Can we win against the Delta variant–and against the array of forces telling us we need to “learn to live with it”?
The honest answer is that we don’t know–any more than previous generations “knew” in advance that they could win a struggle against Australia’s involvement in imperialist wars, or for land rights, or against anti-union laws, or for an adequate public health response to HIV, or any other crucial, life-and-death struggle.
But one thing we do know. If you don’t fight, you lose.
It’s as clear as day that simply giving up on Australia’s COVID-free status now would be surrendering to a wave of death and ill health that will further brutalise Australian society in the direction of the United States. And it's equally clear that giving up the goal of zero COVID would be a major concession to a howling chorus, led by the Australian Financial Review, that doesn’t want to allow public health, or public anything, get in the way of making a dollar. To give up on zero COVID is a victory for those who want to follow the course laid down by Boris “let the bodies pile high” Johnson.
Victory is far from certain. But given the stakes in this fight, it’s crucial that we bend every nerve to make a serious contest everywhere we can.
Giving up on COVID Zero would be giving up on a lot.
There are crowds at the football. Schools and community sport are going along as they ever were. People are in the streets, going to protests, hanging out at the playgrounds, around at each other’s houses and in the pubs. That’s the story in London, in the US–and in four of Australia’s six states.
The only difference is that in the UK yesterday, 969 people were admitted to hospital with COVID. While in South Australia that figure was zero. 798 have died with COVID in the past week in the UK: Tasmania had zero deaths. 982 people are in ventilator beds right now in the UK–a third of the country’s pre-COVID Intensive Care Unit capacity. Queensland has zero. Credible estimates of “long COVID” in the UK start at two million people. WA has zero.
And this wave of death and ill health in the UK is before students in England return to school after the summer break. In Scotland schools are already back, cases are surging as unvaccinated students spread the virus to each other and to their families, and new restrictions are being discussed. The same in Israel, one of the most vaccinated societies on Earth. The same but even worse as the US “lives with the virus”, with pediatric ICUs overflowing.
This is what “living with COVID” looks like. For the indefinite future. Or maybe forever–we can’t know.
In Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory we have something approaching “normal” life. We have the usual range of obscenities and injustices. But we don’t have an additional, colossal toll on health and wellbeing. Giving up on zero COVID would be a big step towards accepting a permanently overloaded health service for the bulk of the population that we see in brutal, dog-eat-dog societies like the United States.
In other words, zero COVID is worth a lot. It’s a state of affairs worth fighting like fury to maintain.
Is it possible though? Like any reactionary trying to get us to accept the unacceptable, Berejiklian and her boosters in the Australian Financial Review are telling us we don’t have a choice–COVID is inevitable, they say, and “we have to learn to live with the virus”.
This is a lie, and clearly so.
Taiwan has recently beaten back a surge of the Alpha variant accompanied by a Delta outbreak. China is intent on maintaining zero community spread, despite Delta. New Zealand the same. Even Queensland, somewhat miraculously, has managed to beat back more than a dozen “incursions” of the Delta version of the virus over the past month. Things are in the balance in Victoria – significant clusters in Shepparton, St Kilda, and Brunswick have reportedly been brought under control, but there is relatively low level but uncontrolled spread in Melbourne’s west and north.
In New South Wales, a criminal lack of regulation and of proper quarantine arrangements was followed by a deliberate ignoring of the lessons of COVID worldwide (and in Victoria last year): Berejiklian refused to lock down hard and early. The gradually tightened measures have forced the “reproduction rate” of the virus from 1.6 down to 1.3. Anything below 1 and we’re headed to zero, but we’re not there yet.
In northern Italy last year, in the midst of one of the first, murderous COVID outbreaks in a western country, with a “lockdown” that was punishing of individuals but let totally inessential businesses operate, radicals pointed out that nothing is more essential than life and health. Therefore, everything not essential to life and health should be immediately shut down, with state support given at a level that makes this possible.
Pushing in this direction is not rocket science. In pandemic-affected states, there is no reason for construction to keep going on anything other than health facilities. Why are workers continuing to pack inessential items in warehouses with poor safety? This applies as much in Victoria as in New South Wales. Any government serious about preventing COVID spread in the workplace could give laid-off union health and safety reps emergency powers to enter premises, audit safety arrangements and have discussions with the workers. How many portable HEPA air filtration units are there? What ideas do the workers have for staggering break times and implementing other safety measures?
Along with shutting down all activity not essential to life and health, there is one straightforward measure that would dramatically increase the chance of success in bringing community transmission back to zero. It’s money.
Flooding affected communities with money–at least the equal of last year’s measures–would take a lot of pressure off. Authorities in Victoria have remarked that many workers delay getting tested for days. The more money that’s flowing around people’s families and communities, as an entitlement and not just as a grudging, obscure hardship payment, the easier it is for a worker to take time off work to test or isolate.
But the money isn’t flowing, and the effect is stark. The charity Food Bank say that last year, despite a four month lockdown, demand for their services dropped in Victoria. But it was a different story in August this year, two weeks into Melbourne’s current lockdown, when Food Bank offered to fill car boots with food. Lines of cars two kilometres long quickly formed: the charity had to shut down early because traffic was backing out on to the Westgate Freeway.
This is not inevitable. Like so much of the disastrous worldwide response to the virus, it’s a conscious policy choice. The strategy of withholding cash to deter lockdowns was flagged by the Financial Review back in May. It’s now official government policy, as proclaimed by Josh Frydenberg. If the “living with COVID” forces succeed in imposing the disease on Australia, one of their main levers will be the deliberate withholding of cash.
For anyone wondering where the money could come from, the Australian Financial Review this weekend celebrated “a tsunami of cash”: a record $86 billion in corporate profits reported for the last financial year, the most profitable corporate reporting season in the history of Australian capitalism. But it’s never enough. The AFR’s weekend front page was split between these glad tidings of record corporate cash and a continuation of its full-throated campaign to open up.
A week ago, the AFR’s Phillip Coorey gloated that “the catastrophic outbreak in NSW” had “broken the COVID-zero mentality” in Australia. The ruling class is following the same strategy as Boris Johnson in the UK where too-late and ineffective lockdowns were used to exhaust the population, paving the way for a murderous “freedom day” and the consequent wave of sickness. The federal government and big business is intent on using the NSW outbreak to establish “facts on the ground”–to force a reopening on the most favourable possible terms to capital, with the least possible attention to, and expense on, public health.
The AFR editorialised in late August: “The tipping point in the country’s thinking on the pandemic, first articulated by The Australian Financial Review two weeks ago, is strengthening. Ms Berejiklian is holding her line that ‘we cannot live in our bubble forever’, and that reopening will be accompanied by an exit wave. But now she is backed by medical profession realists who acknowledge that the costs of lockdowns have their limits, more so when elimination is impossible.”
It’s true that some (but by no means all) in the medical and public health establishment have surrendered to the ruling class offensive to “live with the virus”. This is no surprise. Anyone who follows the climate debate will know that there is a constant pressure on professional and academic experts to tailor their advice to what they believe governments will listen to and act on. A classic case is UK health experts refusing to advise for lockdowns in March last year because they didn’t believe the government would listen to them.
However there’s no consensus. There are plenty of public health figures still desperately, stridently arguing for Australia not to throw away the reality, and the aim, of “zero COVID”. A cursory google of the Twitter feeds of Bill Bowtell, Professor Brendan Crabb, Dr Zoe Hyde, Dr Greg Kelly points to plenty of dissent on the wisdom or inevitability of deciding to “live with COVID”.
Of course, furious epidemiologists on Twitter aren’t going to be anywhere near enough to turn the tide on a serious government assault. The “living with COVID” brigade have the most powerful media outlets, the federal government, and the biggest businesses behind them.
They haven’t won yet, however.
Showing a truly remarkable resilience, despite weeks in lockdown, the most recent opinion polls in the Channel Nine/ Fairfax papers show that only 11% of people thought the recently tightened measures in NSW go too far. 39% say the measures are “too little” as well as “too late”, while 40% say they are appropriate but should have come sooner. State premiers in other states have not yet embraced “living with COVID”, and their occasionally combative statements in response to the NSW disaster put them well to the left of the federal or NSW Labor “opposition”, as well as the trade unions and much supposedly “progressive” opinion. This has kept a national contest alive so far.
Early attempts by Berejiklian to force the pace of reopening have come unstuck, most spectacularly on schools. After Berejiklian declared that schools would resume for year 12 classes on August 16, both the NSW Teachers Federation and the Independent Education Union put out non-descript statements complaining about a lack of consultation. Both unions followed up a couple of days later, however, saying they had been inundated by union members calling and writing to express their concern and opposition to reopening.
When Berejiklian finally got around to announcing a school reopening timetable at the end of August, it was notable for its lack of ambition: it doesn’t start until well into term 4 in late October. If the reopening goes ahead, most students will only have a handful of weeks before the summer holidays. This is still totally reckless, but it’s a big step down on Berejiklian's initial plans.
Schools have repeatedly been a flashpoint during the pandemic. More than one in four students had been pulled out of schools (or walked out themselves) before the Victorian government implemented the country’s first school shutdown last year. Thousands of teachers signed on to protest statements in Victoria last year when the government tried to persist with in-person teaching for year 12s as cases zoomed past 700 per day. With many parents, teachers and students rightfully concerned about the effects of the delta variant, there is no guarantee that getting schools back in will be an easy job for Berejiklian.
There will be other flashpoints. Workers in non-essential industries could take a leaf out of the book of Bunnings workers, whose organised opposition to their stores being open for browsing saw the hardware store become a symbol for Berejiklian's inadequate lockdown.
There are already plenty of brave health workers speaking out about the disaster unfolding in NSW hospitals. Translating this into organised public opposition to the murderous, COVID-ridden “freedom” being foisted on us by Berejiklian and Morrison will not be easy, but if it happens it could be an important political event.
The stakes are high, and we’re up against an establishment with murder (and continued record profits) on their minds. But what’s the alternative?
By building the maximum possible political support for zero COVID, and the maximum possible opposition to “living with COVID", we’re strengthening the hand of every health worker, every retail worker, every teacher and student and parent, who wants to stand up against the fatalism and resignation being pushed on us, and to defend life and health with everything we’ve got.