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‘Quite confronting’: Australia’s recession in 10 pictures

Lucy Dean
·9-min read
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 13: Emma Watkins of The Wiggles performs on stage during a live-streaming event at the Sydney Opera House on June 13, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Opera House has launched a new digital initiative to allow audiences to watch performances at home while the Opera House remains closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. As part of the 'From Our House to Yours' program, the Sydney Opera House is recording performances on-site to broadcast to audiences at home around the world. The Sydney Opera House announced the cancellation of public performances on 17 March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
These are the images that defined 2020. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

This time last year, much of Australia was covered in a thick shroud of smoke but people eagerly awaited the new year and a new decade.

Weeks after the fireworks however, reports emerged of a deadly respiratory virus spreading from a city in China. Within months, the world had come to a standstill and Australia with it.

For Getty Images’ director of editorial photography Cassie Trotter, 2020 has truly been a year like no others.

“Our team at Getty Images [had to] find new ways to adapt to the complexities of shooting live events and creating a historical visual record when our photographers were, at times, one of the few non-partisan witnesses,” she told Yahoo Finance.

Getty Images has released its 10 images that best reflect Australian life in 2020, and the theme is clear: empty spaces highlighting two shared struggles - a pandemic and a recession.

“Looking back at the most impactful images of 2020, it is no surprise that several of these images are quite confronting,” Trotter said.

“Though 2020 often felt that it would never end, our collection of images from this Year In Review shines a light on the moments that made us hopeful.”

Empty ANZ stadium due to Covid-19 Australia
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 19: A general view during the round 2 NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the North Queensland Cowboys at ANZ Stadium on March 19, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

2020 marked Getty Images’ 25th anniversary, after co-founders Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein launched the business in 1995 with a belief in the power of visual content.

Getty Images chief photographer Cameron Spencer told Yahoo Finance that this year was defined - in a large part - by change.

“We didn't know what was around the corner and [that] definitely was challenging. We had to find ways to adapt and be flexible,” he said.

The nature of photography means it was impossible to work from home, and overnight the types of scenes they were trying to capture had also changed radically. However, the photographers also had access to scenes and views the rest of the country and the world did not.

Empty Sydney Opera House forecourt. Lone pedestrian with black and white umbrella.
A lone man walks on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House which is currently closed due to COVID-19 on March 25, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The images of empty landmarks and desolate streets have come to represent the Covid-19 recession, with Spencer noting that these images have been mirrored around the world.

He said the images of an empty Bondi Beach or Sydney Opera House struck him, but it was the aerial shots of quiet freeways and abandoned sporting arenas that really showed the breadth of the lockdown.

Empty Bondi Beach during Covid-19.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 11: Bondi Beach empty on what would normally be a packed Easter Saturday on April 11, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

Lockdowns and support

The Government’s first stimulus package, announced on 12 March, came to $17.6 billion and included one-off payments for pensioners and social security recipients.

On 22 March, the Government announced its second major $66 billion stimulus package which essentially doubled unemployment support. A day later, Australia entered lockdown as COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket.

People were barred from restaurants, days at the beach were off limits and schools and workplaces closed. Suddenly, life was lived indoors.

A week later, the Government introduced its $70 billion JobKeeper package as images of people queuing outside Centrelink branches drew comparisons to the Great Depression.

Aerial view of empty Opera House forecourt.
An aerial view of the Sydney Opera House on April 22, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The arts was one of the sectors hardest hit by the virus, with many businesses and employees in the sector ineligible for JobKeeper due to the casual or short-term nature of their employment.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival was one of the first events to close due to coronavirus, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival soon following.

By the beginning of April, the Australian Bureau of Statistics was reporting just 47 per cent of Arts and Recreation Services businesses were still in operation - the smallest percentage in the economy.

More than 20,000 people in the film industry fell out of work as all productions funded by Screen Australia were put on pause.

A lone woman looking out the window of her apartment at the North Melbourne Public housing flats.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 05: A lone woman is seen looking out the window of her apartment at the North Melbourne Public housing flats on July 05, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Melbourne’s spike

On 30 June, the Victorian government re-introduced lockdown rules across Melbourne and several regional areas as cases began to soar in the state.

And on 7 July, Melbourne and Mitchell Shire were pushed into a six week lockdown that ultimately stretched until late September.

26: An aerial view over the Melbourne Park precinct on August 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia during its strict lockdown.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 26: An aerial view over the Melbourne Park precinct on August 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Melbourne and Mitchell Shire residents were told to wear face coverings, and an 8pm to 5am curfew was enforced. Additionally, residents were unable to travel more than 5 kilometres from their home other than for work and could only leave the house to exercise for one hour a day.

All those bar essential workers were to work from home.

The impact on the economy was severe: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in November warned the lockdown would deal a greater economic blow than the 1990s recession as hard state borders went down.

“It’s easy to forget how hard the people in Melbourne had it,” Spencer said.

“They went through a pretty tough period there for a few months and I think you look at those photos of Melbourne and you appreciate that everyone was doing the right thing and thinking about the bigger picture and not just [themselves].”

Emma Watkins of The Wiggles performs at the opera house with no audience during COVID-19.
Emma Watkins of The Wiggles performs on stage during a live-streaming event at the Sydney Opera House on June 13, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Virtual living

This was also the year that everything went online. School, work, exercise, entertainment, socialising - everything. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan saw his net worth leapfrog 396.5 per cent in the year to September to US$17.7 billion (AU$23.41 billion).

“The way people socialised and the way people entertained themselves, so much became this digital interaction,” Spencer said.

“That image of Emma Wiggle is such a great picture too because she’s in the Opera House performing to nobody and you can instantly recognise her with a yellow top.

“It’s such a big thing - she’s performing obviously to lots of people who are streaming at home, and you’ve got little kids who through the year probably spent more time in front of screens than they ever have.”

A general view of Bourke Street as a lone Pedestrian crosses the road on August 06, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
A general view of Bourke Street as a lone pedestrian crosses the road on August 06, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

The latest spending figures reveal trading conditions rebounded over November as Victoria fully reopened and record Black Friday sales injected cash back into the struggling sector.

Retail turnover for November increased 7 per cent compared to October - an increase of more than $2 billion.

But it was after a rocky year: turnover fell 17.9 per cent in April before rising gradually over May and June, only to start sliding again as Melbourne’s lockdown struck.

Even as Australians stayed home, businesses without foot traffic looked for new ways to keep afloat. Gin makers, wineries, perfumeries and even stationary brands began producing much-needed hand sanitiser, while some bars turned to delivery and cocktail packs, as Yahoo Finance tracked in its Pivot Series.

In fact, while retail sales were largely down, alcohol sales were up by $2 billion, according to Finder analysis. Melbourne business owner Kyla Kirkpatrick runs Emperor Champagne - the largest champagne e-commerce retailer in Australia.

Her sales more than doubled during COVID-19.

 An aerial view of long term car park at Melbourne Airport during COVID-19 lockdown.
An aerial view of long term car park at Melbourne Airport on August 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The future?

The first sector hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and likely the last to recover, is the aviation sector. Both of Australia’s major carriers, Virgin Australia and Qantas, have slashed their workforces while international travel remains little more than a dim hope.

Qantas saw its share price lose 33 per cent over the course over the year after sliding a staggering 70 per cent in March.

Both airlines culled flights radically early on, ending nearly all international travel and most domestic travel before gradually adding domestic flights. Qantas and Virgin Australia earlier this month announced they would take their domestic flight schedules back to 60 per cent, although Sydney’s latest COVID-19 outbreak has triggered border closures around the country.

Australia’s international travel ban remains firm until March 2021, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce predicts most international travel won’t resume until mid-2021 at the earliest.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 26: An aerial view of Federation Square on August 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne is in stage four lockdown for six weeks until September 13 after sustained days of high new COVID-19 cases. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
An aerial view of Federation Square on August 26, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

But there’s a lot of hope in these photos, Spencer said.

“While the pictures may seem gloomy, our photography was also hopefully reflecting moments of hope,” he said.

“Even though you might see someone walking on the street by themselves, in your mind you know that there’s a reason why there’s no one on the streets and the fact that we’re doing the right thing.

“Those images - looking back at them - you’ll realise that while it was a tough year, there were a lot of amazing things that did come out of it to do with compassion and people coming closer, even though we were more detached than ever.”

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