The Guardian • Issue #1965

COVID: It is a race!

Anna Pha

As the Victorian state government continued to grapple with the more virulent Delta variant of COVID-19, the federal government failed to recognise the seriousness of the situation. Instead, it urged the Victorian government to lift its lockdown measures.

  • Meanwhile, the Coalition government’s litany of failures grows. It is failing in its:
  • Implementation of the Aged Care Royal Commission’s special COVID report
  • Vaccination of all aged care residents, NDIS recipients, carers, First Nations communities, and front-line workers
  • Procurement of vaccines
  • Shambolic vaccination roll-out
  • Lack of accurate, consistent information
  • Public given no choice of vaccine
  • No transparency over the stock of vaccines
  • Cover-ups and lies creating distrust and vaccine hesitancy for the anti-vaxxers to feed off
  • Building of dedicated quarantine facilities
  • Reliance on private sector for much of roll-out, etc.

DITCH HOTEL QUARANTINE

The emergence of the highly contagious and deadly Delta strain in Victoria should ring alarm bells over the urgency for a concerted, planned, and scientifically based action on the part of the federal government. So far, there have been twenty-two leakages of the virus from hotel quarantine.

Hotels are neither designed for nor suitable for quarantine purposes. Scientists have been warning for some time that the virus is being transmitted by aerosols that linger in the air longer than droplets from coughs and sneezes. The Department of Health refuses to accept, let alone act on, this information. It is the federal government’s responsibility.

It has had more than twelve months to build dedicated quarantine facilities since the onset of the pandemic. There would not have been any leakages from hotel quarantine if it had acted then. In fact, scientists and the World Health Organisation warned a few years ago of the inevitability of pandemics and the need to put such measures in place.

After months of procrastinating, the government has at last signed a memorandum of understanding with the Victorian government to build such a facility, to come into operation early next year. The state government would then take responsibility for running it. The federal government is still to agree to a facility that was proposed months ago in Queensland near Toowoomba. Other states are also calling for dedicated facilities, citing the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory as an example. It has not had any leaks.

The contact tracers deserve all the praise in the world for the incredible job they are doing, despite federal government incompetence. Australians also owe a lot to the state and territory governments who stood up to pressure from the Morrison government and used their powers to implement lockdowns and close borders.

DEVIL IN THE DETAIL

A week into the Melbourne lockdown, and under considerable pressure from unions, employers, and state governments for a JobKeeper-type wage subsidy, the Morrison government reluctantly announced tokenistic support for stood-down workers in hotspots. The disaster payment is $500 ($325 if they worked less than twenty hours a week prior to the lockdown) for workers who lose their jobs.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) described it as “too little, too late” and noted it did not ensure a connection to jobs post-lockdown in hotspots.

There is no disaster payment for the first week of lockdown.

“This payment will leave working people with nothing for a full week before a restricted number are able to access a small support payment, a third below the minimum wage and half the standard disaster relief payment, which will not secure their employment,” ACTU President Michele O’Neil said.

“The payment that has been announced is no replacement for a wage subsidy available fast to everyone affected which would keep working people attached to their jobs through a lockdown.”

Workers must apply every two weeks during a lockdown for the payment to continue.

The federal government decides who is eligible. It, not the states, determines what are hotspots. It offers nothing to workers who lose their jobs outside those hotspots due to a lockdown.

Applicants for the payment must declare they do not have access to any liquid assets such as savings in a bank or a loan to recall from another person. They must not have access to unused special pandemic leave.

Recipients of JobSeeker and other forms of income support payments from the Commonwealth are not eligible. The Prime Minister said the idea of the payment was to help people who would usually be in a situation where “every dollar counts.” If this does not describe the unemployed, then what does!

JobSeeker recipients are entitled to up to $150 per fortnight through part-time work before their payment is reduced. They need those additional dollars to survive. The loss of that part-time employment leaves them in a critical situation on $44.34 a day.

MONUMENTAL STUFF-UP

The government had responsibility for vaccinating people in 1a, the priority group. 1a consisted of quarantine and front-line health workers, aged- and disability- care residents and staff. It failed dismally.

The private contractors delivering vaccines are only offering care workers any leftovers after residents have been vaccinated! The government has left these workers to fend for themselves!

The private contracts are confidential, with no transparency, so there is no way of knowing the truth regarding obligations to vaccinate staff. It appears staff were not included in the contracts. But who knows, with a government that lies and covers up anything it thinks might damage its electoral prospects.

Following the special report on COVID by the Royal Commission in Aged Care, the government introduced a support payment for workers employed in aged care homes and banned work in multiple homes. This amounted to de facto recognition of the appallingly low wages of workers, many of whom worked at more than one centre to compensate for low wages.

Late last year, that support payment was quietly removed. The ban on working in more than one centre only applied to employees of that centre. A large number of aged care workers are employed by body hire companies, not directly by the centres. As a result, the restrictions do not apply to them, and they can work in more than one centre.

In Victoria, staff who tested positive at two aged care centres earlier this month worked in multiple centres. This put at risk many more elderly people. If the government were genuinely concerned for the aged, it would have prevented agency staff from working in more than one centre and continued with the support payment for aged care workers.

The workers are still paid insultingly low wages for demanding and responsible work carried out under poor working conditions. Private, for-profit homes are grossly understaffed and lack adequately qualified staff. The Morrison government has largely ignored recommendations from the Royal Commission regarding staffing.

Last year almost two thirds of COVID-related deaths were in aged-care centres.

The government came in for a roasting at a Senate Estimates Committee meeting when Health Minister Greg Hunt had to retract inflated numbers of people vaccinated in aged care.

“Aged care is just a classic case study for the whole problem of insecure work,” Annie Butler, the Federal Secretary for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), said. The ANMF was highly critical of the $17.7bil for aged care in the May Budget as not being anywhere near enough to provide safe, quality care for vulnerable nursing home residents.

NOT IN THIS TOGETHER

The situation regarding people with disability – also in group 1a – is even more appalling than in aged care. Health Department figures released earlier this month revealed that just 355 of the 22,000 people with disability living in group homes had been fully vaccinated. That is less than two per cent! The government has had more than three months. Pfizer jabs are three weeks apart.

As of June 1, the number of NDIS participants who had been given at least one dose of the vaccine was 38,000 out of a total of 400,000 – less than ten per cent. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s raves about being “world leaders” are wearing a bit thin!

At last, under public duress, the government appears to be stepping up the vaccine roll-out for people with disability. This week, dedicated vaccine hubs are to be set up for participants in the NDIS, their primary carers, and NDIS workers.

We are certainly not “all in this together.”

LACK OF VACCINE OPTIONS

The government has failed to invest in a wide range of vaccines resulting in Australians only having access to AstraZeneca and Pfizer, without a choice for individuals. There are other vaccines which have been tested and approved in other countries which the government could be looking at. Blinded by narrow minded, reactionary politics, the government has failed to look at vaccines from Russia and China.

UNPREPARED

“Our public hospitals are beyond over-stretched, and ANMF members across all sectors including aged care, are run off their feet, day in, day out. What’s apparent is that the care they can provide to the community is clearly being compromised,” Butler said.

If the Delta or another strain does get out of control, Australia is not prepared. The May Budget had billions for missiles and war preparations but peanuts for Medicare and public hospitals.

The ANMF is calling for urgent reform of public health funding so that it is fair and equitable, and crucially, so that health professionals can deliver safe, quality care to people when they need it. It was the public health system that managed COVID. It was beyond the capacity of the private sector.

ACT NOW

It is no thanks to the feds that Australia is in the position it is now. The states stood up to the Morrison government’s pressure to lift restrictions every time there was a lockdown. The federal government must stop playing politics and the blame-game with the states and get on with taking the necessary measures to deal with the pandemic. There is no time to waste.

The Communist Party of Australia calls on the federal government to:

  • Plan the distribution of vaccines
  • Use public, not private, distribution of vaccines
  • Prioritise the vaccination of people in group 1a
  • Increase the wages of care workers and put an end to the reliance on casuals
  • Be open with the public about the supply it has and CSL’s role
  • Give all Australians a choice of the vaccine they have
  • Create vaccine hubs in all major cities and regional and remote areas
  • Build fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities in every state and territory near a public hospital
  • Ditch hotel quarantine
  • Increase funding to public hospitals
  • Revive the JobKeeper payment and JobSeeker supplement that were put in place in March 2020 during periods of lockdown for the full period of lockdown
  • Nationalise, reform, and adequately fund the public health system.
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