COVID-19 in Australia: A Nepali Student’s Perspective

AGYAT LUITEL

With WHO declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, a lot of industries are on the brink of collapse worldwide. Global stock markets have also slumped. Like other stock markets, the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) has seen a historical downfall since the global recession of 2009. On March 9, the ASX crashed below 6000, which resulted in a loss of more than $140 billion on a single day.

The major contributors to the GDP and employment in Australia are services, tourism, healthcare, and media and entertainment. And these top four contributors are in the contraction phase right now due to the corona outbreak, except for healthcare industries. This will lead to mass unemployment, which will affect almost everyone in Australia – citizens, residents, immigrants, students and others. It is said that four out of five Nepali immigrants in Australia are employed in the above mentioned four sectors, and most of them are not professional workers. Since these sectors are facing a slump at the moment, the Nepalis working there are about to lose their jobs.

The largest number of Nepalis in Australia are working in the healthcare sector. This sector is not vulnerable economically at the moment, however, healthcare staff are directly exposed to the threat of the virus. A lot of news about healthcare staff getting affected due to direct exposure to the patients is circulating in the media.

The Australian government has lifted the 20 hours per week limitation for those students who work in aged care facilities, which has directly benefited the Nepali students financially. However, the coronavirus trend shows that elderly people are more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
According to the Australian Department of Health, six people have died out of 454 cases across the country until March 18. They were all aged between 77 and 95 years.

Since most of the deaths related to the coronavirus in Australia are from the aged care facilities, most of the staff are staying at home instead of working. This forced the government to lift the work limitation for the students.

Apart from healthcare, the tourism industry is another sector where Nepali students are involved. This includes aviation, hotels, restaurants and other recreational activities. Most countries have imposed travel bans across the globe, directly affecting the tourism industry. The tourism sector alone contributed 38 billion AUD from the almost 1 million tourists, mainly from China, Japan, Korea and the United States. Those working in these sectors report that their working hours have been reduced in the last few weeks, and they might end up without a job in the near future.

Qantas Airlines, the flag carrier of Australia, has grounded 150 of its aircraft, reducing their domestic flights by 60% and suspending all international flights. Around 20,000 staff of Qantas will be on paid leave at first, then unpaid leave. It affects not only one airline but other associated businesses as well. The jobs of people working at the airports, hotels, catering, passenger service, maintenance, facilities are also at risk.

There are some niches like retail shops, small eateries, cleaning services and warehouses, where Nepalis, mostly students, work at the moment. The local retail shops are booming at the moment, but if most of the nations plan to lock down the entire country, then it will affect the production in different parts of the world, which will affect these retail stores both directly and indirectly.

The cleaning sector provides services at public places, offices, malls and schools. With the encouragement of work-from-home, online-classes and social distancing, this sector is also on the verge of collapse. Work-from-home might be feasible for white-collar jobs, but the blue-collar workers, where most of the Nepali students are working, cannot work from home.

Australia is also a major source of remittances for Nepal after the Gulf countries. The remittances sent to Nepal from Australia are mainly from the Nepali students in Australia rather than by those who have acquired citizenship or permanent residency. The Australian government has declared some compensation for small businesses and people who risk losing their jobs, but it won’t cover the foreign immigrants currently residing in Australia. Foreign students are cash cows in Australia as they are a major source of income in Australia, and Nepal is the third largest supplier of students after China and India. Australia has already lost millions of dollars this year during this admission window due to the corona outbreak.

If the effect of this pandemic is not addressed by the Australian government strategically, a lot of Nepali immigrants, students to be specific, might have to return to Nepal. Preparing for the worst case scenario, the Nepal government should be ready to manage these groups returning from abroad. Nepalis in Australia are highly successful in business, in sectors like education, real estate, financial services, restaurants and retail. Majority of the customers in these sectors are also Nepalis.

The historic decrement of the value of the Australian dollar, the dramatic collapse of the stock market and over-dependency on China could hit the Australian economy, and Nepal’s, too.

Published on: 20 March 2020 | The Himalayan Times

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