The Palaszczuk Labor government in Queensland has taken an unprecedented step in the course of the coronavirus pandemic in Australia—making the decision to import the virus into the state. This spits in the face of Indigenous communities, people with pre-existing medical conditions and the largely unvaccinated group of children aged under 16.
While the decision ostensibly is based on vaccination levels for the entire Queensland population of 70 percent and 80 percent of over-16s, the reopening dates have already been set. By 17 December, practically no border controls will be implemented for vaccinated interstate travellers. Vaccinated citizens and permanent residents arriving from overseas from that date will also have to quarantine only at home, rather than in a government facility. While this is by no means an unfettered reopening, the impact is clear: Queensland is abandoning its efforts to keep COVID out of the state. The remarks from Chief Health Officer Janet Young that all Queenslanders should expect to contract the virus say it all.
It has been stressed constantly from all corners of politics and among media talking heads that it was only a matter of time before “COVID zero” is abandoned and Queensland is forced to “live with the virus”. This perspective has been challenged by independent medical experts and doctors. “Living with the virus” amounts to nothing more than forcing people to die from the virus, particularly those vulnerable people who are either ineligible or struggling to access the vaccine.
A number of groups have outlined the measures that need to be adopted to keep the transmission of the virus to a minimum and to protect lives, well before any talk of reopening borders.
The first is vaccine equity across the state. While the wealthiest suburbs in Brisbane have fully vaccinated rates already over 70 percent, working-class areas on the urban fringes, such as Logan (42 percent) and Ipswich (48 percent), are lagging. Many regional areas outside of the major cities have similar statistics.
The very worst rates are among Indigenous people, only 25 percent of whom are vaccinated. This is despite the warnings of doctors from Indigenous communities about the lagging vaccination rates, as well as the dire consequences if COVID were to ravage communities that already suffer from chronic health problems caused by neglect and underfunding.
The talk of overall vaccine targets also ignores other vulnerable populations, such as the disabled, who made up 58 per cent of the pandemic death toll in the United Kingdom. Clearly, Palaszczuk’s talk of vaccines being the “lifeboat” that everyone needs to board to save themselves is about boosting vaccination rates before the reopening. But in the absence of a clear plan to achieve vaccination rates that not only meet the general target but exceed it to protect these vulnerable groups, Palaszczuk is gambling with their lives.
Less than two months ago, Palaszczuk correctly raised the issue of the health of children, who do not yet have the option of being vaccinated if they are under 12. And yet now she is preparing to oversee a reopening plan that does not even consider children in the vaccination target, even those aged 12 to 15, who are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
With a vaccine likely to be approved for children aged between 5 and 11 in the coming months, this indicates the recklessness of Palaszczuk’s current move. It has been well established over this past year that the delta variant is easily transmissible among the young. Although the disease is less severe among younger people, it is still a bad illness, with potentially horrific outcomes, and children can spread it to adults.
The other issue that Palaszczuk has not raised at all is improving workplace and classroom ventilation. Badly ventilated work and study spaces have been conclusively proven to be a major cause of the spread of the virus. Conversely, the adoption of adequate ventilation measures, backed up with filtration, has been shown to be as effective in reducing transmission as wearing masks. Yet, despite this being an established fact with clear lines of action, the Queensland government has not laid out any ventilation guidelines for any workplaces, even for schools.
Leaving the health and safety of workers in the hands of employers is a recipe for inaction, as has been shown throughout the course of the pandemic. With the government refusing to act, fighting for ventilation has to be a priority for all trade unionists, to fight for our lives and the lives of our co-workers.
The final indictment of the Queensland Labor government’s decision is that it is a direct snub to the nurses and midwives’ union, which has been calling for an improvement in hospital funding to prepare for the pandemic. Seventy-two percent of hospital workers surveyed by the union were not confident that the health system could cope in the event of an outbreak, while 58 percent believed that the health system was unsafe for patients and staff.
We should be clear that there was no ultimatum put before Palaszczuk to open, no outbreak that got out of control. This will be the first time that any state government in Australia has chosen to import COVID. Queensland has the luxury to decide the time and date of reopening. The Queensland Labor government is choosing to do so before Christmas to “reunite families” despite a range of necessary health measures simply not having been undertaken. This is a decision that is gambling with all our lives, and particularly those of the most vulnerable: children, disabled people and Indigenous communities.