COVID-19: Blame the system don’t shame the victim

Victim blaming by the media makes combating COVID-19 harder

The Courier Mail’s July 30 front cover screech describing two young women with coronavirus as “Enemies of the state” is a good example of victim shaming.

It might have sold the struggling Murdoch media empire a few extra papers, but it made combating COVID-19 harder.

In general, victim shaming is counter-productive.

Specifically, in this health emergency, it drives an “us versus them” approach which tears apart the social solidarity we need to deal with the pandemic. In this particular case, racism and misogyny made it all the more nasty.

Meanwhile, a Rockhampton doctor, the wealthy Aspen skiers and a mercenary returning from Afghanistan (among others) escaped the same treatment from Murdoch.

The recent explosion of coronavirus cases and deaths in Victoria, and hotspots in other states, shows we cannot be complacent about this virus.

Yet, the federal government steadfastly refuses to aim for the obviously more humane policy of eliminating the virus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long made clear that he doesn’t support that option. He recently reiterated the government’s pro-corporate position saying “the best protection against the virus [is] to live alongside the virus, and to open up your economy”. “You don’t protect your economy by continually shutting things down.”

Unsurprisingly, News Corp is pushing the same line.

Their criticism of Victorian Labor Premier Dan Andrews has been constant, even as they hypocritically argue contradictory rationales. More recently, they say Andrews is to blame for the infection rate going up. Previously, they had been urging state governments to open up their economies faster.

Caring about “the economy” over public health has been the establishment’s consistent approach. They care more about corporate profits than they do about people’s health and livelihoods.

This was revealed in the first stimulus package Morrison announced, which was about protecting corporations’ profit margins, not people’s livelihoods. It continues today in Morrison’s refusal to direct employers to pay pandemic leave or to extend JobKeeper to cover those workers who fall outside the narrow guidelines.

Undoubtedly, Australia has had a much better overall health outcome than many other wealthy countries.

It is also true that the federal government acted reasonably quickly in announcing its special pandemic measures. These have helped keep people employed while combating the disease. They also helped Australia avoid a more severe social crisis than would otherwise have ensued.

However these schemes are flawed, because too many are falling through the cracks, or have not been covered in the first place. In addition, they government wants to wind the schemes back too early, despite rising unemployment.

The contrast with the approach of Cuba and Vietnam could not be clearer. Despite being poor countries, both governments adopted a humanitarian approach to dealing with the virus. They have achieved better health outcomes.

Even New Zealand’s social democratic, pro-capitalist approach has achieved a better result than Australia, for arguably less pain.

By contrast, the right-wing Swedish government’s pro-business approach has led to thousands more deaths than its neighbours whose governments imposed lockdowns. Even the New York Times acknowledges that Sweden didn’t even protect its economy.

The pandemic is revealing that looking after people, before profits, results in better health outcomes, as well as better general welfare.

In Australia’s aged care sector, where there have been many coronavirus deaths, it is a tale of profits over people. According to Dr Sarah Russell, the “horror story” is “so sad — and so avoidable”. As Russell pointed out on Michael West Media, aged care in Australia is big business and peak bodies have successfully lobbied for an end to staff-to-client ratios. “This flexibility results in many aged-care homes being understaffed.”

She continued: “If governments had acted on the recommendations from numerous inquiries over the past decade – if they had listened to residents, relatives and staff – we would not have this horror story unfolding.”

Kathy Eagar from the Australian Health Service Research Centre made a similar point to the ABC on July 29 contrasting how the state government-run and private aged-care facilities had fared in battling the pandemic.

“I would really contrast the two situations we’ve got now in Victoria,” she said. “The state government in Victoria runs 178 homes. They haven’t had any deaths and they haven’t had any outbreaks. The big difference is that they do have mandated staffing and a much higher number of registered nurses available in each home.”

Victim blaming helps deflect from a focus on the need for systemic changes. It is intentional on the part of the corporate media and governments that are looking for cover.

Neoliberal policies, implemented by state and federal governments, are largely to blame for the health crisis we see in aged care and workplaces where casualised work is the norm.

This pandemic has shown up the limits of a corporate-first approach and it provides an opportunity to chart a new way forward. Putting people’s needs first and social solidarity are the only ways we can achieve the best outcomes as we battle this pandemic. In the longer term, it is the only way forward for humanity and a safe environment.

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