At the end of May, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced the staged reopening of the economy. Fast forward a month, and the government is resorting to dramatic new measures, like the targeted lockdown of suburbs identified as hotspots.
Inevitably, different sections of the establishment are scrambling to find scapegoats to blame for this mess. First were the 100,000 who marched for Black lives through Melbourne’s CBD last month. “Victorians have sacrificed so much to keep each other safe during the coronavirus pandemic, but all the hard work could have been undone by Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter protest”, state politics editor Shannon Deery wrote in the Herald Sun. This supposed concern for public health was hard to believe, coming from a publication that has downplayed the virus and agitated to reopen the economy.
It has since been confirmed that no new cases in Victoria were linked to the Black Lives Matter demonstration. But this hasn’t stopped a continued wave of denunciation, and heavy fines imposed on the protest organisers by the Andrews government. This was not enough for the state opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, who accused Andrews of making “too many excuses for left wing protesters”. When the chief medical officers repeatedly clarified that the protest was not responsible for any new outbreak, Liberal ministers shifted the goalposts. Now they claimed that, while the protest might not be directly responsible for any new transmissions, it encouraged others to get outdoors and spread the virus.
The media joined the pile-on, for several weeks peppering the chief health officer with questions about new cases related to the march. It was almost as if they were hoping for a new outbreak to blame on protesters. Then came the political right’s favourite method of deflection – racist scapegoating. Andrew Bolt fired the opening salvo, labelling coronavirus a crisis “made by multiculturalism”. Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, blamed the outbreak on the illiteracy of the South Sudanese community – a racist fabrication so blatantly dishonest that her current employer Sky News issued a rare retraction.
The focus on African and Muslim migrants reflects their status as targets of racist persecution. As always, it plays a role in whipping up racist division, as well as justifying the particularly appalling treatment oppressed minorities are subjected to. And when they do get sick, migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds don’t get the support they need. It was reported this week that the company contracted to manage “crisis communication” (instructions for those carrying the virus) wasn’t asked until 29 June to make information available in languages other than English.
There are other relevant factors that help explain the second wave, which have been ignored by the political right because they don’t involve attacking protesters or promoting racism. One is the government choosing to open the economy rather than attempt to eliminate the virus. Judging by the outcomes in other states, coronavirus eradication is possible – even when it hasn’t been the stated goal. But business profits being prioritised above social wellbeing has contributed to the outbreak continuing in Victoria.
And the unwillingness of the government to discipline companies that endanger workers’ safety has also created a dangerous situation. A worker employed by ISS, a cleaning firm, was sent home from Flinders Street Station on 15 June after testing positive to the virus. But Metro Trains didn’t tell workers at the station for more than a week. Five new cases have been linked to the Laverton Coles distribution centre, where an employee worked alongside hundreds of others for three days while infectious. Many cases have been found in highly casualised, insecure and non-essential workplaces such as McDonald’s, Hugo Boss and H&M.
The worst outbreak in Victoria to date, the Cedar Meats cluster that led to 110 confirmed cases, was a product of corporate criminality like the Flinders Street incident. Management at the factory dismissed reports of illness from workers as “rumour and innuendo”. Before the business finally shut down operations weeks after the first case was confirmed, workers were ordered to perform 11-hour shifts to increase production and complete orders.
While the Andrews government is happy to fine protest organisers for their alleged irresponsibility, it worked with Cedar Meats to cover up the neglect. Andrews refused to name the company responsible for the cluster – until it was revealed that the Cedar Meats boss was a long-time Labor Party member and donor.
Without a willingness to seriously prosecute, fine and jail bosses that endanger workers’ lives, and with them the health and safety of society, it will be impossible to prevent more of these outrages in the future.
Perhaps most scandalously, the Andrews government itself is directly responsible for many of the new cases. In a press conference on 30 June, Andrews conceded that breaches in quarantine hotels hosting international arrivals have been a key driver of the outbreak. At the Stamford Plaza in the CBD and the Rydges hotel in Carlton, subcontracted private security guards were given little training and inadequate protective equipment. Predictably, they caught the virus and spread it. The lack of government oversight and management meant that it took whistle blowers to bring these problems to light. So while the premier and health minister berated families for holding gatherings in accordance with the rules, their own mismangement of quarantine was spreading infection recklessly and entirely unnecessarily.
The political right, in the parliament and in the media, is more concerned with deflecting blame and stoking racism than with genuinely learning the lessons from Victoria’s second wave.