Provide free face masks for the poor

There is mounting evidence that COVID-19 is afflicting a disproportionately large number of the poor, homeless and needy worldwide, as well as those with low paid and insecure jobs.

Sadly, these people do not have the financial means to protect themselves from the pandemic in the same way as those who are better off – notably but not exclusively by the precautionary use of face masks.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is advising the public to wear face mask to stop the spread of coronavirus.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is advising the public to wear face mask to stop the spread of coronavirus.Credit:SMH

In NSW the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, strongly urges everyone to wear face masks for their own protection, as well as the community’s. However, the poor can’t afford face masks.

A pack of 50 disposable face masks can cost up to $60. That’s money the poor simply don’t have. They struggle just to put food on the table and pay rent, so even with the best of intentions they’re unlikely to have cash left over to purchase masks.


The answer to this problem is simple: Provide free face masks. However, it seems beyond the wit of those in power.

What I am saying is that most of our politicians are blind to the problems faced by the poor, homeless and needy because they have little or no lived experience of poverty. This inevitably means they focus attention on the issues confronting those they are more familiar with instead.

In some ways this may be the logical conclusion of the old Thatcherite notion that there is no community per se, just collections of individuals. In these COVID times, when we’re told we are all in this together, the idea of the supremacy of the individual seems somewhat redundant.

Indeed, we are now seeing the emptiness of this rhetoric. The poor have been consigned to overcrowded tower blocks and estates with little or no meaningful support, as are those in overcrowded, low cost boarding houses. Those concentrations risk becoming centres from which this pandemic can spread and affect the entire community.

I worry our politicians are not up to dealing with the endemic issues this pandemic has laid bare. So many of them live in a bubble which is only penetrated by lobbyists for the rich and powerful. I don’t think many politicians’ eyes have been fixed on the poor for decades.

If we are to truly get through this pandemic together, surely we have a moral obligation to ensure every member of the community is equally supported – no matter what their station in life. And that includes access the protective face masks for all.

Reverend Bill Crews is the founder of the Exodus Foundation and a minister of the Ashfield Uniting Church. A version of this piece appeared in his Insights blog.

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