28 January 2021

The COVID-19 virus emerged in 2020 and has since spread across the globe. The ensuing crisis and varied government responses have affected how we conduct our lives, how we live in cities and how we conceptualize our world. The full repercussions of the pandemic are not yet fully known, but if resources and focus are shifted away from long-term commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to short-term band-aids and rushed recoveries, progress made towards sustainability and equality could be threatened.

In Australia, the city of Melbourne faced unique challenges. Melbourne had more cases of COVID-19 than the rest of Australia and, consequently, was subject to one of the longest and most pervasive lockdowns in the world. While successful in combating the virus, these lockdowns have had real effects on the city, with implications for businesses, employment and the economy, mental and physical health, and general well-being. The restrictions and their aftermath have also had uneven effects within the city, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in society. Yet the response to the crisis has also shown us what we can do at government and community levels to support those in need.

The Melbourne Experiment 

In the United Nations Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World, Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that the policy choices we make today will determine our resilience in the context of future risk and our ability to achieve the SDGs. To build back, governments and decision makers need to identify gaps in support, determine how pandemic safety nets might be extended and identify what plans need to change. As Juan Romo, Rector of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, pointed out in his response to the Policy Brief, universities will play a key role in planning for this future.

We have the opportunity to learn from this pandemic, and universities are uniquely situated and resourced to lead transformative conversations.

At Monash University in Melbourne, a group of diverse experts are engaged in a multidisciplinary, collaborative research project called the Melbourne Experiment to study the impacts of COVID-19 on the city. Just as the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief suggests, these researchers are working to positively inform change through knowledge creation and conscious policymaking for post-COVID-19 urban recovery and renewal.

Equality—an opportunity for change

As in other parts of the world, researchers participating in the Melbourne Experiment have found that the effects of this crisis reflect and intensify the inequalities and social issues already present in our societies. However, with greater understanding and attention drawn to these issues, there are also opportunities to solve them. 

In an online survey of 14,000 people, a project titled Psychological Impacts of COVID-19 on Urban Residents found that the prevalence of mental health problems had doubled during the pandemic. The worst-affected had lost jobs; lived alone or in poorly resourced areas; or were caregivers, members of marginalized minorities, women or young. As SDG 3 target 3.4 indicates, a multisectoral, integrated, mental health promotion response is needed.

If resources and focus are shifted away from long-term commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to short-term band-aids and rushed recoveries, progress made towards sustainability and equality could be threatened.

COVID-19 is also exacerbating existing gender inequalities worldwide. Situational stressors related to government-enforced lockdowns have increased the incidence and severity of violence against women, which was already a widespread problem before the pandemic. Gender inequality is the key driver of such violence. A project called Gender-Based Violence and Help-Seeking Behaviours During the COVID-19 Pandemic will inform gender-responsive recovery plans.

COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on Australian female workers because they bear a greater part of the burden of caring for children than do their male counterparts. Research undertaken as part of a project titled Flexible Work Arrangements During the COVID-19 Response considers how legal protections could be strengthened to improve gender equality. This includes how the law might promote flexibility in work practices and protect women against ongoing workplace discrimination.

A Collaborative Research Workshop at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 11 December 2019 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). ©Simon Milder

The use of technology has enabled remote and online access to justice during the COVID-19 restrictions. Monash Law’s Access to Justice Innovation Precinct is examining how COVID-19 has increased the need for remote and virtual access to expert and vulnerable witnesses, and the Immersive Virtual Court Hearing Pods is building immersive virtual witness boxes to provide quality justice by innovating virtual hearings. Further research is being done to identify and address how the right to a fair trial may be affected, implications for the use of face recognition technology and other forms of surveillance at this time, and the effects on overall trust in and perception of police legitimacy. 

A Green Recovery

The pandemic has also provided the opportunity to change our relationship with our space and environment. The decisions we make now can either bring us closer to a green recovery and related SDGs or move us further away. A project called Travel Patterns During and After COVID-19 identifies policy challenges and their mitigation by forecasting the impact of post-pandemic COVID-19 city travel. Infection fear has caused behavioural shifts from efficient and sustainable public transport (SDG 11) to increased car use. The consequences of traffic congestion and reduced liveability (SDGs 3 and 11) include 20 per cent less Central Business District activity and decreasing urban productivity and growth (SDG 8), putting a sustainable recovery at risk.

All Australian states and territories have targets or aspirational goals of net zero emissions by 2050. Projects being undertaken by Climate Works Australia show how Australian state and territory policymakers can use COVID-19 economic recovery investments to achieve multiple outcomes, including generating jobs and demand, boosting productivity and making essential progress towards the net-zero emissions goal.

Designing the Future

Knowledge can be used to shape immediate responses in order to protect the most vulnerable and reshape future plans to ensure an inclusive, equal and sustainable recovery. Plans to build back can either encourage resilience or recreate the system and problems that contributed to the current crisis. Mapping what has happened will enable us to build back better.

The Survey of COVID-19 Responses to Understand Behaviour (SCRUB), conducted in partnership with the government of Victoria, has tracked Australians’ behavioural responses and attitudes to COVID-19 since March 2020. These include protective behaviours, such as wearing masks and physical distancing; travel and workplace behaviours; and compliance with rules and restrictions. It has collected urgent evidence to support government policy responses to COVID-19. SCRUB also provides an example of how close collaboration between government and academia can lead to evidence-informed policy, including, potentially, for future pandemics.

The Melbourne Digital City Model combines a range of urban data sets into an interactive 3D platform. The model advances SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by supporting collaborative decision-making on sustainable post-coronavirus futures. The project is conducting a pilot in a Melbourne suburb, investigating how to plan and design 20-minute neighbourhoods in the post-COVID-19 city.


The multidisciplinary approach of the Melbourne Experiment holds relevance beyond its namesake city. Its form and function could be replicated globally to strategically map and pull apart the complex web of repercussions and opportunities born from this pandemic and future crises. Globally, we need tailored responses that support the pursuit of the SDGs. To do this, governments require up-to-date, accurate information. We have the opportunity to learn from this pandemic, and universities are uniquely situated and resourced to lead transformative conversations.