The profit motive and Morrison’s (slow) push for ‘herd immunity’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still taking cues from US President Donald Trump

The naked brutality of the United States right wing amid the COVID-19 disaster is becoming more exposed.

On April 22, for instance, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said that “There are more important things than living”. This was his justification for ending that state’s COVID-19 lockdown: he acknowledges people will die.

There is no confusing the US right’s preference for corporate profits above human life.

The ruling elite in Australia has the same priority. It is just a little more disguised.

One reason is that Australia has, so far, been relatively successful at containing the spread of the virus.

However the right-wing here is also itching to get back to making profits. The clownish buffoons from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Murdoch media make this clear. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also taking cues from US President Donald Trump.

Morrison has long made clear that he has no intention of trying to eliminate COVID-19 entirely. He justifies this by saying the economic cost — that is, the cost to corporate profits — is too high.

Instead, he favours moving beyond what he says is the “suppression phase” of dealing with the pandemic. In other words, he wants to move towards allowing a steady stream of infections to spread through the community, but not at a rate that overwhelms the health system.

This is despite a number of experts suggesting that the complete elimination of the virus is a viable strategy in Australia, since efforts to contain it so far have been successful.

The ABC reported on April 21 that Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said eliminating coronavirus is possible. “We've gone earlier [in taking action] than most countries with comparable rates anywhere in the world and I think that’s why we’re in the position we’re in,” he said.

But to make this possible we need more testing, including people with no symptoms. “That would mean lots of testing, lots of individuals coming forward potentially trying to work out if there’s asymptomatic transmission,” Sutton said.

However, the number of those being tested in Australia has fallen, because fewer people are presenting with symptoms.

The ABC reported that other experts, such as Queensland University virologist Kirsty Short, also believe that eliminating the coronavirus here is possible. This would involve blocking Australian borders for an indefinite period.

Failing to do that would result in a low level of infections circulating in the community, including ongoing deaths, but not the “high mortality rates we’ve seen overseas”, she said.

Health reporter Dr Norman Swan echoed the idea that getting to zero cases in Australia is feasible on the ABC’s April 21 Coronacast program. He said that “to be sure that you’ve eliminated spread … you’ve got to go through at least two or three weeks with no cases … [and then maintain] massive testing to really be sure that we’ve eliminated spread”.

The ABC also reported that four weeks without a single case would meet the World Health Organization’s definition of “eradication”.

Former NSW Liberal MP Pru Goward has been a lot more brazen than Morrison, although consistent with his approach. She argues in favour of a “staged” herd immunity plan.

“Those of us with co-morbidities, such as age, lung impairment including asthma, diabetes, and heart conditions, would only be allowed out when that 60–70 per cent of the population at lower risk of hospitalisation from COVID had already been out and exposed,” she said.

To give an idea of what she means concretely: if 60% of Australia’s population is 15 million people and if the 1% death rate holds, Goward accepts that there would be 150,000 deaths from a “staged” herd immunity approach to COVID-19.

Swan is correct when he says “there are no easy decisions here”.

However, he does make it clear that the “half way house” (that Morrison and Goward support) between “letting it rip” and the complete elimination of the virus will lead to more deaths.

“You may be able to suppress a major problem like New York, but the halfway house is more deaths; that’s the fact of the matter,” Swan said.

That’s what we should keep in mind when Morrison talks about gradually opening up the economy and a “trade-led recovery”.

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