Informing Tasmania’s response, recovery and post-COVID future

As in many things, Tasmania is experiencing COVID-19 in ways that differ from other states. We knew being an island could give us faster and tighter control of our borders, and we know our demographics make us more vulnerable – physically, socially and economically – to the virus.

These differences are evident to those leading and supporting us through this critical period. Yet there are other differences that if more visible could help in the daily decision-making about, for example, the availability of essential services, how our elderly and most at-risk are supported, if and when we can leave our houses, and what the future will look like for many communities, businesses and individuals.

Good decisions are based on good information – in this case, it will be information on how people living in Tasmania are experiencing and adjusting to life under COVID-19. What are we doing and needing now, and what do we need and want for the future?

Gathering this information and providing it in a form that is useful to those making crucial short and long-term decisions is the aim of The Tasmania Project, led by the Institute for Social Change at the University of Tasmania.

In a world that is seemingly suffering an info-glut, awash in big data and instant communications, how can it still be so difficult to really know our own community, to identify and provide evidence of the specific challenges and opportunities in our place?

Even when we push through the international conspiracies, humour and pathos of social media, or break out of our networks of friends and contacts, it is not always easy to find local information that helps us negotiate complex paths to a future that makes sense for Tasmania.

Where such information does exist, it is often produced by regional newspapers and broadcast newsrooms, sources to whom we turn more often during crises and disasters, yet are now suffering even greater decline in the advertising revenue that pays for the journalists who find and tell local stories.

Big data, as tech-based responses to COVID-19 reveal, is both very big and very personal. Automated contact-tracing on the basis of phone signals may help with the immediate crisis. However, such data is not only limited in what it can tell us about how we live and want to live in Tasmania but comes with potential consequences we should interrogate deeply.

For more than a century, social research, including surveys and interviews, has existed alongside journalism as an important way of gauging a community’s worries, satisfaction, trust, opinions and habits. When designed to look across both time and different groups, it can reveal immediate problems and long-term change. Survey data can tell us how a community is tracking and responding; interviews can help tell us why. The Tasmania Project will do both.

In recent years, the word ‘project’ has come increasingly to mean ‘fix’. But projects in Tasmania tend to be different. You might clear the shed or the kitchen table but that is only preparation for the real project – something creative, constructive, ambitious.

At present, our ambition is to control the spread of the virus, and take care of the thousands of people quarantined on the North-West Coast, the elderly and vulnerable who have been restricted to their homes for weeks, the tens of thousands who have no income, and the workers who are being exposed daily to COVID-19 while protecting our access to medical care, food and essential services. Can you pay the rent? Where are you buying food? Are you coping with the kids?

At the same time, roadmaps to recovery are being prepared. How to reopen businesses and industries that have lost their staff and are crippled by debt? When should children go back to school? How to resume transport for the produce we send out and the goods that come in? How to reopen the national parks, museums and historic sites that enrich the lives of people who live in Tasmania and will one day attract back the visitors we have relied on so heavily? When to resume the local sporting activities that make our regions so strong?

And there is a third set of questions on which we also need to be gathering information now. What should the future look like? What is it that we value? What jobs will there be? What jobs do we want? What direction should we take?

The Tasmania Project aims to fill a gap in what we know about people’s lives in Tasmania by establishing a large and continuing social research platform to gather information and ideas from a representative sample of residents and to provide our findings as quickly and as usefully as we can to those making critical decisions about the State’s immediate and long-term future.

We also hope in the longer term to reveal specific features of life in Tasmania that can help other parts of the world to make decisions about their futures.

To achieve this, we invite you to join The Tasmania Project, to share your experiences and have a collective voice in the State’s future. Individual survey and interview participants will remain anonymous. You can register your interest at The Tasmania Project or call 6226 7542 if you do not have internet access.

Professor Libby Lester is Director of the Institute for Social Change at the University of Tasmania

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