A campaign has been launched by activists in New South Wales, called Lockdown to Zero—Health before Profits. It comes as Australia enters a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic, the NSW government abandoning what has been the established practice of every state and territory of maintaining zero or close to zero community transmission of the virus. By refusing to lock down Sydney early enough, and then implementing a weak lockdown—labelled a “mockdown” by many—Premier Gladys Berejiklian has led the state into a health disaster.
The campaign has released a sign-on statement, which argues: “Rather than eradicating the virus, they now speak of vaccination rates of 50, 60, or 70 per cent of the adult population as a path to ‘freedom’ and the lifting of restrictions ... This is a shift which will lead to hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of unnecessary deaths, and many times more of hospitalisation and suffering”. In this light, the campaign makes several crucial arguments.
First, getting back to zero community transmission is still possible. The current reproduction rate of the virus in Sydney—the number of new people each infected person will infect on average—is around 1.3. So it’s not so wildly out of control that a proper lockdown could not turn this situation around. This position is backed up by many epidemiologists and doctors, some of whom have organised a group called Zero COVID Australia.
Second, despite government attempts to blame the outbreak on a lack of compliance with health orders, the virus is primarily being spread through workplaces, workers then taking it home and infecting their families. This is why the lockdown campaign has been hammering the point that non-essential workplaces such as Bunnings must be closed, and essential workplaces made safe. Deputy Chief Health Officer Marianne Gale recently said that “transmission is happening between workplaces and households. So for the vast majority of people, it’s not anybody doing the wrong thing”. This is why increasing fines and curfews are useless from a health perspective and designed merely to shift the blame from the government’s failures.
“A lack of airborne precautions in essential businesses and services is fuelling this problem”, Dr Noor Bari, who has worked with infectious diseases for many years, and who spoke at the launch of the Lockdown to Zero campaign, said. “There is no reason to assume that a cleaner in a hospital is somehow different to a cleaner in a supermarket ... We need to protect all of these workers by increasing supplies of protective equipment, and teaching people how to best use the equipment that we do have access to.”
Third, the choice of the state government not to put in place measures that will get us back to zero is precisely that, a choice. “The New South Wales and federal governments have consistently been driven not by the health concerns of the population, but by concerns for the ‘economy’—that is, by the profits of their business backers and party donors.” The kinds of measures Dr Bari advocates will cost the bosses money, so they aren’t doing them voluntarily, and yet the government is doing nothing to compel them. It is the usual sham of business “self-regulation”.
Fourth, the health disaster that will be unleashed if the NSW government has its way is not idle speculation but based on simply looking at what has happened around the world, where the “living with COVID” mantra has been implemented. The UK, for example, which has 77 per cent of adults fully vaccinated (around 61 per cent of the total population) currently has around 30,000 new COVID cases and more than 100 deaths per day. And more than 6,000 are in hospital. The current outbreak in NSW has already resulted in more than 10,000 cases and 65 deaths (as of 20 August).
Fifth, how society deals with COVID-19 is a class question. As the Lockdown to Zero statement says:
“This represents a massive attack on the health of the population, in particular on working class, poorer and migrant communities who have borne the brunt of this pandemic globally ... The cries of business-owners and their lobby groups, some media columnists and shock-jocks, and far-right, anti-vax protesters, that lockdowns are an unacceptable infringement on their ‘freedom’, reveal only how little they care about the health and safety of the working class.” This is being tragically borne out in NSW, with cases now rising among the Aboriginal population of Dubbo and surrounding regions, and in the working-class communities of west and south-west Sydney.
Finally, economic support during this protracted lockdown is minuscule. While governments hand a new round of massive tax cuts to the rich, support payments for workers are too hard to get and well below the poverty line. Most workers have no paid vaccine leave and no payments while they isolate after being tested.