Australia has entered phase B of the COVID-19 recovery plan. The international border is reopening, Victoria and New South Wales are out of lockdown, and other states are preparing to end domestic restrictions on movement and allow the coronavirus to circulate widely.
The political right and the ruling class in recent months campaigned relentlessly to open as quickly as possible and “live with” this disease, which, according to estimates published in the Economist magazine, is directly and indirectly responsible for more than 16 million deaths worldwide. That they didn’t get their way eighteen months ago is a significant victory for workers in Australia. Other countries recorded tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths; we have thus far kept the damage to fewer than 1,500 thanks to border closures and lockdowns that were fiercely opposed.
Those lockdowns have nevertheless been taxing. Many people, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, are breathing sighs of relief that they have come to an end. This is, however, a victory for the political forces that have instinctively opposed public health measures from the start and who are doing next to nothing to bolster the defences of the public health system to deal with increased illness from here on.
It is an open question how many people in Australia are going to die or be left with debilitating long COVID in the coming months and possibly years, depending on how long the pandemic continues. But the way other public health measures are being jettisoned and attacked as unnecessary increases the health risks associated with reopening.
Still, there is cause for cautious optimism. The vaccine situation is as good as anyone could have hoped for twelve months ago. Those in use in Australia, while not foolproof, are remarkably effective at preventing severe illness and death. There is as yet no evidence of a serious decline in their efficacy on these fronts, and the boosters being made available in coming months should address declining efficacy against asymptomatic to moderate infections.
Vaccine coverage is also going to be significantly higher than first expected. In New South Wales, for example, the first dose immunisation rate for those 16 and over is approaching 95 percent, is already above 75 percent for 12- to 15-year-olds, and the 5 to 11 age bracket will likely be eligible in coming months as well. Further, vaccine development is ongoing. As good as the current vaccines have been, they are first generation breakthroughs that were not designed for use against the dominant delta strain of the coronavirus. More scientific breakthroughs in vaccines and treatments are likely still to come.
But again, good news stories should not blind anyone to the risks, and to the reality that things can change rapidly—as in mid-February this year, then again in mid-June, when the global situation seemed to be improving, only for devastating second and third waves to wash over the world, driving up cases and deaths in a matter of weeks.
Different countries and regions have had diverse experiences in recent months, using various public health settings and with varying levels of vaccine coverage. Portugal, for example, has 86 percent double-dose vaccine coverage of the entire population (Australia is at 58 percent and is on track to get close to 80 percent). The government there says that it has reached about 99 percent coverage of adults and has run out of eligible people to vaccinate. With a population less than half that of Australia, the country still recorded almost 18,000 new cases and 180 deaths in the last month. Spain, with 79 percent total double-dose vaccination coverage and almost twice the population of Australia, recorded more than 50,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths.
Those two countries are middle of the road in terms of health outcomes. Denmark (76 percent vaccination) and the Netherlands (68 percent) are doing better, with fewer COVID deaths per capita. But their infection rates are rising since the lifting of public health restrictions. “It’s increasingly clear that although vaccines have radically weakened the link between infection and serious illness, they haven’t broken it”, Ben Coates wrote at DutchNews.nl on 20 October. “There are now nearly 60 percent more people in hospital than in early October and more Dutch people died of COVID in September 2021 than in September 2020.”
At the devastated end are Britain, which has suffered more than 1 million new infections and nearly 3,500 deaths in the last month, and the United States, which has endured another 50,000 deaths in the same period. In all these countries, this might be as good as it gets for now. Alternatively, some may improve while others deteriorate. With the northern winter bearing down, we don’t know what will happen over the next six months.
At stake in all the discussions about how fast or how cautious reopenings should be is more than a set of numbers on illnesses, hospital admissions and deaths. There is a proxy battle over society’s collective values. How much misery and suffering on the part of the sick and their families and friends will be tolerated?
The answer in most places will be judged relative to general social expectations and, of course, what has already transpired. For example, 1,000 deaths a month in Spain appears objectively appalling from an Australian perspective. But it might seem positive news for a resident of Madrid who, over the course of the pandemic, has experienced several national spikes approaching, and even exceeding, that level of mortality on a single day. Perhaps so too in Britain, where the daily average of 130 deaths is less than one-tenth the January peak. Yet visions of Britons simply shrugging their shoulders at 50,000 deaths per year from a deadly new virus would no doubt have startled, perhaps even sickened, some of those now celebrating it if they had had a premonition of the current situation two years ago.
If the answer is relative, it is also malleable. Since their inceptions, the socialist movement and the union movement have fought to raise the expectations, social consciousness and conditions of life of the working class. So a fight for public health must continue, even as the virus is spreading in our midst: arguably the worst outcome would be the population becoming inured to a constant stream of dead bodies and chronically ill survivors. How much would that demoralise working-class people and dampen their collective expectations of a dignified life?
In much of the world there now seems to be broad resignation to mass COVID deaths. Although this is in some senses understandable, it is nevertheless terrible. And it’s impossible to quantify the effect it may have had on broader social consciousness and social solidarity. In many places, other heinous outcomes have become established as norms for working-class people over decades or longer: the absence of public health systems or permanent social security, poverty-level wages, informal employment, slums, low life expectancy, appalling sanitation. It’s much easier for such things to be established by the ruling classes than it is for workers to shift things in the other direction.
In some parts of the world, including the first world, it takes so much energy for individuals and families just to survive that the horizon of hope can be limited to small personal advances while the greater challenge of improving social wellbeing is relegated to dreaming, if it registers at all. Life is brutal—in the absence of collective struggle, of activist leaders who organise resistance, people naturally adapt to their collective disadvantage.
While the working class in Australia is not about to descend into conditions of life equivalent to those obtaining in a South Asian slum, there is nevertheless an ongoing campaign to undermine every advance made by generations of workers. The “living with COVID” question is the latest battleground in this front. And our side must understand that the path to social degradation is one of countless small, sometimes imperceptible, steps. A society that grows tolerant of poverty and precarity, of sickness and suffering, is already a space of multi-dimensional violence creating obstacles to social solidarity.
It has already been established in Australia that the increased strain on the hospital system from COVID will result in elective surgeries being put off and admissions for other illnesses being delayed, rather than the health system being expanded and strengthened. It is already being established that people will go back to work without masks in offices lacking adequate ventilation. What else is going to be established if there is no push back from the workers’ movement? More broadly, if the workers’ movement shows no reflex to fight for workplace and public health and safety when it encounters a potential deadly threat like we now face, then what future is it creating for itself? What is the next thing that will pass without a fight, or even without comment?
Again, there is cause for hope that Australia will avoid the worst-case scenario. Our summer of reopening might be better than expected. Perhaps the passing of next winter will also be met with sighs of relief. But it makes sense to look to Europe for a gauge of our possible futures—of all the places in the world, Europe has the most similar socioeconomic systems, public health systems, cultural practices and vaccination rates. There are enough possible ugly futures over there to demand that we prepare for the worst over here. Australia, before full reopening and with much of the country still free of the virus, currently has a higher daily death rate per capita from COVID-19 than the Netherlands, and is equal to that of France and Denmark, according to New York Times data.
Further, wave after wave of the virus in Europe has likely provided some level of natural immunity among some or many of the unvaccinated, and possibly some added protection among the vaccinated. In Australia, by contrast, just 0.5 percent of us have thus far been infected. There is still also the possibility that yet another, deadlier coronavirus mutation will emerge, perhaps one that is resistant to current vaccines. If that happens, all bets are off.
So the public health system should be bolstered as a priority. There should be a complete overhaul of ventilation systems in workplaces, public buildings and public transport. The hospital system should be expanded, and more nurses and health professionals trained and employed. That will be good for public health even if the COVID situation remains stable. A dedicated national quarantine system should still be built. Even if it turns out that we never need it for mass quarantine again, a series of well-built and properly equipped centres would be multi-functional. For example, they could serve as evacuation and accommodation centres for people displaced by bushfires or floods. They should be designed so that families could live there comfortably for months if they needed to while waiting for their destroyed homes and communities to be rebuilt after a natural disaster.
Whatever the precise things that need to be fought for, there must be demands placed on the governments that are now simply crossing their fingers and hoping for the best without at all preparing for the worst. In the last month, at least 200,000 people around the world died from COVID-19. This pandemic is not over. How devastating, and devastatingly stupid, would it be, having fared so well for the last eighteen months, to invite disaster now by not fighting for the obvious things that will save lives?
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