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Issue #1914      May 11, 2020

COVID-19

PEOPLE VS PROFITS

“As long as these restrictions are in place they are costing the economy $4 billion a week,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week. Cabinet had just met and decided it was time to begin easing some of the COVID-19 restrictions. Several states and the Northern Territory followed with similar announcements.

Measures such as social isolation, social distancing, closure of non-essential businesses, etc., and testing have proved very effective in containing COVID-19. Health sector workers continue to put their lives on the line doing an amazing job saving lives.

The government’s priority is now getting people back to work as quickly as possible while bearing in mind that any surge in cases might backfire on the Prime Minister’s newfound popularity. There is little or no pretence that the health and safety of people are a priority.

The COVIDsafe App is supposed to make us feel safe, but uptake is slow. This is not surprising considering the government gave the contract to Amazon. Amazon is one of the largest data collection monopolies in the world, along with Google and Apple. It is in constant battles with governments around the world, but more powerful than most of them.

CONFLICT OF INTERESTS

There is a contradiction between the ongoing and strong measures needed to address the virus in the interests of people’s health and safety, and those needed for a rapid economic recovery.

This contradiction can be summed up as “people versus profits.”

The question is: Will the path to recovery be in the interests of big business or working people?

In the United States, President Trump took the “let it rip” approach that ultimately serves the interests of the finance sector and big business. It became a survival of the wealthiest – those who could afford quality health services.

Latinos, people of colour, the poor, the aged, disabled, and undocumented residents are amongst those hardest hit. The Telegraph’s (UK) associate editor and financial columnist Jeremy Warner, didn’t mince words. He 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.”

The implication is that it is economically beneficial to cull the elderly. It might please profit-gouging private health insurance companies!

“BALANCING ACT”

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the let-it-rip approach is one of putting people’s interests first.

The Australian government would have us believe it is doing a balancing act between health and the economy. “We face a health crisis and economic crisis simultaneously,” was typically the line the government trotted out. But mention of the health crisis has now receded.

The health of people, of workers is important, not just to the workers and their families but to the economy. Without workers, there is no economy. As one of the CPA’s Selfie May Day placards reads: “Workers are Essential, Bosses are NOT!”

A number of the measures in the three COVID-19 packages rolled out in March and April were clearly directed to assisting business and encouraging new investments. These included the provision of liquidity for banks, accelerated depreciation of assets, tax credits for small and medium-sized businesses, and tax-free cash payments to businesses.

NOT WHAT IT SEEMS

There were other provisions that directly benefit workers such as the doubling of JobSeeker (Newstart), JobKeeper payments, free early childhood education, and a six-month moratorium on mortgage repayments. And they are welcome and popular.

On closer examination, however, while many workers, including the unemployed stand to gain from these packages, the main focus is still on the economy – getting and keeping the private sector on its feet.

The six-month moratorium on housing loan repayments saves the banks from a potentially destabilising flood of defaults. However, interest will accrue during that time adding to future repayments.

The JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments are not out of any concern for the unemployed or for workers stood down or facing the threat of unemployment. The aim is to keep businesses afloat; for workers stood down to maintain links with an employer until the hoped-for speedy return to business; and as a stimulus to boost consumption.

Apart from the supermarkets, most sectors of the economy have taken a massive hit with millions of workers laid off, stood down or under-employed. We might never know the true number of unemployed because recipients of JobKeeper may or may not be working. They will not be included in the official unemployment statistics.

The aim of the free early childhood education is to encourage and facilitate a return to work by parents – also as a measure to get the economy going again. As with a number of other worthwhile measures, such as the doubling of JobSeeker payment, they are only temporary. They should become policy and permanent.

The Coalition has suddenly shown concern for disadvantaged children suffering by not being at school, insisting schools return. At the same time it cynically dangles a $3 billion carrot for private schools to go back, but not a cent more is offered to the under-funded public schools that educate the disadvantaged children.

An estimated million workers have already sought to draw on their superannuation savings under COVID-19 provisions that allow them to draw $10,000 during this financial year and another $10,000 next year.

The government is desperately attempting to increase household spending through these packages. This is integral to achieving its economic agenda for a rapid recovery next year – the so-called “V” curve.

For the several million unemployed and under-employed workers who do not qualify for JobKeeper – mostly those who were on the lowest incomes – withdrawal of their meagre super savings may be the only option for survival. Some can apply for JobSeeker and battle, for who knows how long, with the understaffed Centre Link bureaucracy.

It is time to bring back the Commonwealth Employment Services (CES), boost apprenticeships, refund and expand TAFE, abolish the fees and set about a permanent public sector job creation program.

A genuine people-first recovery is possible and necessary. See “Fight for a People-First Recovery,” Guardian #1913, 4th May, 2020 for what that might look like.

Next article – Editorial – BE LOUD AND PROUD ABOUT COMMUNIST EFFORTS

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