The following by Rachel Withers (The Monthly 12 July 2022) puts forward her view on the present failure of government to take the action needed to combat the resurgence of Covid infections and the emphasis on prioritising the needs of big business. She indicates that this is no different from the Morrison government response, and a betrayal of the election promise to act differently.
In case you somehow missed it: things are looking bad in this so-called third wave of the pandemic. Hospitalisations are surging, leading to the suspension of elective surgery, while paramedics are overwhelmed, with up to half of Victoria’s advanced life support paramedics currently unavailable.
Victoria and NSW have become the latest states to reduce their reinfection periods (when positive-test cases are exempt from isolation and testing) from 12 weeks down to four, because, as chief medical officer Paul Kelly warned today, our dominant new subvariants – BA4 and 5 – can evade immunity. Australian Medical Association vice-president Chris Moy yesterday compared Australians to frogs being boiled slowly, in a reference to the nation’s apparent acceptance of escalating death rates.
Health leaders are ramping up the dire warnings, however, with Health Minister Mark Butler saying that case numbers and hospitalisations are likely to keep increasing for at least a month.
Photo by Morgan Sette / AAP: Health Minister Mark Butler
So what on earth could explain the decision to keep winding back basic preventative measures, or ignore health advice, as both the Commonwealth and Victorian governments did today, sending mixed messages to Australians as to whether or not this pandemic is over?
Victoria got the ball rolling today, with new health minister Mary-Anne Thomas revealing that she had rejected the state chief health officer’s advice to bring back mask mandates for workers in early childhood, school, retail and hospitality settings, opting instead to “strongly recommend” them.
People need to “take control of their own health”, she said, echoing the federal health minister (and former PM Scott Morrison before him). Butler, meanwhile, confirmed on 3AW that the government’s policy of free rapid antigen tests for concession-card holders would end as planned at the end of the month, telling Neil Mitchell that it was “about the right time” for the federal scheme to end.
This decision, taken in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, will no doubt lead to more cases going undetected in the community. It follows Butler’s decision to continue with the planned end to certain telehealth rebates and paid pandemic leave, about which both doctors and unions have been up in arms.
The Australian Medical Association and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners are today reiterating calls for the telehealth items to be reinstated, asking for a meeting with Butler as soon as possible.
It’s perplexing watching our governments do this: as we have learnt time and again during this pandemic, time is of the essence when it comes to major outbreaks, and simple preventative measures can make a huge difference. Both Butler and Thomas implied today that these decisions were about “fatigue”. “We’re deep into the third year of the pandemic,”
Butler told 3AW. “There is a level of fatigue that governments and health authorities need to reflect when putting in measures.”
But it’s clear it’s about more than that. For NSW and Victoria, impending state elections are no doubt playing a role, with governments seemingly afraid of bringing back contentious restrictions.
Thomas is clearly listening to industry bodies, which do not want mandates brought back under any circumstances. As she told today’s press conference, she rejected the CHO’s mask advice after speaking to businesses, who warned they would lose staff over it. Never mind, of course, that they will lose both staff and customers if these case numbers continue to spiral.
The federal government, meanwhile, keeps citing cost as justification for ending pandemic measures, noting “the debt” (which never seems to matter when it comes to continuing with the Stage Three tax cuts for high-income earners, by comparison).
Pressed today about the scrapping of pandemic leave, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the government needed to rein in spending, noting that it was the previous government’s decision for the payments to end now.
That, as I have previously noted in this column, is not an excuse. Nor has it stopped Opposition health spokesperson Anne Ruston from criticising the government over the “cuts”, suggesting we are seeing a “worrying” pattern of behaviour from the Albanese government.
Galling as her criticism may be, Ruston is right – it is worrying to see state and federal governments ignore health advice or let important measures lapse. Butler and Thomas clearly want people to take this seriously: each are issuing dire warnings, begging people to wear masks and to get their booster shots, as winter health campaigns are rolled out.
But the mixed messages, and specifically the rolling back of preventive measures, are undermining that, as Moy argues. Part of the reason, let’s remember, that Labor was swept into power at the federal level was that the Coalition so seriously mismanaged these later stages of the pandemic, refusing to accept that it still had a role to play as Australia began living with the virus.
Labor is now making the same mistake, refusing to make the hard decisions that might just make this wave that little bit easier.