- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2016
ICU nurses protesting outside Westmead Hospital, NSW, 19th January, 2022. Photo: Facebook – NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association.
Hospitals and their staff are at breaking point as the wave of BA.4/BA.5 COVID-19 sub-strains and flu send hospitalisations to breaking point. GPs across Australia are booked out with long waiting times for appointments. The death toll continues to mount.
At the time of writing, Australia had recorded a total of more than 8.8 million cases with almost 11,000 deaths and 5,000 currently hospitalised.
In NSW, Victoria, and Queensland a total of 6,500 health workers are furloughed due to COVID adding to the pressure on hospitals and aged care centres. The inability of hospital emergency departments to cope with bed shortages is resulting in ambulance ramping because they are unable to unload their patients. Staff are burnt out which is exacerbated by underfunding of hospitals and hours of overtime. Thousands have quit their job seeking less stressful work on higher wages.
Under immense pressure from unions and the public at large, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese finally agreed at the National Cabinet meeting on 16th July to reintroduce the $750-a-week pandemic leave payment and free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for concession card holders.
Chief health officers and other health professionals, trade unions, state governments, Labor MPs, and many others had called on the government to restore the free RATs and the paid leave for casuals and other workers who did not have access to any paid leave. The attempted cuts are a demonstration of this government’s class position.
Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus said: “Without paid pandemic leave, hundreds of thousands of working Australians will face an impossible choice – to do the right thing for the community in staying at home, or to keep food on the table and pay their rent .
“No worker should have to go to work while sick just to pay bills.”
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) Federal Secretary, Annie Butler, said it was crucial that the payments remain in place to allow people to follow public health orders and stay in isolation if they contract COVID or need to care for others with the virus.
“We are now two and half years into the pandemic, and while everyone wants it to be over, it’s not over. In fact, we’re heading into a potential ‘winter’ wave – clearly demonstrated by the current increase in COVID cases and a worrying increase in hospitalisations. With many public health measures now being relaxed, we need to ensure that everything is done to support the whole community to abide by the restrictions still in place,” Butler said.
The pandemic leave payment that had been introduced by the Morrison Coalition government ended on 30th June. The payment will now continue until the end of September and be back paid to the 1st July for those who isolated for reasons of COVID or as carers of COVID patients.
It is an extremely infectious strain of the disease and while some people experience mild symptoms others are hit very hard and end up in intensive care units. According to researchers at Sydney University one in five Australians experience long COVID with symptoms continuing for three months or more. Some have had debilitating symptoms for one or two years.
Health authorities warn the worst is to come in August.
There was a surge in January following the lifting of mask-wearing mandates in retail and other indoor settings. While masks might still be mandated on public transport, in aged care centres, hospitals and certain other areas, this is does not appear to be being enforced as previously.
During 2020 and 2021 governments generally followed the advice of chief health officers. This is not always the case now.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet argued for a reduction in the isolation period from seven days to five days contrary to the advice of the chief medical officer during the National Cabinet meeting. He has since suggested it be reduced in September.
He also said that the time has passed for wide-scale mask wearing mandates. “We need to have a limited role for the state to be mandating.”
It was former PM Scott Morrison who introduced the concept of “personal responsibility” last year. “Living with COVID” gradually replaced the approach of containing or minimising COVID.
Mandating mask wearing and taking other measures to limit spread of COVID went from being a collective, societal responsibility to one of “personal responsibility.” But is this working? Where are the education campaigns?
Mary-Ann Thomas, Victoria’s Health Minister, ignored recommendations from the state’s Chief Health Officer to mandate mask wearing in retail, early education, and hospitality settings despite the rising case numbers.
“Further mandating of masks was not the most effective way of getting the message out about the importance of mask wearing. We need to empower Victorians to make their own decisions,” Thomas said.
Anyone who has been on public transport recently knows that masks are not being worn by everyone.
PUT LIVES FIRST
“Living with COVID” and “personal responsibility” are resulting in a rapid spread of the virus. They are based on a “pro-business” approach to keep workers in employment. But in reality they are counterproductive.
Employer group Australian Industry Group’s CEO Innes Willox acknowledged that state medical infrastructure continues to struggle but said it was no excuse to impose draconian restrictions or wind down the economy i.e. profits.
Not heeding the advice of health professionals facilitates the spread of the virus.
“We inherited the former government’s decision on this and we also inherited $1 trillion of debt,” said Albanese when he initially stated that the government would not continue free RATs and the leave payments. Inheriting a former government’s decision seems to be a strange reason not to adopt a policy.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers said he “regretted” that the government could not do it. “This is going to have an impact on people in the community, I’ve made no bones about that and I deeply regret it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there is not room in the budget for every good idea or to extend every program, even good ones, indefinitely.”
As for the $1 trillion debt, this is a question of priorities. The estimated cost of the paid pandemic leave is $780 million – with the federal government sharing the cost evenly with the states and territories. If that estimate is borne out, it would only add $0.39 billion to the $1,000 trillion debt.
But it is not necessary to add a cent to the debt. The government is going ahead with $22 billion in tax cuts for the rich when millions of Australians are facing poverty, rising rents, and rocketing energy prices. It was the former government’s legislation. Why not abandon the cuts?
The government’s profligate spending on nuclear-powered submarines, US bases, offensive weapons, and militarisation of the economy – close to $50 billion a year and rising. What sort of priority is that?
Why are governments subsidising fossil fuels to the tune of $11.6 billion a year? Or subsidising private hospitals by $7 billion a year through the private health insurance rebate?
“Nurses, midwives, and care workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic since the beginning of 2020 and are continuing to work under extreme pressure – not just from the burden of COVID but also dealing with rising influenza cases, overwhelmed emergency departments and the ongoing crisis in aged care.
“We must learn from previous mistakes. Supporting people now will save money and, most importantly, lives in the long run, which is why the government should be protecting the community by continuing to financially support people who are forced to isolate for 7-days,” ANMF’s Annie Butler said.
The health, aged care, and disability services need a complete overhaul and nationalisation. Under-funding primary care is putting pressure on ambulance services and hospital emergency departments. The prioritising of private profits, whether it be in the health care, disability services or aged care is morally obscene and an indictment of the capitalist system. It’s time to put people before profits.