitals.

Furthermore, the Australian Government’s plan to implement a ‘whole-of-population telehealth’ approach will disadvantage vulnerable populations who do not have access to smartphones or computer technology due to lower income or education levels. The ‘whole-of-population telehealth’ includes phone and video mental health, allied health, and primary health consultations. Moreover, even those with internet access will be disadvantaged due to inferior NBN service types(see graph below). Research conducted in 2016 showed only 29% the most disadvantaged areas across Australia (SEIFA decile of 1) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. In the least disadvantaged(SEIFA decile of 10), 93 % had FTTP or FTTN. This is clear evidence that optimal NBN service increases as the SEIFA decile increases. Hence, even though telehealth is covered by Medicare, people living in disadvantaged suburbs are likely to miss out on the much needed essential services.

Impact on mental health

The continuing upward trend in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across Australia is causing increased anxiety and stress among disadvantaged communities. This is due to multiple and simultaneously occurring factors including, risk and uncertainty associated with the virus; feeling of powerlessness in the current situation; inconsistent messaging and confusion about social distancing measures; separation from loved ones due to quarantine or self-isolation; loss of freedom, and increased boredom; low income reducing to no income; and the type and condition of housing many people in these areas reside in. Most residents in these communities live in low-cost private rentals, social housing, and for some (many with disability, health or mental health issues, victims of domestic violence, people recently released from prison etc.) and social housing bedsits. The pandemic can potentially raise the Australian adult rates of poor mental health(currently 20%) and high or very high psychological distress (13%).

Educational impact

Across Australia, some states have closed schools, commencing school holidays early. Others like NSW have kept them open but encouraged parents to keep children at home. All schools are preparing for online learning, though at this stage, options for school attendance will be available for those that need it in some states.  However, given the low attendance rates (20-30% last week), it seems many parents think it safer to keep their children at home. For students in vulnerable communities, online learning could lead to increased barriers to education. Not all will have access to computers, the internet, or quality technology, such as wireless networks at home or quality NBN service. Many students might have mobile phones, but these may not be enough to engage with the curriculum or complete required tasks. Shools could send home lessons and resources for parents to use, but many parents in these communities would struggle, or not feel confident to teach their children at home.

In addition, the Federal Government’s closure of public libraries and community centres will hurt the educational outcomes of children in disadvantaged communities as these facilities provide a safe environment to facilitate lifelong learning. Public libraries offer free or affordable access to the internet, computers, printers, photocopiers, and a wide range of educational resources. Several community centres host Learning Clubs, i.e., after school programs designed to provide extra assistance to primary and secondary students in developing academic skills, such as homework, numeracy, and literacy. Not having access to these facilities and programs will prevent a large number of children in these disadvantaged communities from participating in learning, completing online school assignments, and having the right to a high-quality education experience.

So, a final note, although COVID-19 is impacting the entire population, those doing it tough already are and will continue to experience even more severe consequences as a result of the pandemic.

Community STaR event with Joan Silk (10:30-11:30 22 Nov, 2019)

Community STaR presents…

Doing more with less:
Observations about community development in Cuba

Can lessons learned from the Cuban experience
improve health disparities in Australia?

Speaker : Joan Silk

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea. Despite limited funding and supplies, Cuba’s adult and youth literacy rate stands at 100%, and it has consistently managed to keep its population of 11 million people healthy into old age with a health system recognized worldwide for its excellence and its efficiency.

Joan Silk visited Cuba in 1997 and again this year. Her presentation will draw on those experiences and reflect on what we can learn from the Cuba experience.

Joan Silk is a health worker with a special interest in the relationship between inequality and health, both on a community and an international level. She has worked in the printing, retail, hospitality and creative industries, as a secondary school teacher, a research assistant, and for the last 20 years as a health equity worker in various communities. She has a BA Honours in Economic History and Politics and a Diploma of Education.

  • When : Friday, November 22, 2019
  • Time : 10:30am – 11:30am
  • Where : Miller Community Centre,
    18A Woodward Crescent, Miller, NSW 2168
  • RSVP by 18 November
  • Register here via Eventbrite
  • For more information, contact: E: Andrew.Reid@health.nsw.gov.au  or T: 02 87389310
  • See flyer

Community STaR event with Eva Cox (18 March 2019)

Community STaR (Service for Training and Research) presents an event with Eva Cox (Adjunct Professor, Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research)

“Recreating a healthy society with citizens, not consumers: a social fairness contract, not just growth”

Eva Cox is a Professorial Fellow at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology. She is a writer, feminist, sociologist, social commentator and activist for creating more civil societies. Her feminism is all about working towards a better society, not making women more like men. Her ABC Boyer Lectures in 1995, entitled A Truly Civil Society argued that social capital is more important than financial capital. She wants social policies that recognise the value of feelings, relationships, culture and those areas important to both Indigenous people and women. Eva is an Australian Order recipient and has her own Australia Post Legends postage stamp.

  • When : Monday, March 18, 2019
  • Time : 10:30 – 11:30am
  • Where : Boardroom, Level 1, Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research
    (1 Campbell Street, Liverpool NSW 2170)
  • RSVP essential by March 13 to Andrew Reid
    (e: Andrew.Reid@health.nsw.gov.au t: 02 87389310)

Click for event flyer

Preventing Alcohol-Related Harm: What’s Changed?

By Andrew Reid and Joan Silk

 

Second Forum: Friday, March 23, 2018

The Centre for Health Equity Training Research and Evaluation (CHETRE) through Community StaR in partnership with Liverpool Community Drug Action Team (CDAT), recently held our second public forum on Preventing Alcohol-Related Harm. It was almost five years on from our first forum, Alcohol-Related Harm in Our Community, also held in Miller, New South Wales (NSW). We wanted to discuss the changes since 2013 and provide an information update and further insight into preventing alcohol-related harm. Several important changes had happened in the past five years including the introduction of the ‘lockout laws’ in Newcastle and parts of Sydney after several alcohol-fuelled one-punch killings including that of Thomas Kelly in 2014.

Uncle Malcolm Maccol, a local Aboriginal Elder, performed the Welcome to Country, and the Honourable Paul Lynch M.P., NSW state member for Liverpool, officially opened the event at Miller Community Centre. The forum was facilitated by Norman Booker, an experienced health professional and consultant. The sixty people in attendance at the forum shared concerns, questions and comments throughout the event.

 

Not all good news

The good news is that there have been some positive (and hard-fought) changes. Since the ‘lock-out laws’ came into effect, serious injuries from alcohol-fuelled violence have significantly reduced in the Kings Cross and Sydney Central Business District (CBD) Entertainment Precincts. Stricter restrictions on access and availability including on the sale of packaged liquor have been shown to work. However, the NSW Government has not implemented changes in other areas of the state. A highlight of the event was the comprehensive and inspiring Northern Territory plan for addressing alcohol-related harm.

 

More needs to be done

The forum’s three keynote presentations by Emeritus Professor Ian Webster AO, Dr. John Crozier, and Dr. Criss Moore generated knowledge, inspiration, insight and a strong desire to work together closely and effectively to reduce alcohol-related harm in our community. We look forward to a broad implementation of the evidence based measures discussed by our speakers and thank them for generously sharing their expertise and encouragement.

 

Key Issues:

Mental health and Alcohol-Related Harm

Professor Ian Webster‘s keynote presentation discussed the nature of alcohol-related harm and the crucial link between mental health, suicide and alcohol. This highlighted the urgent and growing need for health and related services to address dual mental health and alcohol and other drug (AOD) presentations. For example, in the period 2011–2015, forty percent of male suicides and thirty percent of female suicides were attributable to alcohol use. More national attention on the issue is required, and governments at all levels must work together to prevent such tragedies. The most marginalised and disadvantaged groups are often the most severely impacted. In many parts of Australia, this includes, but is not limited to, the homeless and Indigenous communities. For instance, the overall rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2015 is more than two times higher than the rest of the population.

 

Marketing and supply of alcohol

As well as detailing the daily economic and horrific health costs of alcohol-related harm, Dr John Crozier’s presentation provided shocking examples of the cynical and sophisticated strategies the alcohol industry uses to widen access and entice customers, including the promotion of online shopping and home delivery. He also covered the blatant tactics alcohol companies use to attract young people. He highlighted the detrimental effects on communities of the increasing availability of alcohol and the ever-expanding range of beverages and alcohol outlets. For every 10,000 litres of alcohol sold through Australian outlets, domestic violence increases by twenty-six percent.

He concluded that private industry profits while the public purse ‘picks up the pieces’.

 

Community Power

Despite the ‘mighty and powerful’ alcohol industry, there have been some significant community victories. Dr. Criss Moore spoke about a group of Casula residents who successfully managed to win a three year battle with a prominent hotelier wishing to establish a late night hotel and gaming venue in their residential suburb. She highlighted the power of community – people power, and gave examples of the organisational methods of a diverse community that stands together to challenge the powerful. Residents held street corner meetings, door knocks, rallies, letters and petitions to raise awareness and action. Tony Brown, chair of the Newcastle CDAT and key activist for the successful Newcastle ‘lockout laws’ and Dr. John Crozier gave much assistance and support to the residents. Dr Moore emphasised the critical importance of building and maintaining relationships with those in the neighbourhood, and beyond.

 

Tackling the availability of alcohol – the ADF toolkit

Damian Dabrowski from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), the funding body of this forum, was also present to demonstrate a toolkit that community and others can use to assist in having their voices heard in the decision-making process of regulating the availability of alcohol. See the ADF website at https://adf.org.au/

 

Next steps: Where to from here?

The Q&A panel following the keynote addresses and discussions at the forum suggested that having stronger restrictions on the availability and advertising of packaged liquor is one important way forward in reducing alcohol-related harm. A number of participants also applauded and were inspired by the action of the NT government in addressing alcohol-related harm in a comprehensive, innovative and evidence-based plan. As well as a national response, local action is needed. Local Community Drug Action Teams (CDATs) such as the Liverpool CDAT can help facilitate this and we invite interested community members and service workers to join us.

CHETRE, through Community STaR will continue to work with Liverpool CDAT and others to address critical issues in the AOD space to help improve the health and general well-being of the community.