The Guardian • Issue #1994

The challenge of dealing with COVID-19

In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, we are being bombarded with information overload. The mass media move from picking at one warped point to another, and under this reality is lost.

Much of the discussion around COVID-19 centres on comparisons with our deadly virus, such as Smallpox. Until the middle of the last century, this virus had killed and maimed millions of people. Smallpox keeps getting mentioned because in the 20th century, we were capable of making this virus extinct. This was no small feat and required the cooperation of many countries. The eradication of this disease was proposed to the World Health Organisation by the Soviet Union after several outbreaks in the Soviet Union spread from underdeveloped countries. Managing these outbreaks required cooperation between the Soviet Union and the US. At one point, the Soviet Union provided over 1.7 billion vaccines in mass production facilities. The containment and eradication of the virus involved mass shutdowns, quarantines, and of course, mass vaccination programs. Similarly, Polio Tetanus, Diphtheria, Tuberculosis, and a host of other debilitating conditions were tackled in much the same way; and yes, some opposed the vaccines.

The other achievement of the 20th century was the provision of healthcare as a human right. The successful Russian Revolution proclaimed such a right, and a great deal of work went into the development of universal healthcare in the Soviet Union. Wading through the mountain of Anti-Soviet propaganda, the reality for millions of people “under the Yoke of the Tsar was that terrible diseases” such as Typhoid fever finally ended. As a result, millions were spared the consequences of Smallpox in the Soviet Union, a disease that plagued humanity for centuries.

The “Spanish flu”, so named because scientists in Spain identified it, also further spread to Russia and other countries by the British who occupied Murmansk during their unsuccessful attempt to restore the landlords and capitalists to power in Russia. The authorities in many countries of the world were hampered in their successful containment of the virus by the then-rising fascist forces who opposed the necessary measures. After the defeat of the fascist forces in Europe, the workers’ movement were able to extract universal free health care from the ruling class and, as a counter to Soviet communism, European social democracy pushed forward such reforms.


The Spanish Flu came to Australia through returning servicemen who had been roped into this intervention, distributing the virus all over the country.

Over the course of the 20th century, Australia grappled with implementing patchwork healthcare schemes until the Whitlam government established Medibank under the Federal Health Insurance Commission. This increased funding to hospitals and returned free medical care to all Australians.

The reactionaries opposed this all the way, leading attacks on public healthcare, privatising sections, providing government support to insurance companies and trying to water down the provisions as they had done during the 1950s and 60s. The Australian Medical Association and other organisations assisted them in this. Limitations of access to training and HECS fees have served to restrict the supply of local doctors and specialists. The privatised health sector soaks up the health funds in subsidies to insurance companies and privatised medicine.

The reality is that public hospitals still cater for the treatment of serious illnesses with a small part of the healthcare budget. The result of receiving smaller parts of the healthcare budgets for our public system means overcrowding in hospitals, extended waiting lists and ambulance ramping. This was a crisis before the pandemic hit our hospital system.

The management of the virus in Australia was under some control with a series of lockdowns, contact tracing, and quarantine. While many parts could have been more systematic, these measures were working. The introduction of vaccines combined with all these measures was successful in eliminating large community transmission of the virus and preventing a total collapse of the healthcare system.


However, the extreme right had active campaigns in place and successfully developed a campaign with strong advocates in our governments. In essence, the vanguard of the right developed militancy in the street – with various sections of Australian society – combined with supporters in the government. Thus, while many protested, the most potent force in the streets were the rightist forces, opposing lockdowns, masks, and vaccine imperatives. The high-level of coordination of this movement was highlighted by the attack on CFMMEU head office in Melbourne and the threats to hang or behead those who were carrying out protective measures.

Many necessary measures were relaxed under the messaging of “restoring Christmas” without any plans in place for other countermeasures. This movement was spearheaded in NSW by the right, first under then-NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and then under the current premier Dominic Perrottet as the Morrison rightists had failed to secure her support on their more extreme measures. The relentless campaign to open the borders to give people back their Christmas was also a sentiment echoed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden in the UK and USA, respectively. It was clear that the government was moving to a “living” strategy with the virus.

As a result, the virus was allowed to spread in NSW, and the seeding came from the affluent suburbs towards the southern and western suburbs of Sydney. Eastern suburbs were permitted to participate in mass congregations that seeded the virus in the community. However, when the virus hit the working-class suburbs, a savage police state style lockdown was enacted.

With the lack of mass testing and isolation being poorly enforced, the workplace became the principal source of community transmission, with household transmission a secondary source. This carried on revealing the inadequacy of vaccination programs. No vaccinations occurred in workplaces, and workplace testing relied on private clinics and drive-through facilities. Contact tracing was embraced by most of the population and was why the virus spread slowed. Border closures and testing regimes were introduced for truck drivers and airline crew, which also helped contain the virus.


The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and other union organisations are rightly concerned about the government’s removal of the workplace as close contact and the attempts to force sick or asymptomatic workers to work. The media have wedged the comments of ACTU Secretary Sally McManus down to “Are you going to strike?” ignoring that the most important message was that workplaces are a principal source of infection.

What is clear is that the “living with the virus” approach is flawed and will lead to decades of severe sickness for workers affected. It will keep the COVID-19 in the communities to mutate and to periodically create epidemics and pandemics. It must be highlighted that this approach is coming from the corporates who are profiting from the virus’ continued existence. It is a “profits before people” agenda that is simply eugenics in new clothes.

Starting in the workplaces we must lead a campaign to introduce more safety measures. This campaign must include: increased ventilation in all workplaces, making mandatory PCR testing available in all workplaces, full pandemic leave to all workers whatever their contract of employment, and personal protective equipment that meets the medical standards.

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