Can you run a Census in a pandemic?

Can you run a Census in a pandemic?

The 2021 Census in Australia could be our most important ever, as it can show the effect of all the changes taking place in Australia right now, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We run a Census every 5 years in Australia, and it provides a demographic baseline for all the characteristics that make us who we are in this country. It’s the basis of so many decisions on communities and infrastructure. While we are seeing the upheaval from this pandemic right now, most aspects of the 2016 Census are still very valid and you can rely on them for understanding small populations in your community.

Are the current (2016) Census figures still relevant?

There are some things which are going to be changing markedly at the moment – for instance, I wouldn’t be relying on unemployment rates calculated from the Census right now, nor the method of travel to work data (I’ll look in another blog at how many people worked from home before this).

However, the basics of age structure and household type, education levels and cultural background are all still highly relevant. And if people are moving around less, these aspects of demographics might actually be more stable over the next year than they have been before.

The 2021 Census will be our most important since WWII

The 2021 Census will be very important, and to be able to look at change over a 5 year period is vital. For instance, we may see substantial increases in unemployment, major changes to migration and settlement patterns for overseas arrivals, either more or less births (depending on who you ask), and of course changes in how Australians get to work – with so many now working from home – will this become more common in the future?

I’ll cover these in more detail in a future blog. It’s vitally important that the 2021 Census be run, and provide the information we need to plan the long recovery from this. The last Census was in 2016. We’re not due for a Census this year, it’s next year. But what if we were? Would the Census be another thing that got cancelled like everything seems to at the moment?

Would a Census during the pandemic be cancelled?

I don’t think so. I hope it wouldn’t, given how important it is. In fact, have you considered that this year, in the middle of a pandemic might be a good time to actually run a Census?

The USA is already doing this. They did have their 10-yearly Census scheduled for 2020, and they are pressing ahead with it in the field at the moment. They run one every 10 years, and this is the scheduled year. There are some changes to procedures and timeframes, but otherwise the US Census is going ahead as planned.

Suppose we did have a Census in Australia in 2020. A “Census 2020” here would capture the information about how our society is changing as a response to the Coronavirus. But there would even be some upsides to the collection – it would also not suffer from issues which have affected Censuses more and more in over the past 2 decades.

Challenges of a modern Census

Censuses have become more difficult to run in recent years, with the ABS putting a lot of resources into getting in touch with people who are harder and harder to contact.

  • People who are overseas on Census night aren’t included in the Census. They’re factored back into the population estimate. But in 2016, over a million Australians were overseas and therefore not counted in the Census. We lose all their characteristics from the Census data. With Australia’s borders now closed, and overseas travel banned, a Census in 2020 would include all those people who would otherwise be away!
  • Many people are away from their usual address, travelling domestically, and while they fill in the Census where they are located on Census night, it’s a lot of effort to get forms and ensure the count for people in hotels etc. But we lose all the household information for these. With domestic travel being discouraged, everyone is being told to stay home. What better time to get a true “usual resident” Census than right now, with everyone staying at home to flatten the curve?
  • Even people who are nominally home – are often out and about and difficult to reach to explain the value of the Census. Surely you’d get more people actually at home right now, making for an easier collection.
  • Census is a great form of temporary employment – over 30,000 people work on the Census, mainly as field officers and processing staff. So this would be a great way of providing jobs, albeit short term, for those who have unfortunately lost their jobs in the current crisis.
  • Most people fill in the Census form online (around 60% in 2016, expected to be higher in 2021), so involvement in person is minimal. Nevertheless there would still be some followup in person required, so this could present challenges if you were to run a Census this year.

The USA is implementing extensions to response periods and social distancing provisions for their Census officers, but going ahead with their decennial count. Obviously they agree that the Census is vitally important for the community. The UK have a Census next year, in 2021, the same year as us. We are fortunate to have the Census every 5 years in Australia – most are every 10.

We will, of course, monitor developments around the Census here. Already we know there will be a new question in 2021 on long-term health conditions. Some of these are known to be complicating factors in Coronavirus cases. How useful would that information be now?

The fact is that Australia’s Census is not scheduled for 2020 – it’s 2021 – next year, on August 10th. Hopefully, we will have returned to some semblance of normality by then.

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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