The revelation that almost 90 percent of Victorians are not self-isolating after developing coronavirus symptoms is evidence of a systematic failure in the state and federal governments’ response to the pandemic. Premier Daniel Andrews has daily reminded people to “do the right thing” and expresses disappointment about those flouting the rules. But it is clear with this figure that the problem isn’t about individual irresponsibility.
It’s not just that the growing outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales are both traceable to a botched quarantine operation that the government was warned about way back in March. It’s that the virus is spreading within a working-class population facing depression-like economic conditions, who are forced to continue working out of fear of destitution. Those still employed are thanking their lucky stars. But they know that if they lose their job they are as good as toast. For many, self-isolation, even if they keep their job, would be financially ruinous.
The Victorian government is offering a COVID-19 worker support payment of $1,500. But it is only available to those who test positive for the virus, or a close contact of a carrier. And then only to people who have used up all their existing sick leave entitlements. According to the government, just 100 people had received a payment by 8 July, and just 1,200 have now applied. It surely doesn’t help that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “the only way to access this payment” is through a contact tracing team contacting you.
Tens of thousands of people are getting tested every week and are being instructed to stay at home, to forego up to a week’s wages with little support. For lots of people, this is an economic impossibility. We knew even before the economy cratered that people were living paycheque to paycheque, skipping meals, delaying bill payments, and drawing down savings and using credit cards to bridge the days-long gap between running out of money and the next payday. And we’ve known for months that the situation is worse than at any time since the Great Depression.
Now we’re in an incredibly unenviable position. A deadly virus is spreading rapidly in a population whose lives are put at risk because they are worried sick about their livelihoods – the government’s figures show that 80 percent of transmissions are in workplaces.
The imperative to keep the economy open for business is showing itself to be totally socially irresponsible. If the federal and state governments were serious about getting the health crisis under control, they would shut down all non-essential businesses and provide a living wage to everyone affected. At the very least, those being asked to self-isolate for the good of society should receive a support payment. We are, after all, supposed to be in this together.