Construction workers wearing masks

If you suspected that poorer areas in Sydney were far more likely to bear the brunt of COVID it looks like you are right. New research shows that in some areas people were not able to work from home during lockdown because the areas comprised a high proportion of labourers or admin workers and so were more likely than others to fall ill.

The capacity to work from home and the per capita income of local government area (LGAs) may be inversely related to the level of COVID-19 cases in Sydney. 

To address the issue, we categorised major occupations into three groups identified in the 2016 census based on their likelihood of working from home:

  1. The first category is Managers and Professional (aka Professional group). The first category of workers can easily work from home.
  2. The second category is Tradie, Machine operators and Labourers (aka Manual group). Workers in the second category are not able to work from home.
  3. The third category is community, admin and sales works (aka Admin group). The situation of workers in the third category is mixed; some of the workers in this category are able to work from home, whilst others are not.  

 We mapped the accumulated COVID-19 cases up to 19 November 2021 at the LGA level in Greater Sydney using the Geographic Information System (GIS). COVID case numbers were taken from the NSW data release of COVID-19 cases.

The COVID-19 case level mapping by LGA is shown in Figures 1 to 3 below.

Some occupations are more at risk than others

We found that the ability to work from home greatly influences whether or not you might catch COVID. The GIS mapping reveals that there is a significant inverse association between the ability of an LGA’s residents to work from home and COVID-19 concentration.

 The four LGAs of Cumberland, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield have the highest incidence of COVID-19 at 3.81, 3.14, 2.53, 2.28 cases per 100 population respectively in Greater Sydney

These four LGAs have a higher proportion of residents engaged in manual labour (just over 30 per cent) and admin professions (32.5 per cent) than their counterparts in eastern and northern Sydney (ABS, 2016).  The 2016 census data shows that in Cumberland, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield there is less than 10 per cent of the workforce is in a professional  category, whereas on the North Shore and Eastern suburbs there is more than 50 per cent in this category.

An exception to this pattern is the Sutherland Shire. This LGA has a relatively high proportion of people employed as manual workers, but shows lower COVID-19 exposure. However, it should be noted that the Sutherland Shire also has a substantial professional group, around 40 per cent.  This perhaps explains the lower Covid-19 concentration in this LGA.

Unsurprisingly, people able to work from home are at lower risk

The LGAs where a higher proportion of people are employed as managers or professionals (darker-coloured regions in Figure 2, for example, Hornsby, Ku-ring-gai, North Sydney and Mosman LGAs) and who can work from home, have a lower level of COVID-19 prevalence. 

The four LGAs of Mosman, North Sydney, Willoughby and Kuring-Gai have the lowest incidence of COVID-19 (at around 0.1 per 100 population) in Greater Sydney. At more than 50 per cent, the four LGAs also have the highest percentage of those employed in managerial and professional jobs.

The inner city (City of Sydney LGA) and lower East LGA (Randwick) are the exceptions. A high proportion of residents are professionals (at more than 50 per cent), but these areas have had a high rate of COVID-19 (at 0.86 and 0.90 case per 100 population for the City of Sydney and Randwick LGAs respectively).  One explanation is the higher proportion of young people in these areas, who may be less likely to adhere to the COVID restrictions. For example, in Maroubra and Bondi there have been several super spreader events after beach parties.

Figure 2. COVID-19 case levels and the employment concentration of the professional group

The distribution of the admin occupation group, who may or may not be able to work from home, does not show much variation in terms of the COVID-19 prevalence between different LGA areas (Figure 3). A spatial association between the admin group and the COVID case levels is not evident.  

Figure 3. COVID-19 case levels and the employment concentration of the admin group

Poorer LGAs more likely to bear the brunt of COVID

What is consistent across the three maps is that the socioeconomic status of LGAs is directly related to the capacity to work from home and inversely associated with the level of COVID-19 cases.

The highest socioeconomic LGAs, the North Shore, and Upper Eastern LGAs, have the lowest levels of COVID cases – 0.08-0.37 per 100 population. Besides the workforce in these LGAs being constituted by a high proportion of professionals and a low level of admin and manual workers, they are in the top quintile in the ABS Index of relative advantage.

By contrast, within Greater Sydney the four LGAs with the highest COVID-19 case levels, Cumberland, Canterbury-Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield, are in the bottom rung with respect to their socioeconomic status.

The inverse association has also been linked to the high level of unemployment among some Western and South-western LGAs during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In the Inner South West (including the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA) the unemployment rate increased from 5% to 8.8%. The South West (including Liverpool, Fairfield and Parramatta LGAS) accounted for almost 50% of Sydney’s job losses during the pandemic lockdown.

Data highlights need for resources in GWS area

In conclusion, our findings show that in Greater Sydney, the occupations with a higher likelihood of working from home are associated with a lower concentration of COVID-19 cases.  

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Secondly, poorer LGAs were far more likely to bear the brunt of COVID. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the dilemmas of lower socioeconomic areas with a high concentration of manual and “tradie” workers.  These areas also have a high concentration of non-English speaking immigrant communities. Their situation is made worse by higher population densities and less availability of open space.  

Unfortunately, these areas have been targeted for the provision of most of Sydney’s new dwellings over the next decade.

The data highlights the necessity for the government to allocate additional medical and economic resources to the GWS area to contain any future spike in COVID-19 cases and dissipate the inequalities in Greater Sydney.     


Dr Youqing Fan

Dr Youqing Fan is a Senior Lecturer affiliated with the School of Business and Institute of Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He specialises in the research on urban employment, human resource management and social sustainability. More by Dr Youqing Fan

Alan Morris

Alan Morris is a Professor in the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at The University of Technology, Sydney. His main focus is on housing and urban issues. More by Alan Morris

Awais Piracha

Associate Professor Awais Piracha is affiliated with Western Sydney University, researching sustainable urban and regional development and the use of spatial analysis/techniques in land use and transport planning. More by Awais Piracha

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