From COVID Zero to catastrophe. How did it come to this?
From COVID Zero to catastrophe. How did it come to this?
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“What I witnessed yesterday has left a terrifying impression on me. The hospitals are not equipped for this”—Pathology worker, Sydney, 27 December.

“We’re all going to get Omicron”—NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, 26 December.

“Sydney is sleep walking into a catastrophic disaster in January, if we don’t do something about it right now”—Immunologist Dan Suan, Sydney, 19 December.

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The great achievement of Australia’s ruling class in the second year of the pandemic was its relentless and ultimately successful campaign to destroy COVID Zero. We’re now starting to get an idea of what our brutal new reality of “living with COVID” actually looks like.

Unsurprisingly, reopening state borders and dismantling other public health measures, even as a new variant sweeps the world, produces a reality very different to the lying promises of “freedom” used to justify this historic victory of business as usual over public health.

“Freedom”, they say, means ignoring soaring case rates and focusing only on hospitalisations. But even if we ignore record breaking levels of virus spread in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland, hospitalisations are rapidly increasing. COVID cases in New South Wales hospitals have doubled in a week—from 302 on December 22, to 625 on December 29. We’re following the trajectory set by London and by New York—where hospitalisations are rising by 30 percent per day.

“Freedom”, it turns out, looks like hospital admissions of children with COVID surging in the US, the UK and Sydney.

We were told we were well prepared for this “freedom”—but declaring “COVID normal” in the midst of a surge in cases has pushed the country’s test, trace, isolate and quarantine regime to collapse. Rather than this being taken as an indicator of a reckless policy that risks disaster, politicians are now using the collapse of TTIQ to wind back the few remaining requirements to isolate and test. Healthcare workers having their isolation times cut is one symptom of this disastrous situation—both here and in the US. “Live with it” comes to mean “work while infected”.

Australia’s “freedom” has coincided with a string of studies showing that COVID produces multi-organ disfunction, including in the brain. “Freedom” from public health measures means a burden of long-term ill health stretching into the indefinite future for many thousands of people. You can take your pick of studies, ranging from 5 percent up to 70 percent or higher of people reporting symptoms of “long COVID” or showing clear signs of organ damage from the virus, the blood clots it promotes or the immune reaction it provokes. 

Even if all the claims are correct about Omicron being less virulent, perhaps thousands of people each day in Australia are now being sentenced to months or years of ill health that will range from the disruptive to the crippling.

“Now I can walk slowly for five minutes once a week if I'm lucky, but I get chest pain afterwards”, long COVID patient Jasmine Hayer told the BBC this week. “I have to choose between using my voice and moving my body. I can't do both in a day.” That’s some vision of “freedom” we’ve been sold.

In a widely shared video filmed a few days before Christmas, immunologist Dan Suan summed up the results of his discussions with a string of highly credentialed health professionals. “We are unanimous in our view that Sydney is sleepwalking towards a catastrophic disaster”, he said. Yet there is no sleepwalking involved. This fast-developing public health disaster is deliberate policy. The idea that public health, or public anything, could interrupt business as usual is simply offensive for the Liberal Party and its big business backers.

According to Bill Bowtell, a leading Australian epidemiologist, this has always been the plan. The same “libertarian” views that informed the United Kingdom’s disastrous response to the pandemic—basically to rule out elimination, to refuse to try to achieve it (even in the northern summer of 2020 when cases got down to 60 per day in the UK)—were official policy in the initial stages of the pandemic in Australia.

The first year of the pandemic played out differently in Australia, however. In March last year, public health officials here successfully pushed for a more vigorous public health response. A disorganised but genuinely mass movement of parents pulled kids out of schools for their own safety when governments refused to shut them down. Miraculously, a lockdown that had been intended only to “flatten the curve” actually eliminated the virus from most states.

Having achieved COVID Zero, any state premier could see there would be a massive political cost to letting COVID rip. After lifting the first lockdown too early, and allowing uncontrolled spread from inadequate hotel quarantine, the Victorian government implemented an increasingly strict lockdown from July 2020 to return to zero. This was achieved over howls of protest from big business, from a small army of small business owners violently opposed to prioritising public health over business as usual, and from the Liberal Party.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews could have “done a Gladys” a year before the New South Wales Premier put an end to the eradication strategy. His government could have let the virus spread. Many thousands would have died, and many more would have been forced to live with the debilitating health effects, potentially for years to come. Instead, Victoria’s 2020 lockdown continued until we achieved zero COVID. Victoria bought the country a year while millions were dying across the rest of the world.

Tragically, in public health terms, the time was almost entirely wasted. No dedicated quarantine facilities were built. No start was made on the enormous task of fixing ventilation in schools and other public buildings and workplaces. Next to nothing was done to bolster the hospitals or build new wards or increase testing capacity.

While Andrews was popular following elimination of the virus, Labor kept its supporter base passive. Though the premier threw a few barbs towards Morrison once in a while, he never really waged a battle to defend the idea of zero COVID. He certainly never appealed to his working-class supporters to act, for instance by encouraging unionists and health and safety representatives to implement stringent health and safety measures at work.

When National Cabinet endorsed the reopening plan based on Doherty Institute modelling in mid 2021, Andrews signed on with the other premiers. When he surrendered on COVID Zero in early September, ordinary people might have been disappointed but were left in a weak position to start mobilising in our own defence against the inevitable wave of virus. So there has been disquiet and despair as Victoria and New South Wales opened schools well ahead of the mitigation measures promised. Some 60,000 people under the age of twenty have been infected in the two states since the middle of the year—most of whom would be school students. The meagre information released by the Victorian government shows that, predictably, primary schools have been the centre of most major clusters in recent months.

Despite all this, however, beyond some important local battles, there has been no organised rebellion in schools despite widespread teacher anger. For that, the unions must take prime responsibility. The example of the Chicago Teachers Union shows that it is possible for a union to make a city-wide contest involving tens of thousands of union members over the full suite of health and safety measures—including testing, isolation requirements, cleaning, ventilation and air filtration, vaccines and remote learning. The CTU has lost plenty of battles, but they have won the best COVID safety measures of any school district in the US.

No Australian unions have come close to this level of campaigning. At the highest level, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus earned accolades from then Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter as his “best friend forever”. At an industry level, a string of unions lobbied hard to keep their industry open regardless of the public health implications, with the construction union being a prominent example.

There were political forces with some weight in Australian society who used the time bought by Victoria’s lockdown to plan their next move. These were not the forces defending public health, however. Rather, they were people determined to destroy zero COVID—led by the federal government and big business, egged on by an aggressive campaign from the Australian Financial Review.

Some solid work was done on behalf of these forces by the Liberals’ small business constituency, a section of whom formed the core of a far-right movement that has mushroomed this year. It’s typical of the political mentality of these social layers that their demand was not for state support for workers to enable compliance with public health measures, but “freedom” to operate their businesses regardless of public health orders.

Financial support in the event of lockdowns was dramatically reduced. This was one of the main reasons that the 2021 Victorian lockdown was defeated, as workers simply kept turning up to work in order to keep the bills paid, rather than isolating if needed. And when the Delta strain emerged, the New South Wales government made it a point of principle to introduce public health measures such as lockdowns only when they were too late and too partial to achieve elimination. When a combination of a stricter lockdown and rapid uptake of vaccines (in part driven by mandates) drove the numbers down from the thousands in August to a few hundred in October, there was no thought of using this situation to achieve elimination.

A range of lies including “vaccination is our ticket out of here” were peddled, when in fact, as the OzSAGE group of experts points out, vaccinations alone were never going to be sufficient to preserve public health in the face of a highly infectious and rapidly-mutating virus. But capitalism is not a democracy. The main work of wrecking COVID Zero was done by imposing a policy, not by force of argument.

Yet, despite the determined and successful offensive by the ruling class and its allies, popular sentiment—especially among the working class—has stayed solid in support of public health measures. A Morgan poll in late November found that an extraordinary 96 percent of Labor voters in Victoria agree with workplace vaccine mandates and that support for Andrews is higher than ever.

An Essential poll in early December found only 28 percent of people agreed with the statement, “Governments should never impose lockdowns, no matter how great the threat of new COVID-19 variants, or the effectiveness of vaccinations against them”, outnumbered by the 48 percent of people who disagreed with this. And mobility data and anecdotal evidence suggest that millions of ordinary people are implementing our own grassroots lockdown.

The problem is that no force in society with any weight is interested in turning that sentiment into collective action. With a more combative union movement, a strategy of turning the public health disaster into a crisis of profitability for the capitalist class, to win better public health measures to mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic, would be plausible. But our unions came into this crisis conditioned by decades of retreat and defeat without a fight, and have generally done little to change course.

The imposition of “living with COVID” represents a brutal and important defeat for the working class in Australia. The worst thing is that this defeat is happening with barely a shot being fired.

It’s crucial to build the political forces campaigning for public health over “business as usual”. Hence the importance of groups such as Health Before Profits, planting a flag and keeping it flying for public health even in the midst of disaster. Of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which is planning mobilisations to counter the next anti-public-health “freedom” protest. Of groups like COVID Safe Schools and community initiatives like the South Australian contact tracing page with more than 160,000 members.

We don’t know how the next months will play out. With Omicron, there are worst case scenarios and there are better case scenarios. But all leave a trail of death and illness; they differ only by degree. In a string of countries in 2020, life expectancy fell by a year or more—the biggest drop since World War Two—throwing into reverse decades of gains. We can’t simply hope for the best as those in power demand that we all just “live with it”.

With four major coronavirus variants emerging within the last two years, there is little reason to believe that this will be the last wave, nor that it will wash through the community leaving few dead and the rest of us blissfully immune to future outbreaks—any more than the Wuhan strain or the Beta variant did.

Every mitigating measure that we can win in our own workplaces and in society generally is worth something. Every time we stop one person from catching this disease, it’s a win. So we have to keep campaigning and fighting for every little thing. More than that—we have to keep fighting for a world that prioritises human life above business profits.

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