COVID-19: Mass testing, shut downs now, guarantee wages and livelihoods

Mass testing, and follow-up support measures, need to be priorities.

The coronavirus pandemic is both a health threat and a threat to corporate profits.

As the federal government is focused on protecting corporate profits, its actions to protect our health have been late, confused and half-hearted.

It claims to be following the “very best medical advice” but it is failing to take the measures needed to most effectively suppress the spread of the disease.

It remains unclear how bad the situation will become. There have been some indications in recent days that Australia might avoid the nightmare in some other capitalist countries, such as the United States, Italy and Spain.

However, we are still on a trajectory to a massively increased caseload. If so, this could overwhelm the hospital system.

The battle remains for working and unemployed people to push for a response that puts public health first, without making them pay for the crisis.

This has not been the government’s approach.

The foundation of a good public health response is to organise mass testing for the disease and energetic tracing and quarantining of people connected to confirmed cases.

Australia, a wealthy country with a small population, does have a high per capita rate of testing. However, the criteria for being eligible for a test remains strict. It is critical that anyone with symptoms, and those they have been in close contact with, is able to access one.

Those in quarantine also need to be looked after, with access to a high standard of food, shelter and medical care, as is the case in Vietnam.

Surely it would be possible to have access to temperature checks in every shopping centre and public transport hub? This is the kind of measure that governments that prioritised public health care would be implementing.

We also need a wider shut down than what’s being proposed right now. That should include schools, the construction industry and fossil fuel exports.

These need to happen without the draconian police measures currently being deployed.

To make this possible, the government has to ensure that people are not at risk of losing jobs, housing and income. In addition, arrangements need to be made to ensure that the children of essential workers are being cared for (most likely via the targeted opening of some schools and childcare centres).

The capacity of the health system, that has been undermined by decades of neoliberalism, needs to be dramatically expanded.

Not one single cent of subsidy should be paid to any corporation that does not promise to retain all its workers (including those employed casually) on full pay or at the level of the wage subsidy (whichever is higher). The special corporate tax cuts and bail-outs that have already been implemented should be reversed.

Big corporations at risk of collapse should be brought into public ownership, rather than bailed out and allowed to stand down workers the next day.

In addition, the government should begin a mass hiring program because there are lots of jobs that need doing — in the health care system and at Centrelink for starters.

The government’s increase to the JobSeeker Payment needs to be made permanent and measures taken to ensure that payments can begin promptly – not delayed weeks or months.

People will and do support a period of isolation, if it is properly explained and their livelihoods are not jeopardised.

It is impossible to do this, however, if lockdown measures are arbitrarily applied and contradicted by profits-first policies that make no sense such as keeping the construction industry open (unless, for instance, it was to build new hospitals).

The federal government’s real priorities are revealed by its initial willingness to exempt casinos from closing their doors. The New South Wales government took zero precautions allowing passengers to disembark from the Ruby Princess.

On the one hand, federal parliament has closed down. On the other hand, it appointed corporate blood suckers rather than doctors to its new COVID-19 advisory panel.

The crisis demonstrates the miserable failures of the capitalist system, which cannot meet human need.

We need to demand a better public health response.

But we also need to build a stronger socialist movement so we are not perpetually trapped by capitalist governments which, be it bushfires, climate change or COVID-19, have consistently failed to look after our needs.

[Alex Bainbridge is the national convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]