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Issue #1907      March 16, 2020

COVID-19

GOVT MUST ACT NOW!

At the time of writing, there were 112 confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia with the public health system at the forefront of preventative measures. The government had still not released details of its package to deal with the virus.

If there is a rapid spread of the virus, then our health system does not have the resources to deal with it. A slower, relatively controlled range of measures such as cancelling all activities where there are crowds, closing schools, colleges and universities would enable better handling of the virus.

People in aged care facilities are most vulnerable and quarantining is imperative.

Irrational panic buying of essentials reflects the fear that permeates the public. Fears have been whipped up by the mass media as the government has failed to provide education on the virus and basic hygiene. Such education should be multilingual and widely spread through different means including print, radio, television, social media, and ethnic community networks.

The government must be transparent about the situation. Its failure to act on climate change, its inaction on the drought, and belated intervention in the bushfires have done little to build trust. With each catastrophe, public confidence in the Morrison government has waned.

High levels of casualisation, and use of “independent contractors,” “self-employed,” and labour-hire along with privatisation have increased the vulnerability of workers and makes it harder to deal with the crisis.

Shortages

Public hospitals were already pushed beyond their limits with lack of beds, understaffing, and under-resourcing before the virus. The health system is not geared to cope with an pandemic if the virus spreads through the population.

It is scandalous that doctors working in hospitals, dentists, and others in the health care sector face a shortage of masks. Some hospitals are keeping what masks they have in locked cupboards, releasing them one at a time.

Doctors and dentists are scrambling to order masks online or from wherever they can get them. This is capitalism: where there is no rational distribution of masks, disinfectants, wipes, etc. It’s a dog-eat-dog market resulting in people who do not need them cleaning out the market.

The capitalist government took no action to requisition these or any other medical essentials. Such centralised measures run contrary to the ethos of capitalism even though they would enable priority being given to the health of the people.

The wealthy can afford to stockpile sanitisers, toilet paper, long-life milk, flour, pasta, soap, and other basics. But workers, the unemployed, pensioners, and others on low incomes do not have the means to strip supermarket shelves of such essentials.

Again, it is the anarchistic capitalist distribution that denies workers and their families essentials when there is a run on the market for them. The government has a responsibility to ensure rational distribution and adequate supply. The so-called markets cannot.

Incomes

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, in an interview with the ABC News channel, was as evasive as ever, refusing or unable to give direct answers to questions about workers who might be required to self-isolate or are sick.

When asked about income arrangements for people such as workers employed on a casual basis, in the gig economy or on contracts if they are sick or required to self-isolate – he described such questions as hypothetical at the moment!

He said they were in discussions with employers and trade unions and expected these to go on for a few months! PM Scott Morrison has acknowledged that some assistance from the government might be required but was just as evasive as to what that might be.

The government must legislate for sick leave for all casual, labour-hire, “self-employed,” gig, and other similar workers who presently have no paid sick leave. The government, regardless of how little it cares about the plight of workers, should understand that by ensuring workers continue to have an income it will help the economic situation.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is calling for special leave arrangements for workers. “Employers should be encouraging self-reporting of such instances and ensuring that there are not barriers or disincentives to reporting. Accordingly, in these instances employers should be providing paid leave to ensure that worker are not financially disadvantaged by making such reports,” the ACTU said.

The ACTU also notes that high-risk groups such as health workers may be able to apply and obtain workers’ compensation.

Jobs

Casuals and others in precarious employment are also likely to be the first to be sacked or face reduced hours of work.

The cost-cutting measures have begun. Qantas is cancelling a quarter of its flights over the next twelve months. Universities are slashing the number of courses and jobs because of the drop off of Chinese students. The University of Tasmania is going to cut the number of courses by seventy-five per cent with a consequential loss of jobs. Contract and casual staff will be the first to go.

The government should abolish the waiting period for unemployment benefits and pay benefits to anyone laid off or had their wages cut because of coronavirus.

It should also increase the Newstart allowance by at least $95 a week, the amount being called for by the Australian Council of Social Services. This would also give the economy a stimulus as it puts money into the pockets of people who would spend it.

There should also be job guarantees of return to work for anyone who had to self-isolate or caught the virus. An accommodation security guarantee is required to prevent evictions if people cannot pay rent so that they do not become homeless.

Recession here we come!

The economy was sliding downwards a slippery slope well before the bushfires and coronavirus hit. It needed a stimulus then and now needs an even larger stimulus.

The many small businesses in tourism, already hit by the bushfires, are taking another blow with the loss of business due to the virus. If the government does not step in quickly and with decisive action to instil confidence and guarantee people’s incomes, the whole economy could come tumbling down.

Tourism and education have already taken a hit with a double whammy for tourism which is still reeling from the bushfires. Other small businesses are facing bankruptcy because imports from China have declined as a result of disruptions to shipping.

In some ports there are reports of an eighty per cent drop in containers arriving from China, hitting the retail and manufacturing sectors, especially those who rely on “just-in-time” management.

The promised stimulus and coronavirus packages, still to be released at the time of writing, must include the following elements:

  • Increase Newstart allowance by $95 per week
  • Restoration of penalty rates
  • Government support for small business to retain staff
  • Expand the public health system
  • Increase in the minimum wage – every extra dollar would be spent in the economy
  • Abolish waiting periods for Newstart
  • Accommodation security guarantee
  • Legislate for income guarantee
  • Government to commence putting in place a requisition and distribution program to control and ensure stocks of medical essentials
  • Government to take over private hospitals for public use as long as the crisis lasts
  • Make bulk billing by doctors and pathologists compulsory.

Next article – Editorial – Class inequality in hoarding

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