More than half of all Australians have been directly affected by the summer’s bushfire crisis, including millions suffering health effects, according to a new survey from the Australia Institute.
As fire crews in New South Wales and Victoria prepare for the return of severe fire conditions later this week, the survey of more than 1,000 people found 57% of Australians were directly affected in some way by the fires over the past three months.
About a quarter of those surveyed (26%) reported illness or health effects as a result of smoke haze, while a third (33%) reported a change to routine – such as not jogging outside – as a result of the conditions.
About 15% said they had been forced to change or cancel holiday or travel plans, while 12% said regular places of business or leisure were closed as a result of the disruption.
The number of people reporting negative health impacts has been extrapolated in the nationally representative survey to represent about 5.1 million Australian adults.
The number of people reporting poor health as a result of the fires was highest in NSW, where 35% of those surveyed saying they had suffered illness such as breathing or respiratory problems because of the smoke. In Victoria, the figure was 29%, but the survey was taken from 8-12 January, before the hazardous levels of smoke haze hit Melbourne the following week.
With 9% of respondents saying they had missed work because of the fires or smoke, the Australia Institute is estimating that at least 1.8 million work days were lost as a result, based on the assumption of one day off for each worker affected.
Using Australian Bureau of Statistics labour figures, the survey estimated disruption of the workforce to have cost more than $1.3bn in lost economic production, which it says is a “conservative” estimate.
“In many areas, including in large cities, workplaces closed for many days and in some cases for a week or more,” the survey said. “If we assume an average of two days of lost production on average, the estimate of lost production doubles to $2.6bn.”
The research also showed a correlation between those directly affected by the fires and concern about the impacts of climate change.
People who had been impacted by the fires were much more likely to be “very concerned” about climate change (58%) than those not impacted (32%). Those directly affected were also more likely (68%) to say Australia is experiencing “a lot” of climate change impacts, compared with those not affected (42%).
The findings also showed greater concern for Australia’s forests and wildlife and government inaction among this group.
Only about a third of all surveyed said they believed the federal Coalition had done a “good job managing the crisis”.
Tom Swann, senior researcher at the Australia Institute, said the findings underscored the extent of the “vast” social, economic and medical impacts of Australia’s “national climate disaster”.
“This research suggests that, as Australians face the escalating impacts of climate change in their own lives, calls for policies that reduce carbon emissions will continue to grow,” Swann said.
“Even looking simply at lost work days, the bill is in the billions of dollars. The broader impacts and recovery efforts will cost many billions more and take many years.
“That is why it is so concerning that rising emissions threaten to make events like this even more common in the future.”
Swann said the findings should give extra impetus to the organisation’s call for a levy on fossil fuel producers to help pay for the escalating cost of natural disasters.
“Establishing a National Climate Disaster Fund would move some of the financial burden of these events from the households, businesses and taxpayers that are currently forced to pick up the tab,” he said.