The Guardian • Issue #1992

Australians “shielded”  from systemic problems during pandemic

  • by E Lennon
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1992

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet’s laissez-faire public health policy has rattled systems across the state.

Alexander Michaels is a Scientific Officer for Laverty Pathology and says that people are aware of problems in the health system but not to the full extent. 

“There is a deliberate whitewashing of the situation, which ultimately serves to convince the Australian people that they are fine, and things are okay when our health infrastructure is crumbling in real time,” he says.

Michaels is a Health Services Union (HSU) delegate and worked as a COVID-19 collector before his current position. In his time doing collection work, he saw first-hand the pressure and poor conditions that collectors face daily. Through his work organising as an HSU delegate, Michaels remains close to these workers, and they say circumstances have not changed.

“Despite this reduction in testing, workers are still dealing with horrific conditions: working without breaks in scalding weather, not having access to water or a bathroom, working in clinics that provide inadequate shelter from the elements, in drive-thrus that are poorly governed where accidents can happen very easily,” he says.

Michaels attributes the dysfunction to a lack of preparation, privatisation, and deregulation of COVID-19 testing. 

“At the start of the pandemic NSW Health did the majority of tests; they gradually siphoned off this responsibility to private pathology companies who were held only to a profit motive. The profit motive is incapable of preparing for a crisis, and any time we have had a rise in cases, the system has bent,” says Michaels. 

“This time, it has bent too far. There was no way that private companies would invest in large labs dedicated to PCR, or meticulously trained staff with robust infrastructure and ensured supplies just in case of a catastrophic outbreak. 

“This same model can be seen in our lack of ventilators and ICU beds. Neoliberal economics crumbles under the pressure, and the system became completely overwhelmed.”

When asked about why he thinks the State and Federal Government both decided to “let it rip,” Michaels says that he believes it went completely against their interests. He doesn’t accept the straightforward answer that it was “for the economy.” He says that there is an element of denialism and a misunderstanding of science.

“They decided to hope for the best and plan for even better, possibly with the hope of marketing their grand re-opening of Australia in time for an election. The one constant is a non-scientific approach and supreme arrogance,” says Michaels.

In Michaels’ view, things can become much worse than they are currently. Whether that’s a deadlier and more vaccine-resistant variant, or a scenario in which NSW’s health system collapses. 

“Nurses and doctors are quitting, pathology labs are shutting important services, access to vital treatments is being denied because of staffing and lack of resources–the list goes on,” he says. 

“To prevent it, state intervention would have to be immense: programs to radically increase staffing, facilities, conditions, and supply chains would need to be rapidly implemented and maintained. Most importantly, the work of scientific researchers must be respected and listened to as our best line of defense and the basis of all state policy.”

From the front end of the collection process to the behind-the-scenes work, workers are burnt out and exhausted. 

Data Entry Clerk, Jakob McDermott says the current situation in backend work is a “chokehold.” While the work has lessened with lowering PCR tests, the work is still busier than pre-pandemic levels.

“Staff morale is also best described as low or apathetic because there’s an overwhelming perception that there’s such a mountain of work that it doesn’t matter how hard we work,” says McDermott.

“The final spectre hanging over us are the semi-regular positive cases at work that make people worried and cut into available manpower because people have to isolate, which I had to do last September for two weeks.”

McDermott says that their bosses don’t tell them about cases unless it is “absolutely necessary.” This means that he and his co-workers often find out about positive cases from talking to one another, usually sometime after the fact. 

At McDermott’s workplace, the company has hired many new casuals; however, they are only trained on COVID-19 forms and put into cues only to process them. On top of the newer workers being expected to learn the job quickly, it often changes just as fast, with memos coming down requiring the clerks to learn new codes and procedures “on the fly.” McDermott also says that they are instructed to process incorrectly filled out forms, rather than file them for troubleshooting.

“The main thing to be done to fix the pressure from my point of view is to increase staffing levels to get a higher throughput on tests, not just in my department but across the board. I can’t speak to the specifics, but I’d guess that one area of pathology not under pressure is the finances,” he says.

“I’ve heard that my company charges the government 150 dollars per covid swab, and the company had enough money to provide staff bonuses across the board in 2021 so I do not believe upping staff levels is beyond their capacity.”

McDermott says that the governments have not handled the situation “well at all.” He says that it’s been two years and that the capacity of the health system isn’t where it needs to be. Not in pathology, hospitals, or aged care. McDermott says that the government should be willing to spend money on saving lives and maintaining living standards. Ultimately, he attributes the government’s relaxed attitude to its desire to “keep the wheels of the economy turning.”

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More