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Original research by the Sydney Policy Lab has surfaced key stories from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. These stories tell of Australia’s First Nations responses to COVID-19, the Melbourne Towers lockdown, food security during the pandemic, and policy issues relating to non-citizens.

The Sydney Policy Lab report Nurturing Links Across Civil Society: Lessons from Australia’s For-Purpose Sector’s Response to COVID-19, explored four capability areas for people and organisations working to create a stronger Australian civil society. They are leadership, community connection, advocacy and influence, and systems and networks. 

Our team has brought these principles to life by compiling four stories which highlight the ambitions of civil society practitioners and their organisations during COVID-19.  

Read their stories here.

Responses to COVID-19 from Australia’s First Nations 

The response to COVID-19 from Australia’s First Nations demonstrates the strength and versatility that can arise from community leadership. During the early days of the pandemic, Aboriginal community-controlled organisations galvanised local and national First Nations leaders to reach out to government and summoned the local knowledge of those working in remote communities to forge ahead with appropriate safety measures. 

However, in the later stages of the pandemic, rising case numbers revealed that community connection and local leadership could only go so far in mitigating the impact of wider systemic failures, such as Australia’s lack of public health preparedness for the outbreak in rural and remote areas of the country. 

The Melbourne Towers COVID-19 Lockdown 

In July 2020 in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, thousands of public housing residents looked out their windows to see armed police officers forming a barrier around their homes. Mere hours earlier, the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, had announced the state was entering a Stage 4 lockdown to tackle an emerging COVID-19 outbreak. 

The stories of organisations such as CoHealth and the Brotherhood of St Laurence doing community development and capacity-building work with residents during that time suggest that funders and policy makers can prepare for future crises by creating opportunities for local leadership to thrive and facilitating resilient networks that can support people in need when future crises strike. 

Food Security and COVID-19 

Food insecurity was already a significant issue for many Australians prior to COVID-19. During the pandemic, it became an even bigger problem, whether as a result of job losses, people being unable to leave their homes, or from being unable to access Federal Government programs such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker. 

In the face of these challenges, this COVIS-19 story showcases three vignettes that tell the story of civil society ­– ranging from small community-oriented business owners, volunteer-power community organisations, to food relief charities – stepping up to organise and support one another, pushing past systemic barriers to ensure that individuals and families could put food on the table. 

Non-citizens and COVID-19 

Prior to the pandemic, international students and temporary migrants not only faced scarce employment opportunities but relied on work in heavily casualised industries to cover the cost of housing, high tuition fees, health, and food costs. 

This COVID-19 story presents the example of various multiple civil society organisations coming together to form powerful alliances, which worked to catalyse action from state and local governments in providing support packages to non-citizens. 

To read more about the experiences of civil society leaders during COVID-19, download the full report here, or just their stories here.

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society project is a strategic partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation. It aims to build a stronger and reenergised Australian civil society, by creating opportunities for civil society leaders to reflect on their practice, and then sharing these insights and stories with others.    

Three ways you can engage with our work:   

  • Invite us to come and chat to your team or group about how these ideas relate to what you’re trying to do.    
  • Get in touch with us via email and let us know what you think.    
  • Share this page or the report with people you think might be interested.    


Amy Tong

Amy Tong

Amy is a research assistant at the Sydney Policy Lab.