Look after people not profit in the COVID-19 crisis

Health Care for People Not Profit. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

It is clear that the Australian government has badly mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic with doctors now warning that Australia is on track to be in a "worse position than Italy is currently in".

"On current growth rates, the 300 cases in Australia today [March 15, by March 17 it was 450!] will be … 10,000 by the 4th of April," a letter by concerned doctors reads.

With each passing day the global corona virus emergency takes on new and more ominous proportions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it a pandemic, and several countries, including Italy, Spain and France, have gone into lockdown. Spain has nationalised its private hospitals to free up resources to deal with the crisis.

As rates of infection and associated deaths mount across the world, it is highly likely that similar and more far-reaching measures will be taken in the hope of reducing the spread of the virus.

In Australia, current reported cases of infection are lower than other places, but have begun rising exponentially. Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison pre-empting the WHO in declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, the measures he has taken to date have been geared primarily to propping up businesses and protecting profits rather than marshalling all available resources to implement urgent and preventative healthcare measures.

While the federal and state governments have not yet implemented school closures or other lockdown measures demanded by doctors and health experts, they are calling for those presenting with symptoms of the virus to self-isolate and for people to avoid unnecessary travel and contact with crowded places.

Key to being able to self-isolate, however, is to have the economic means to forgo paid work and stay at home.

Today, cuts to the public service, privatisation and the growing "gig economy" all mean that more than a third of working people do not have paid sick leave provisions.

Absurdly, Attorney General Christian Porter said that this has all been of benefit to workers: he claimed that because casual workers receive a higher hourly rate, they therefore accumulate a rainy day fund which sees them through just this type of global economic and health crisis. In fact, the government's slashing of casual penalty rates from 2018, assisting bosses to gouge even more profits from vulnerable, mostly non-unionised workers, puts the lie to this argument.

What penalties exist today are compensation for irregular and insecure working conditions, nothing more. Low income workers who are sick will likely feel pressure to keep working through necessity, unless the government steps in and ensures income protection for those following the health authorities' advice and staying home.

Federal and state governments have pledged to roll out more intensive care beds and community clinics but, so far, much of this has been slow to materialise.

COVID-19 has shone a light on the country's underfunded public health services that struggle to meet normal social demands for healthcare, let alone when faced by a still relatively new and unknown pandemic.

What is clear is that this health emergency is going to need much more than the "budget surplus".

Based on current projections, globally COVID-19 is likely to cause the deaths of many millions of people. The final death toll, however, will be based largely on the effectiveness and timeliness of the responses made by governments working closely with health professionals.

It is clear to many now that the neoliberal attacks on public services, wages, working conditions and welfare have only aggravated these challenges and undermined our collective security.

The panic buying of household staples reflects, in part, a lack of confidence that governments will be sufficiently responsive, leaving the individual to fend for themselves.

Such crises can also lead to shifts in popular consciousness and a collective resolve to fight for better social conditions.

At the outset of World War II, Britain was unprepared for the challenges of protecting itself from existential harm, militarily and economically. It was only by taking public control of essential industries, rationalising production and distribution and fully mobilising the population that the war effort was eventually successful.

We must not accept the Morrison government's tokenistic measures towards our health while focussing mainly on boosting corporations' bottom lines.

Public health must come first.

We must be prepared to demand and act on all necessary measures to protect the community's health and safety, in particular those most at risk. COVID-19 is already having far-reaching impacts on global society, and it will take far-reaching social solutions on a global scale to overcome it.

Socialist Alliance is supporting health authorities' moves to minimise the number of infections and the number of deaths from COVID-19. But this will not be achieved with draconian authoritarian measures, such as fining or jailing people who don't self isolate.

We need social solidarity – such as Cuba's welcoming of passengers on a cruise ship – to ensure that people's needs are met.

This includes:

  • An urgent campaign of free, mass testing for the virus;
  • Guaranteed paid sick leave and a minimum income for all workers and those who need to self-isolate;
  • Boost funding for the public health system and nationalise private hospitals (as Spain has done);
  • Rationing and effective distribution of essential items to all;
  • Rent deferrals and mortgage holidays; and
  • Raise NewStart and all benefits to at least the poverty line, scrap the wait period and end all "mutual obligation" activities.

[Chris Jenkins is a member of Socialist Alliance in Western Australia and is a member of the Australian Nursing Federation. Photo from Elvert Barnes / Flickr.]