Experts are calling for many of the 156 government policy measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic to stay long term.
A new report from The Australian National University (ANU) analyses the policy measures and highlights the growing gap in health outcomes between rich and poor in Australia.
"There is a growing divide in our life expectancy and health experiences in Australia between the lowest and highest socio-economic groups, which will more than likely be widened by COVID-19," lead author ANU Professor Sharon Friel said.
"This pandemic is touching everyone's life, but the risk of COVID-19 and its impacts are distributed unequally. The physical and mental health of older people, people living in poverty and marginalised racial and ethnic groups are at elevated risk now and well into the future.
"Australia is going backwards in terms of social inequality and this is a matter of life and death for those most disadvantaged."
The report recommends keeping the increases in income support and free childcare implemented in response to COVID-19 and highlights missed opportunities including in social housing.
"Maintaining initiatives such as free childcare long term is a chance for Australia to bounce back better than before," Professor Friel said.
"Free childcare not only benefits children from socially disadvantaged households with access to vital cognitive and emotional development opportunities, but is a huge benefit to the economy.
"Free childcare enables more women to return to employment, which makes a major contribution to our GDP."
The analysis shows interventions that address employment opportunities, household income and standard of living could go a long way to keeping people well and reducing health inequities.
"When COVID-19 hit the government intervened really quickly to provide additional money for people on income support schemes," Professor Friel said.
"These income supplements create greater social cohesion, wellbeing and long-term health outcomes.
"If the government can do it during a pandemic then they should be able to do it going forward."
The report condemned government responses to the housing crisis.
"None of the housing-related policies that were introduced due to COVID-19 address the medium and long-term housing precariousness prevalent in Australia," it stated.
Housing became the "lightning rod" for all the social challenges during COVID-19, Professor Friel said.
"This pandemic laid bare some of the deepest inequalities in our society, not least the need for secure housing. Unfortunately, we have not seen any policy responses addressing the housing crisis beyond short-term triage.
"The tower blocks in Melbourne are just one example of why we need more affordable and secure social housing.
"If we do not hold on to the progress we have made with income support and free childcare policies, and do much more to fix the housing crisis, social and health inequalities will continue to widen in Australia."
The Australian COVID-19 policy responses: Good for health equity or a missed opportunity? report was authored experts from The Menzies Centre for Health Governance at the ANU including Professor Sharon Friel, Sharni Goldman, Belinda Townsend, Ashley Schram.
The report is available here.
Image: Professor Sharon Friel. Credit: ANU