Australian governments and their counterparts around the world have largely succeeded in desensitising us to avoidable mass deaths and disease. In the week to 6 July, 294 people died of COVID-19 in Australia, more than 40 a day.
In May, OzSAGE, an organisation of health-related experts, issued an urgent call for action to prevent COVID-19 deaths, pointing out, “Higher COVID case numbers are leading to increased hospitalisation, suffering and death. This is the first time an infectious disease has been a leading cause of death in modern history”. In that month, Australia had the highest rate of new infections in the world, apart from a few small islands.
Already stressed hospital workers and facilities continue to be overwhelmed by new cases. One of the latest strains of the Omicron COVID-19 variant is even more virulent than its predecessors and, rather than our noses and throats, targets our lungs in particular. That makes it a greater threat to health.
“Long COVID”, ill health caused by the disease that lasts weeks or months, is affecting large numbers of people. University of Sydney health researchers point out: “With one in 20 people with COVID still experiencing symptoms three months later, long COVID might even become Australia’s most significant cause of longer-term disability”.
Yet despite the rising death toll, hospitalisations and long COVID, governments have been making us more vulnerable to the disease by lifting measures that protect us. The availability of fourth vaccine doses may have been extended to those over 30 on 7 July, but it is still not available to everyone. And that announcement came the day after the Albanese government scrapped the requirement that people arriving in Australia have at least one vaccine dose, in effect inviting new strains of the disease to enter the country freely.
This follows states dropping or scheduling the dropping of vaccination requirements for teachers, and the abandonment of many of the simple but effective measures that prevent disease spread, such as mask mandates for public indoor areas. Enforcement of mask mandates on public transport is generally extremely slack in Australia.
Governments claim to be “following the expert advice”. No doubt. But it’s the best advice money can buy, from people on government payrolls, whose incomes, statuses and careers could be jeopardised if they embarrass their employers.
In reality, governments seem to have had two main concerns in setting their COVID-19 policies: their electoral viability and keeping production and profits going. To start with, when the dangers of COVID-19 weren’t clear, the most precautions were taken: lockdowns and mask mandates along with large-scale public information campaigns. In richer countries, like Australia, there was unprecedented income support provided for those who couldn’t work. Governments didn’t want a substantial chunk of the workforce starving or turning on them.
But, in some cases, like Sweden and federal US policy under Donald Trump, production and profits were the top priority from the beginning. This was only thinly disguised by disingenuous appeals to “herd immunity”, supposedly generated by mass infection. That was UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial response, while in private declaring his intention to “let the bodies pile high”. Scott Morrison’s Liberal government in Australia had the same inclination, but it was tempered by the actions of state governments, whose actions raised public expectations about the right to be safe and the responsibility of government to contain infectious disease.
Then vaccines became available. The partial protection they provided was very welcome. But with time and the emergence of new variants, their effectiveness has declined. Still, they have been increasingly used as a justification for dropping lockdowns, along with the test and trace systems, that worked well in Australia, and other measures aimed at preventing disease, most recently weakening isolation requirements for people who are infected.
The early Omicron variants, while more infectious, were less virulent (likely to cause severe disease or death). That too was used as an excuse to remove public health measures and shift responsibility for public health from governments and society to the decisions of individuals. But there is no guarantee that Omicron won’t be replaced by another even more infectious but also more virulent strain.
Conservative politicians, backed by far-right mobilisations on the street, led the let-it-rip charge. Dan Andrews’ Victorian and Mark McGowan’s Western Australian Labor governments held out longest against this push, and had very widespread support for doing so. But they too fell into line.
Australian governments’ increased health funding in the face of COVID-19 has been trivial and wholly inadequate compared with what’s needed.
Around the world, governments have given in to the virus, prioritising the imperative that businesses operate freely and produce profits. “Don’t focus on the number of infections”, they say, “but on hospitalisations”. The unstated message is “Don’t care about people dying”.
As the rate of people in hospital with COVID-19 has surged, governments have gone quiet about hospitalisations as well. On 9 July, more than 3,800 people were in hospital with COVID-19 in Australia, the highest number since the initial Omicron outbreak in early 2022. That number is rising fast. More than 1,840 of these patients are in New South Wales. That’s the equivalent of the state’s two biggest hospitals full entirely with COVID-19 patients.
We can add to that the many people whose health has been badly affected by the virus. A large US study in February found that the risk of stroke is elevated by 52 percent after a COVID-19 infection, heart attack by 72 percent. A study at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney tracked 128 people in the year following their infection—a majority of whom had only mild cases. The ABC reports that “some sort of cognitive decline was recorded in almost all of the participants, regardless of the severity of the initial infection”.
Every week, more studies are being released that confirm that the scrapping of health measures is inflicting a greater and greater level of ill health on the whole population, and especially on the working class. OzSAGE, whose members are not on the payrolls of government COVID-19 advisory bodies, has a series of important recommendations to minimise the death toll and disease burden. These would not be cheap, but they would put people’s health before profits. They include the provision of free high-quality masks, expanded eligibility for the fourth booster dose, legislated standards for indoor ventilation and air filtration, free and accessible PCR and rapid antigen tests and improved access to treatment.
Any sane society confronted by a vicious new disease would do everything in its power to suppress it. If that wasn’t possible, it would dramatically and permanently expand the health workforce, rather than relying on already overburdened staff to do even more. It would maintain testing, rather than severely restricting access to PCR tests, as the Andrews government has just done in Victoria. It would have income support for everyone affected by COVID-19, a measure now wholly abolished by the Albanese government.
A decent society would mount a colossal public education campaign about how to avoid getting infected or infecting others, and train a public health workforce in the thousands. It would put massive resources into vaccine and treatment research but also into ventilation and air filtration. It would reorder the way schools, workplaces, shops and recreation facilities operate in order to minimise risk of aerosol transmission. And it wouldn’t be intimidated by a tiny minority of far-right sociopaths who oppose broadening requirements for people to be vaccinated and to wear masks so they are much less likely to infect workmates, friends, family and people in the shops.
Our rulers have done none of this. Over the past year they’ve just let the bodies pile up and hoped that we are all too excited about getting back to the gym to notice or care. And businesses have seen the cash pile up, as thousands suffer and die. A sickening and thoroughly capitalist crisis continues.