Coronavirus: A lucky country says goodbye to the world's longest boom

Australia, along with many other parts of the world, has come to a virtual halt, shuttering its borders and restricting domestic travel.
Australia, along with many other parts of the world, has come to a virtual halt, shuttering its borders and restricting domestic travel.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - The line for unemployment benefits curled around the block in an upscale neighbourhood of Australia's largest city, with officially prescribed wide distances between everyone in need.

There were restaurant workers in masks who had spent decades jumping from one hip hangout to another. An immigrant whose pay cheques had risen as reliably as the sun. And a manager of event venues wearing US$500 (S$720) boots who had not worried about work since the 1990s.

In a country where the last recession predates the birth of the Web browser nearly three decades ago, the coronavirus is ripping away any pretence of economic exceptionalism and shouting to the nation that its days of exuberance are over.

"It always felt like if you work hard and put in the hours, you can get whatever you want," said Ms Milena Molina, 45, the manager of a law firm who was laid off last week for the first time in her career.

"Now it's just uncertainty. It gets worse every day."

Nearly every country confronting the coronavirus pandemic sees a recession in its future.

A staggering 3.3 million unemployment claims were filed last week in the United States alone.

Economists are predicting that the damage to the global economy could last months, if not years, despite bailout packages and massive stimulus efforts like the US$2 trillion (S$2.87 trillion) intervention approved by US Congress this week.

But the havoc inflicted by the virus is delivering a special psychological blow in Australia, a country less familiar with declining fortunes and dim prospects than almost any other.

Until very recently, it was the land of a forever boom, with 29 years of uninterrupted growth.

Immigration, rising trade with Asia - especially exports to China - and careful monetary policy kept the country growing even through the most challenging moments of the global financial crisis.


The coronavirus, though, is a force unto its own, and it is overwhelming even the strongest and most privileged of countries.

Australia, along with many other parts of the world, has come to a virtual halt, shuttering its borders and restricting domestic travel.

Even though the country still has a relatively low infection count, with around 3,000 confirmed cases, its two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, are under lockdown orders for all but essential services.

Every day brings another round of huge layoffs.

On Thursday, Flight Centre, a major travel agency, fired 6,000 people.

Two of Australia's largest retailers also said they would close for at least four weeks, leaving another 15,000 people out of work - on top of tens of thousands more from smaller businesses, many of whom have never been unemployed.

Before the coronavirus, about 700,000 Australians were receiving unemployment benefits, known as job-seeker payments.

Over the next few months, some economists say, that number could jump to 1.7 million - and the country's social safety net is already buckling under the load.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively doubled welfare payments with a coronavirus supplement in an aid package that was announced on Sunday night as the government also instituted a broader shutdown of most businesses.

On Monday, the website where people can sign up for benefits crashed.

While the site's capacity has since been tripled, lines at Centrelink, which manages government aid, have become symbols of a new era, with hundreds of people showing up before sunrise and waiting for hours outside drab offices that many of them used to barely notice.


The new-found demand has produced a flood of complaints as Australians unfamiliar with welfare suddenly discover all the hurdles of identification and paperwork.

"The story here is not that the government treats unemployed people as a sub-class, an afterthought - that's old news, the daily reality for decades," Mr Jeremy Poxon, a long-time anti-poverty advocate, said on Twitter.

"The story here is that, now, they're finding it hard to get away with it."

On Tuesday night, Mr Morrison pleaded for patience.

"We are deeply sorry about this," he said, adding: "Everyone is doing their best. What we're dealing with is unprecedented."

Professor of public policy Warwick McKibbin at the Australian National University said the aid package and the apology both signalled an ideological shift that points to the severe alarm caused by the pandemic.

Mr Morrison's conservative party, known as the Liberals, has often criticised the stimulus package produced by a centre-left Labor government during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, arguing that it was wasteful and unneeded.

Now the party of austerity is actively promoting an aid package that amounts to 4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, slightly less than Labor's previous package, and more stimulus is expected.

"What's notable is that no one is saying these are risks, that the market has to solve everything," Prof McKibbin said.

In the United States and in other countries, too, he added, a greater acceptance of managing capitalism with government intervention may be emerging.

But it is far from clear whether what has been produced so far will be enough.

Economists are predicting that unemployment in Australia will spike to anywhere from 10 per cent to 25 per cent in the next few months, a jobless rate not seen in Australia since the Great Depression.

Many Australians, at every level of the economy, are flummoxed and struggling to even put into words what is happening.

"It's quite a surreal experience that we're faced with," said Mr Danny Ruhlmann, a cinematographer who was abruptly cut from an Apple TV production in Ireland this month, sending him back to Sydney.


"It's something that none of us would have predicted, and it's going to take time to reset what our new norm is."

Old assumptions - property prices will rise, a good education guarantees prosperity - suddenly seem to have question marks appended.

Some young professionals moving back to Australia from overseas said calculations made during the boom now feel moot.

"I got headhunted to move to New York and now I'm going home thinking, I have this great experience, and can have an impact," said Mr Edward Hooper, who works in the technology industry.

Instead, with hiring freezes in almost every industry, Mr Hooper said he would probably have to apply for welfare payments, which he has never done before.

Mr Peter Ricardo, 29, an Australian cruise ship entertainer, is in a similar situation.

"The biggest fear at the moment is just to see the life savings dwindle away," he said.

"It's like the world's on pause."

In the line for government assistance in Sydney's eastern suburbs this week, where coronavirus cases are most heavily concentrated, professionals and casual workers in the gig economy stared at their phones and wondered what the next year would look like.

Ms Molina began to cry when asked if she had children.

"I was supposed to go to Hawaii next month for IVF," she said, referring to in-vitro fertilisation.

Mr Mattia Dicati, 34, who worked for a high-end restaurant that recently closed, said he doubted he would ever make as much as he did before the crisis.

Mr Damien Gibbons, 43, the manager of a social club, said he could not picture what his future would be.

"I just take each day as it comes," he said. "In 27 years of work, I've never needed help."

Mr David Piccolo, 42, who was laid off by one of Sydney's most successful hospitality companies, which completely shut down more than 70 bars and restaurants on Tuesday, said he also felt unmoored.

"Every time I switched jobs before, I found a new one right away," he said.

He came to Australia from Italy more than a decade ago. He did not want to go back.


"Maybe I can work here," he added, pointing to the Centrelink office responsible for processing welfare payments.

"I hear that they're hiring."