Big business has never liked the closure of Australia’s international and state borders, nor most of the other lockdown measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. Eccentric maverick billionaire Clive Palmer might be the most high-profile opponent, but he’s far from alone. For Qantas boss Alan Joyce—the epitome of a modern, cosmopolitan CEO—the tragedy is not that the virus is killing hundreds of thousands of people, but that it is stopping his planes getting up in the air and making a profit.
Similarly, Graham Turner, the boss of Flight Centre, is for letting things rip. “Just open the border up and allow domestic travel”, he demanded. “That’d be a huge boost to the economy.” David Buckingham, the former chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, argues that “some deaths are inescapable” and the key thing is opening the borders and lifting the Victorian lockdown to get the economy going. They have been joined by university vice-chancellors desperate to get international students back into the country so they can charge them exorbitant fees.
These reactionaries have been backed by top business associations such as the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, which have long been agitating for the easing of restrictions along with increased handouts to companies, tax cuts for the rich and further attacks on workers’ rights.
But the bosses’ mantra that we have to “learn to live with continuing COVID-19 infections”—that is, accept that a lot more people will die or have horrific long-lasting health effects—is far from popular. Numerous opinion polls indicate that the overwhelmingly majority of working-class and middle-class people support international and state border closures as they are rightly more concerned about public health than ensuring that Alan Joyce gets another multi-million-dollar bonus. The Newspoll published in the Australian on 31 August, for example, showed that 84 percent of Queenslanders backed border closures.
Recognising that openly demanding workers sacrifice their lives to boost profits does not have great appeal, big business figures have instead turned to hypocritical humanitarian arguments, such as the need to unite families with partners stranded overseas, concerns about mental health and waiting times for approval of medical emergencies, as well as arguing that contact tracing is enough to protect people. For example, Tim Piper, the Victorian head of the Australian Industry Group, argued:
“We need to make sure there is a balance and recognition for the impact this is having on people’s lives, not just from a physical health perspective but mental health ... People are coming to the end of their tether by being in these restrictions and it’s not just a few, it’s many people. So we have to understand what these restrictions are doing to people’s lives, livelihoods and to our economy.”
There are serious mental health issues associated with containing the pandemic; governments need to massively upgrade medical, social and economic support to deal with them. It should be noted, however, that the number of suicides in Victoria has fallen this year. Ordinary people have shown great resilience during this crisis, more often than not pulling together to support each other. In any case, letting more people die or suffer long-lasting complications from the virus is not the way to improve mental health. And it should be remembered that the top capitalists who are cynically using this argument are the very same people who have long opposed greater spending on the public health system.
When it comes to uniting families with partners stranded overseas, the hypocrisy is even more galling. These are the same capitalists who have for decades supported governments imposing draconian border controls that have broken up the families of tens of thousands of refugees.
This is not to say that there are not genuine left-wing criticisms of the way that border controls and lockdowns have been implemented. Working-class and poorer people have been harshly discriminated against and suffered price gouging by airlines that overwhelmingly favour high paying business-class passengers. Meanwhile, government exemptions for both inbound and outbound travel are readily available to people with money and connections—company executives, politicians, celebrities, and the owners of multi-million-dollar yachts and private jets. And the lockdowns have been used as an excuse to increase police powers and crack down on basic democratic rights such as the right to protest—even when protests have been organised in a safe and responsible way.
Unsurprisingly, Liberal politicians are increasingly joining the capitalist chorus to “open up” and get business rolling. Right-wing federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is very much leading the charge with his attacks on the Victorian government.
The trouble is that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews won’t bluntly say in reply that there is no acceptable level of new cases at all. Rather than pandering to the concerns of big business, the Victorian Labor government should be unapologetically aiming to reduce the number of new cases to zero, as has been achieved in most other states for some weeks, regardless of how distasteful it is to business. In large part due to border controls, people in states such as Western Australia and South Australia have been spared the harsh lockdown measures imposed in Victoria.
The Liberals feel more confident to go on the offensive because of the Andrews government’s botched handling of hotel quarantine. But from the beginning, the Liberals’ starting point has been the defence of the interests of those they serve: the big end of town.
Morrison was slow to extend the initial travel restrictions on China to the US and western Europe, even though the virus was out of control there. The Liberals, however, were not alone on that score, with the Andrews government refusing to cancel the Grand Prix until the drivers themselves threatened to pull out and the event became untenable. Up until the last minute, the Andrews government was welcoming racing crews from virus devastated Italy.
Morrison has savaged state government border restrictions and supported Clive Palmer’s court case against the Western Australian border closure, only backing off when it became obvious that the state Liberals would suffer electoral devastation because of it. Meanwhile, the government desperately searches for ways to allow international students back in. If it had put the same effort into dealing with the disaster in aged care, hundreds of lives could have been saved.
And in an attempt to deflect attention from their appalling failings when it comes to aged care, the Liberals continue to condemn as irresponsible the Black Lives Matter protests, even though there is no evidence of them causing any infections.
There was initially considerable left-wing opposition to the international border closures, which were seen as authoritarian and racist and contrary to the traditional socialist principle of open borders. However, capitalist governments don’t shut down key industries such as tourism, airlines and higher education, or put at risk incredibly profitable trade with China, simply out of racist prejudice.
Under pressure from its health advisers, the Morrison government reluctantly overrode the sectional interests of various capitalists because it recognised that if decisive measures were not taken to contain the virus even greater damage would be done to the economy and that it could face massive social turmoil and electoral oblivion.
Trump, of course, has used scapegoating attacks on China in a desperate attempt to deflect blame from the horrific US death toll. However, there is little evidence that the long history of anti-Chinese racism in Australia was a significant factor in the imposition of travel restrictions here. The initial ban on flights from China was logical given that it was where the virus was spreading from, though the failure to immediately follow up with a ban on flights from the US undoubtedly reflected imperialist pressures.
Nonetheless, unlike in the US, the Australian government tried to limit the incidents of anti-Chinese racism that did occur here. Of course, it was for largely cynical reasons: limiting further damage to trade relations with China, the voting impact of the large Chinese community and the fact that racist pogroms hardly fitted with the government’s rhetoric about national unity to “wage war” on the virus.That the government is so keen to get Chinese students back into the country, including via the planned pilot program to bring international students to Adelaide, is a clear indicator that profits, not racist prejudice, comes first for the Australian ruling class.
On their own, travel bans were never going to be a solution to the COVID-19 crisis. They needed to be backed by a range of other measures, including effective quarantining, a massive program of testing and contact tracing, adequate person protective equipment for health care workers, special protective measures for all vulnerable people, sick pay for workers infected or needing to be tested and the closure of unsafe workplaces.
But allowing in the approximately 9.4 million international tourists expected to arrive in 2020, as well as hundreds of thousands of international students and migrants, would have only compounded the disaster, both for the tourist and for the mass of the multi-racial working class and the oppressed in Australia. Just relying, as some have argued, on contact tracing for these many millions of people would have been a utopian fantasy.
The criminal running down of the health care system over the last few decades, combined with a wave of privatisation, meant it was in no position to cope with a massive influx of virus cases. In Victoria, for example, there were only fourteen contact tracing staff in the whole state in March this year.
Australia-wide there was nothing like adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators or even hospital beds. The aged care sector was in an appalling state, private providers concerned only to make a buck and not employing anywhere near adequate numbers of trained staff.
A pandemic crisis was predictable, and it is the responsibility of the left to sheet home the blame to where it belongs—the relentless pursuit of capitalist profit. The rampant expansion of capitalist agriculture and its destructive relationship with the animal world makes such pandemics inevitable. Yet capitalist governments have done little or nothing to prepare for them. Funding for core scientific research and basic preventive measures has been cut. Nothing has been done to maintain adequate supplies of vital equipment such as ventilators or even masks.
We need to fight for long-term solutions to all these problems and campaign to put public health above private profit. That ultimately means challenging the very basis of capitalist rule.
That fight will not be advanced by falling in behind those capitalists and right-wing politicians who recklessly want to open the economy as quickly as possible so that the flow of profits gets back to normal. There is more than enough wealth in private hands to maintain working-class living standards until this pandemic is brought under control.
This is not an excuse for adopting a narrow nationalist approach. This is a worldwide health crisis that can’t be resolved within the framework of one country. Which means that as well as doing all we can to bring the pandemic under control in Australia, extensive support needs to be provided to assist people in poorer countries by training more doctors and health workers and providing vital medical equipment. If a safe and reliable treatment or vaccine is eventually developed, it needs to be provided free of charge to people all over the world. This is not abstract humanitarianism, but basic working-class solidarity.
In the medium to long term, border controls do need to be lifted—workers must regain the right to travel and refugees must be allowed in. Facilities need to be massively improved so that more people can travel safely for humanitarian reasons even before the virus has been eliminated or brought under control.
A massive upgrading of health care, aged care, quarantine facilities, contact tracing, emergency and other genuinely essential services is both necessary and affordable in a wealthy country like Australia. Indeed, it would create hundreds of thousands of socially useful and environmentally sustainable jobs. But that will take a determined fight against a capitalist system that prioritises the relentless drive for profit above any consideration for the health and living conditions of the mass of working people on this planet.