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Issue #1908      March 23, 2020

COVID-19:

FAST MOVING VIRUS REQUIRES FAST ACTION

The federal government was slow to respond to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis and is still falling far short of what is required.

This is an emergency.

People’s lives and health are at stake. Unemployment is set to skyrocket; many people face a loss of income, a cut in living standards, poverty, and homelessness.

The Governor-General has declared a “biosecurity emergency” and given the government extra powers to deal with the crisis and some state governments have declared a state of emergency.

The government could still do much more to protect and provide for the well-being of the people of Australia.

The $17.5 billion allocated in its first stimulus package provides a one-off payment of $750 for welfare recipients. It also includes provision for businesses with a turnover of less than $500 million to be able to write off purchases of up to $150,000 and a specific allocation for the tourism sector.

There are other provisions to support apprentices and grants of up to $25,000 available for small businesses. This is to keep workers in jobs, but it is not clear what, if any, guarantees there are that this money would be used to do that.

Shortages are leaving doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons.

Healthcare workers rely on personal protective equipment to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. The private/public structure of the health system adds to the problems of distribution, testing, and allocation of beds and resources.

The Spanish government has announced measures to take over private healthcare providers and requisition supplies such as personal protection equipment and COVID-19 test kits. At the same time, fourth-year medical students are being co-opted to help.

At the time of writing the government had still failed to heed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) call “to test every suspected” case.

The Australian government should also requisition the private health sector, putting it in a position to allocate resources on a rational basis for the testing and treatment of the virus and other urgent medical treatment.

It is criminal that more Australians have not been trained as nurses, aged care and NDIS workers, and community workers. Australia relies heavily on migrant and visa workers from poorer developing countries – a brain drain from countries that need those staff.

The lack of centralised planning and co-ordination have seen large sectors of the population completely overlooked. In particular, disabled people appear to have been forgotten. The federal government, unlike some state governments, does not even have an Auslan interpreter present when making critical announcements.

While the measures announced last week kept schools and university campuses open, an increasing number are going over to on-line teaching.

Special leave

All workers should be granted paid special leave if they are required to go into self-isolation or contract the virus. This is an area where the government could assist small businesses.

The Work Health and Safety Act require employers to ensure the health and safety of employees and other persons so far as is reasonably practicable. This is achieved through employers managing risks to health and safety. As a highly contagious virus, COVID-19 is a hazard to the health and safety of employees and others.

It can cause severe illness and even death in more vulnerable “high risk” people. At this stage, the most effective control is to identify potential carriers of the virus and support them to self-isolate to avoid exposing others.

“This requires full cooperation of employers and employees and it is essential that employees feel supported to declare potential illness. Workplaces that do not provide support to employees to declare potential illness are increasing the risk to employees and others,” the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said.

“It is essential that workers are supported to take the measures necessary to help control the spread of the virus. Workers who are not supported to isolate are at great risk of not identifying themselves. All workers need access to paid special leave and be supported to identify potential exposure and isolate at home. Casual workers, and others without access to leave, are more likely to attend work whilst sick for fear of a loss of income or future shifts.”

Some large and smaller employers, including several state agencies, have signed up to offer special paid leave and other support. There is a list on the ACTU corona website.

Unemployed

The government has failed to protect workers who have lost their job or have had their hours at work cut. Almost one-third of the workforce is casual, labour-hire, or work in the gig economy. They have no protection under the Fair Work Act – a situation that needs rectifying as soon as possible.

The layoffs have started as people cut back on their activities and businesses make cuts or close. Airlines, tourism, and education have already been struck with losses of Chinese students and the hit from the bushfires. Staffing cuts are becoming widespread as services are wound back or even cease.

The government has agreed to waive the waiting period for unemployment benefits. Forty dollars a day is not enough to pay the rent, electricity, put food on the table, and meet other expenses. Newstart must be increased now, by at least $95 a week as called for by the Australian Council of Social Service. This would not only assist the unemployed but also be immediately spent and hence inject a much needed stimulus into the economy.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk as the economy heads into deep recession. Stock markets are in free fall, with the odd short-lasting partial rise. Trade is grinding to a halt adding to the problems of shortages in some areas. International travel is out, and domestic is a fraction of its former level.

State government packages include such measures as spending on public health, capital works expenditure, waiving or delaying payroll tax, and freezing utility bills and council rates. This will go a little way in contributing to employment and helping small businesses and families.

Panic

The public has received contradictory information from state and federal governments and medical experts. This has fuelled confusion and concern in the community that sees the measures being taken overseas and the rapid spread of the virus elsewhere.

The government is fuelling anxiety and panic responses in people, and the media is playing it up. The Morrison Coalition government says that between twenty and sixty per cent of the population will become infected with the virus.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said that under the “best case scenario” of a twenty per cent infection rate, about 50,000 people out of 5 million infected with COVID-19 would die. In a “moderate scenario” of 10 million infections – forty per cent of the population – would mean 100,000 dead, Kelly said.

This “best case scenario” paints a grim picture of what lies ahead, and shows little confidence in the government’s handling the situation. The official number of deaths in the People’s Republic of China is less than 5,000.

So it is not surprising that people who have the financial means are rushing the supermarkets and hoarding in preparation for self-isolation. The millions of Australians who are struggling daily to pay bills cannot do this. They should not be denied essentials.

Supermarkets have made a killing out of the massive hike in sales. Trollies stacked with large bags of rice, or disposable nappies or long-life milk, etc. are continuously wheeled out the door. People can be seen returning to fill another trolley, and then another and so on. Sanitiser and soap have not been seen on the shelves for weeks in some stores.

At present, the number of virus cases is doubling every four or five days. Much more could be done to educate the public and provide transparency about the situation and reasoning behind decisions. This would assist in building trust and understanding.

Bans

The measures announced on Wednesday 18th March restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people and “non-essential gatherings” of 100 people indoors. The medical experts strongly advise on good hand hygiene and social distancing– maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres.

How this can this be done in schools, especially with younger children, is not as easy as it sounds. For example, how many classrooms are big enough for social separation?

The latest travel advice is not to travel overseas, with the possibility of even stricter measures on the way.

Risk to health care workers

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, prices of medical equipment have surged. Surgical masks have seen a six-fold increase, N95 respirators have trebled, and gowns have doubled.

WHO has warned that severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) – caused by rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse – is putting lives at risk.

Healthcare workers rely on PPE to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. But shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients.

Moratorium required

Special provisions must be made for people who do not have the means to pay rent, mortgage repayments, electricity, and other essential bills.

“Banks must be forced to suspend mortgage/rent payments. Emergency housing must become a top government priority, programs such as these will not only ensure a persons’ right to housing, but also significantly increase employment and affordable housing,” the Communist Party of Australia said in a statement on the virus. (See page 3)

All evictions must be stopped, and phone, energy and finance companies must back off households trying to survive on reduced incomes during the coronavirus crisis, Tenants Victoria and a coalition of more than thirty community groups said.

The chair of housing group Homelessness Australia, Jenny Smith, has also called for the federal government to immediately deliver emergency payments to casual workers who lose their income during the pandemic, to prevent a “tsunami of homelessness.”

“Tens of thousands of Australian households have lost the wages they need to pay their rent because of the mass cancellation of events, and the requirement on growing numbers of people to self-isolate or quarantine,” Smith said.

More than thirty social services organisations around Australia have urged companies that provide essential services – energy, water, finance, phones and rental housing – to support people affected by the pandemic.

For petitions to the government and other information for workers and trade unions visit the Australian Unions website.

Next article – Editorial – Capitalism V. Socialism: CORONA VIRUS

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