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Issue #1909      March 30, 2020

COVID-19: WORKERS MUST BE PROTECTED

In line with other countries around the world, Australia faces serious health, social, and economic crises. The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 continues to rise exponentially, doubling every few days. Thousands of people have already lost their jobs as businesses close or wind down.

People have been advised to stay at home. With a few exceptions, non-essential services have been ordered to close. As a result, millions more people face the prospect of unemployment and loss of income. All but the most urgent elective surgery has been cancelled in public and private hospitals to free up more beds and resources.

At the time of writing there had been twelve deaths in Australia and 2,613 confirmed cases. Fear reigns as state and federal governments send out mixed and at times contradictory and confusing messages. In addition, all sorts of nonsense mixed with fact is being spread on social media and, unfortunately, some people are still not taking the health crisis seriously.

The ABC public broadcaster is providing invaluable advice and detailed information in its broadcasts and online. Health workers are to be commended for the work they are doing under challenging conditions, sometimes without the necessary personal protective equipment they require.

The scene at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, with thousands of people crowding the beach the weekend before last, was a disgrace. It demonstrated a serious failure to heed social distancing. While many people are fearful of the virus and taking the necessary precautions, there are still some who treat it with scorn.

The price gouging has commenced. In one shop, hand-sanitiser was being sold at $25 for a 500 ml bottle now costs $25 for a 17 ml bottle. No, that is not a typo! The same with toilet paper as it reaches $5 a roll. The price of some vitamins has increased by fifty to sixty per cent or more. Prices of fruit and vegetables have also been jacked up.

Testing has still not been extended to all people presenting with symptoms.

State and federal governments, albeit somewhat belatedly, are introducing stricter restrictions on social distancing and travel.

JOBS

More than three million people are employed as casual, body hire, gig or contract labour. They have no leave entitlements if they are sacked. Their rent, electricity bills, etc. will not stop. The federal government is offering the job seeker allowance at the temporary rate of $1,100 – a doubling of the previous rate. There are eligibility rules, including a means test.

It was only under considerable pressure the government extended the $550 coronavirus supplement to students receiving Youth Allowance, Austudy, and Abstudy payments.

The tourism sector has been hard hit. Qantas has stood down 20,000 of its 30,000 staff, Flight Centre has downsized by 3,800 people, and Tiger Airlines have stopped flights. Tourist resorts are empty. Food outlets are closed except for take-aways. Retailers, except for pharmacies and supermarkets, are closed. The list is endless as restrictions continue to be imposed.

Several of the Big Four banks are offering a pause on mortgage payments, with interest accruing doing that period. Their approach varies from bank to bank. Many small businesses have been forced to close.

Centrelink is swamped with people who have lost their jobs, and the myGov website crashed two days in a row, creating further frustration and anger. Years of cutbacks have left the government agency massively understaffed. Those who do manage to get into the office after queuing for hours are more often than not told to go home and go online.

The government must act immediately to ensure that workers’ incomes are maintained. The reactionary government of Boris Johnson in the UK is guaranteeing workers eighty per cent of their wage up to $5,000 per month. In the US income guarantees are before Congress.

Post-virus, we can expect employers to seek reductions in wages and conditions to rebuild their businesses.

PROTECTING BUSINESS

The government issued a second stimulus package on 22nd March to keep businesses afloat. In all, up to $189 billion is available through the government and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).

This includes another $750 payment to recipients of government benefits in order to put more money in the pockets of people who will spend it.

The aim of doubling of the Job Seekers allowance is to keep the economy going as much as possible. Recipients already on extremely low or no income are most likely to spend every cent.

Governments have failed to take measures to ensure people are not kicked out of their homes, a major and legitimate source of fear.

The package included measures for the write-off of capital spending, capital guarantees, and payments to small and medium employers to keep staff on the payroll.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s (RBA) rock bottom reduction of the official cash rate and offers of cheap capital to the finance sector are designed to support the banks and encourage them to lend to investors. The RBA recognises the seriousness of the situation – if large numbers of borrowers default Big Banks face collapse, creating a massive financial crisis.

Thus the main aim of the RBA and government’s financial measures is to prop up the financial stability of the economy and protect the interests of the finance sector.

WHO WARNING

World Health Organization officials warned against calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” as President Donald Trump did, saying that it could unintentionally lead to racial profiling.

“Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity, the colour of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. So it’s really important we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus,” Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, said at a recent press conference.

A recent meeting of the G7 governments failed to issue a statement because the US insisted it contain a reference to the “Wuhan virus.” The other six governments refused to accept this.

DESPICABLE ATTITUDE

Telegraph (UK) associate editor and financial columnist Jeremy Warner wrote in his column that, “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”

This capitalism. Everyone in society is reduced to an economic unit and assessed on their value to capital. While the Australian government does not express it so crudely, it is this approach that is behind the treatment of the unemployed, the aged, and disabled.

President Donald Trump is letting the virus rip through the community, not concerned for the vulnerable or workers. In poorer countries, with lack of basic sanitation, overcrowding, and health care for the wealthy, millions of people face death. Western countries are doing nothing.

Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, and Russia are shining examples of international solidarity with their generous assistance to a number of countries fighting the virus. Australia has a relatively good health system compared with many of the developing countries in the “South” that lack adequate clean water, sanitation, and housing.

There is a contradiction between halting the economy in the interests of public health and putting lives at risk to keep the economy ticking. Some governments are trying to do a balancing act, the US is putting profits first.

MIXED MESSAGES

Lack of planning and early direction by governments has resulted in delays and confusion. Education is one example, where the Prime Minister is determined that schools remain open. But states have taken varying positions on this issue while recognising that schools need to provide for children of essential service workers.

Football codes were initially given the power to determine whether matches would continue without the presence of sports fans despite all the hugging that takes place following a goal or point.

Personal services were told to close with a few exceptions, including hairdressers and barbers – limited to thirty minutes per client. Then the thirty-minute limit was lifted. It made no sense – what was the point of four square metre distancing when hairdressers could stand breathing over and touching the head of clients?

CRUISE SHIPS

On 18th March, the Commonwealth banned the entry of cruise ships, but four cruise ships were then exempt from the ban. They included the Ruby Princess that docked on 19th March and the Celebrity Solstice a day later. Thousands of passengers came ashore from these ships without health checks.

This occurred despite a number of people having symptoms while still on the Ruby Princess. Just under 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark from the cruise ship.

They then travelled to different parts of Sydney, Australia and internationally with no idea that there had been any cases on board. So far, a total of more than 160 passengers from the ship have tested positive, with one of them dying.

NSW Health saw no red lights nor the need to test passengers although they had been informed that some passengers had flu-like symptoms. It rated the cruise ship as low risk! It was only four days later that passengers received government messages to self-quarantine for two weeks because of COVID-19 on board.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

The economy was far from healthy prior to taking a hit from COVID-19. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his introduction to The World Economic Situation and Prospects 2020, said:

“The global economy is suffering a significant and widespread slowdown amid prolonged trade disputes and wide-ranging policy uncertainties; poverty rates are increasing in numerous countries; climate risks are more pressing than ever; and inequalities remain broad within and among countries. This is the backdrop as policymakers strive to advance on the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Stock markets are now gyrating daily, with the overall trend a steep fall, as could only be expected. We are entering a severe global crisis that will be deep, painful and most likely prolonged.

Governments, banks, and big business will attempt to recoup their losses further down the track when the temporary assistance ceases. Their aim will be to make workers and recipients of government benefits pay for the recovery. There will be cuts to services, attempts to roll back penalty rates, slash wages and working conditions.

The only force capable of standing up to these attacks is a united trade union movement in alliance with progressive forces in the community. Trade union rights will be further attacked to remove this barrier to the employers’ agenda.

The following are just some demands to address the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Health and safety of the people must be the top priority, especially those most vulnerable
  • Unions must be at the forefront of working-class responses to the failures of governments and the crisis
  • Employers and governments have a responsibility to ensure safe and healthy workplaces
  • Special paid leave for all workers stood down or in quarantine or lockdown, including casual and labour-hire workers
  • Legislation for workers’ right to strike and unions’ right to defend their members against attacks on wages and conditions
  • Provide of emergency housing including requisitioning the empty apartments
  • Nationalisation of the health system
  • Ban patents on pharmaceuticals and establish public production of medications
  • Test everyone with symptoms
  • No disconnections of electricity, water, internet
  • No evictions
  • An immediate end to the criminal blockades of Cuba, Iran and Venezuela

Finally, workers must not pay for capitalism’s crises. (See Guardian, “CPA Central Committee Statement”, #1908, 23-03-2020 for further details.)

Next article – Editorial – THE FRAGILITY OF CAPITALISM REVEALED

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