With the prospect of a rapid escalation in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Australia, with the risk of hundreds if not thousands of deaths, and with a health crisis that, as the government now admits, could go for six months or longer, the Morrison government is responsible for a looming humanitarian disaster.
The government has known for weeks that the epidemic that started in Wuhan would make its way to this country.
The government responded at the start of February by implementing a travel ban on China, airlifted Australian citizens from Wuhan, and then – sweet FA.
Morrison hoped that the travel ban would allow the government to reset the political narrative after his government was widely condemned for its failure to respond adequately to the bushfire crisis. The travel ban was meant to signal that the PM had packed away his Hawaiian shirt and was now on the bridge taking command of the ship. Firm action was the order of the day.
But after the travel ban, nothing. It was back to business as usual. Whether it’s bushfires turning rural communities to ashes or COVID-19 building up to an impending health catastrophe, Morrison and his ministers have been masters of malign neglect.
Weeks went by, and the government continued to tell us that everything was under control, people should just keep going about their business, and the health system was perfectly equipped and prepared to deal with the virus – even as the number of cases outside China began to explode. South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy: the numbers kept increasing, but still Morrison’s attitude was that all was well.
What is the reality?
The NSW chief health officer estimates that 20 percent of the state’s population, 1.6 million people, could require testing in the first wave of COVID-19, with up to 80,000 people needing simultaneous intensive care. How well are our health services equipped to deal with such a dramatic crisis with such deadly consequences?
It was already the case before this crisis that even a slight surge in demand for hospital services, like a car pile-up on the freeway, was enough to stretch hospital resources to the limit.
The number of hospital beds has not kept pace with the increasing population. The lack of hospital beds has meant that treatment for those with COVID-19 has involved cancelling elective surgery or taking resources away from patients with cancer or heart or lung diseases.
Billions of dollars that should have been going to building the public health system have been thrown at the private health insurance industry, companies like BUPA being propped up with taxpayer money.
Faced with a health care system quite unprepared for the anticipated double whammy of the onset of flu season and COVID-19, when the government should have been putting in place an emergency response, it just sat there twiddling its thumbs.
Hospital staff and GPs were left to cope with inadequate resources as the number of people reporting for testing began to grow. Health professionals have been given conflicting information on how to respond to the emergency. And GPs have been required to consult with patients over the phone, sometimes for lengthy stretches, for which they received no pay.
The testing regime is entirely inadequate. Such is the lack of test kits that only those with flu-like symptoms who have either travelled overseas in the last 14 days or had contact with a confirmed case in Australia are eligible for testing. Those with COVID-19-like symptoms but not fitting that tight definition have simply been sent away. Given that those with COVID-19 may not even be aware that they are carriers, this is a disastrous state of affairs, because those who are infected might be quite unknowingly infecting others. In the absence of random testing of the population, this is an inevitable outcome.
And now comes the news that, due to the worldwide surge in demand and the imposition of export restrictions, Australia is facing a still more acute shortage of testing kits even before the huge wave of expected cases hits the country. Rather than making testing more widely available, hospitals will be rationing it even more tightly.
In the absence of proper testing facilities, people in the first weeks of the crisis who suspected they might have the virus just walked into hospitals, sitting alongside other patients, sometimes for hours on end. Or they have been sent from pillar to post, no one taking responsibility for them, until they have returned home defeated.
And many health staff, in hospitals or in general practice, have been at risk of catching Covid-19 themselves because of the nature of their work. They already operate with little or no additional staff, with the result that, rather than take the time off to self-isolate or seek medical help themselves, they have soldiered on, risking infecting themselves and others.
The Morrison government did nothing in February and early March to ensure sufficient supplies of equipment and other resources: not just the testing equipment but personal protective equipment such as masks and suits, even hand sanitiser. Despite its small size, and despite the government’s ravaging of the CSIRO since its election in 2013, Australia has one of the world’s best communities of science and health experts. The country has some world-leading medical companies such as CSL. But very little of this expertise was reoriented to dealing with the coming crisis. Private companies that should have been directed to producing medical supplies and pharmaceuticals to assist in treatment of sick people have been allowed to continue to work on whatever patented drugs can make the most money. In the 13th richest country in the world, there are shortages of hand sanitiser and face masks.
Knowledge in the community about COVID-19 is extremely patchy. At the height of the bushfire crisis in January, the Liberal Party could release an expensive self-congratulatory video explaining how the government was on top of the situation. But in the six weeks to mid-March, the Morrison government did not put one cent towards communicating information on how people could limit the spread of the virus, nor what services were available.
In the absence of such guidance, people were left vulnerable to every type of social media fake news, all reinforced by US president Donald Trump, who initially described the virus as a Democrat hoax to make him look bad.
It is widely accepted that the best way to contain the spread of the virus is by people who are sick or who have been in contact with sick people to isolate themselves. But nothing was done in the weeks since COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan to make self-isolation a viable option for millions of people. The government has consistently refused to legislate for paid sick leave for casuals or independent contractors, people like Uber drivers, Deliveroo staff or labourers or tradies on construction sites.
For many of those working from pay cheque to pay cheque, the idea of taking 14 days off work without pay to self-isolate is impossible, so in many cases they have simply gone to work, risking spreading the virus to others
Far from requiring employers to pay such workers sick leave, the government’s response was to tell casual workers that they should have put money aside to deal with such an emergency. When asked in an ABC interview what casual workers with no sick leave entitlements were meant to do, minister for industrial relations Christian Porter said that “many people would have already made provisions for that because of course the purpose of casual employment is that you’re paid extra in lieu of those types of entitlements”.
That’s all very well coming from politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and generous paid sick leave. But taking lengthy time off work will mean destitution for many of the lowest paid in the country.
If Donald Trump has led the world for sheer indifference to the scale of the problem, Scott Morrison has not been far behind.
Since 10 March
On 10 March, the government finally began to move. But even now its response is laughably inadequate. On that date, the government launched its “health care package”, which provides $205 million for 100 new pop up-testing centres that will allow hospitals and health centres to offer specialised facilities for testing. But it’s still the case that many who may potentially have the illness miss out on testing. GPs will now be able to access Medicare funding for telehealth consultations for people at home sick, and $30 million will be spent on a communications campaign informing people about COVID-19.
But despite government hoopla about the health package, the money involved – $2.4 billion – is miserly. Of this sum, less than $2 billion is new outlays because $500 million of it, for hospital funding for the states, had already been announced.
The government released its first advertisements about COVID-19 on 15 March, but they were short on information, providing little in the way of specific details of how the community should respond to potentially the worst health crisis for a century. And the $30 million budget for communications is $15 million less than the government spent on defence force recruitment advertising last year: more money is being spent to convince people to sign up to learn how to kill than on how to save lives.
On 13 March, state and federal governments recommended that all gatherings of more than 500 be cancelled, albeit only after the weekend. Music festivals and arts festivals, are being called off and football matches played in closed stadiums. But “essential” activities such as public transport, schools, universities and workplaces will proceed as normal. So millions of workers and students are required, on pain of losing their jobs or failing their courses, to turn up to their office jobs or university campuses, where they will be working or studying alongside thousands of others in potentially hazardous situations.
On 15 March, the government stated that it would follow New Zealand in requiring all those entering Australia to self-isolate for 14 days and that failure to do so would constitute an offence.
But this is from the same government that consistently sings its happy song that everything is under control – that Australia is “ahead of the curve” – when every GP, every epidemiologist is tearing their hair out at the enormity of the threat that is unfolding, with the number of confirmed cases rising five-fold, from 50 to 250, in ten days and with many more cases uncounted because of lack of testing.
The prime minister boasts that his government is acting with “an abundance of caution” and stresses the need for social distancing, and yet boasts of his plans to attend a football match.
Scott Morrison told Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones on 13 March that “people should just go about what they’re doing”, most importantly, of course, “go to work”.
“Keep calm and carry on” is all the prime minister can say. You’d call him a fool, but Morrison is no fool. He’s a monster, a man who refuses to take the actions that are within his control and that could save the lives of thousands within the next few weeks.
Labor is not much better. Not until Italian Formula 1 team members had been allowed into Australia, untested, despite coming from one of the global hot spots, not until F1 crews started to go down in numbers with COVID-19, not until racing car drivers themselves publicly expressed disbelief that the race was going ahead, not until hundreds of racegoers were lined up outside the Grand Prix venue on the morning of the first races did Victorian ALP premier Dan Andrews announce that spectators would not be allowed at the Australian Grand Prix, which was then called off within a couple of hours.
Andrews has been the most forthright that the time may come when schools and universities will also need to close, and when whole sections of the workforce are required to work from home. The Morrison government, however, has said it does not support such action at the moment, but is keeping the situation under review. But what can that mean other than simply waiting until the situation goes out of control, just as we saw when the slow increase in cases in Italy exploded into thousands after a week or two?
The Morrison government may want to get the situation under control, but the measures it takes are always framed by its concern that they hurt the capitalist class as little as possible. Imposing the travel ban on China was a big move, but the government did not follow through straight away with a ban on South Korea when the virus exploded there. With China closed off, Australian capitalism could not afford to lose another big export market. Instead, Iran, already the subject of sanctions, became the second country targeted with a ban. Only later was South Korea included, and only when the Italian Formula 1 teams were in in the country was Italy added to the list.
The government may trumpet its $2.4 billion health package, but it’s spending more than five times as much – $13 billion – on handouts to business: tax breaks, wages subsidies and other handouts as part of its economic stimulus package in response to the threat of a world recession. None of these will ensure people keep their jobs; they will, however, help to fill the pockets of the Coalition’s small business voting base.
But the poorest people in our community will get only one-off, means-tested payments of $750, money that will soon be gone on paying overdue bills. There’s nothing generous about this payment, neither the amount nor the motivation. The government has resisted raising Newstart for years and is handing out a few hundred bucks only on a one-off basis in the hope the recipients go off and spend it, giving the economy a lift.
But the health crisis will make the need for a livable Newstart allowance more relevant than ever. Companies are already laying off thousands of staff, and with the world economy grinding to a halt and travel bans being imposed all around the world, unemployment could be much higher this time next year. For all that Morrison prattles on about “bouncing back strongly on the other side” of this crisis, we could easily end up with well over a million people without work, struggling to get by on the pittance that is Newstart – $280 per week for singles, $250 if partnered.
For the final condemnation of the Morrison government, we need only consider the fate of those burned out of their homes during the summer bushfires. The cameras are off them now, and the politicians have moved on to other PR opportunities, but those who lost their homes in the small hamlets on the NSW South Coast are still couch-surfing, living in tents or campervans or sleeping in sheds with just a mattress on the floor and relying on rest stops for clean drinking water. At the onset of winter, the bushfire victims are likely to be no closer to safe, secure and heated accommodation.
So far as the Morrison government is concerned, such people are disposable, just like the people who will die, untreated, in their homes or waiting on trolleys in the corridors of hospitals when COVID-19 begins to wreak serious havoc.