You’ve got to laugh. “The Albanese government wants to ensure that Australia is on the front foot in managing the pandemic,” Health Minister Mark Butler said on receipt of Professor Jane Halton’s review into vaccine procurement last month.
Three days later, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and state premiers – all but two of them Labor – scrapped mandatory isolation and paid pandemic leave for Australians with active Covid-19, beginning next Friday, October 14.
From that day, the hairdresser with an infectious Covid sniffle can give you a trim, the neighbour with an infectious Covid cough can cheer alongside you at a sporting event, and the traveller with an infectious Covid sneeze can fly for hours next to you on a plane.
Many casual care and hospitality workers infectious with Covid won’t be able to isolate even if they want or need to because, unless they work in the high-risk aged care, disability care, Aboriginal healthcare and hospital care settings, there’ll be no income support for them.
As if this would be enough to “protect the most vulnerable” anyway. People of all kinds – visitors, taxi drivers, couriers – will be able to take their Covid infections to high-risk settings if they want to, now iso rules have been dumped.
In any case, the most vulnerable aren’t confined to the institutional settings the September 30 national cabinet principles imply. Many are out in the world. They include your immunocompromised boss, your teenager with a history of asthma and your friend with a chronic illness. With the dumping of iso, the world is now a significantly riskier place.
So far this year Covid-related deaths have amounted to more than 10 times the national road toll. That’s with iso rules and paid pandemic leave in place.
What will it become after the scant remaining constraints on transmission end next Friday?
“Let it rip” has effectively become bipartisan Covid policy in the biggest victory for neoliberal public health policy in memory.
National cabinet’s statement of principles was just so much pious blah set against its decision at that meeting to normalise infectious Covid sufferers’ active presence in Australian daily life.
“We wanted to make sure that we have measures which are proportionate and that are targeted at the most vulnerable,” Albanese said after the meeting. “We want to continue to promote vaccinations as being absolutely critical, including people getting booster shots.”
With an average of 300 Australians a week dying from Covid this year, existing policy settings have been grossly inadequate – and government is now kicking away the remaining protective iso struts of its already inadequate approach.
Vaccination rates and booster uptake plunged as Covid became old news. Campaigns to promote them are weak and boring to non-existent.
“[We] want a policy that promotes resilience and capacity-building, and reduces a reliance on government intervention,” Albanese went on. Just words, without evidence of energy, actions or outcomes giving substance to the aspiration.
“There’s not a role for government in running every bit of people’s lives forever and that is my firm position,” was an astounding statement to many. While of course literally true, it was extraordinary to hear this stock nanny-state-bashing nostrum fall so easily from the lips of Albanese, whose political leitmotiv is “I fight Tories”.
Many wonder, especially given the Albanese government’s generally positive performance in other areas, what on earth has happened to Labor on public health policy? There are several factors at play.
The veiled nature of Covid-related deaths and disabilities is one important reason.
People, politicians included, tend to extrapolate overly from their own experience, and no Australian politician has died from the virus, right? Most people they know personally who’ve had it haven’t died either, and only some have ongoing or severe impacts. Even then, the effects are mostly invisible, such as lung inflammation and cognitive impacts – easily dismissed if you’re not the one suffering from them. In the absence of visible cues such as, for example, the callipers and iron lungs of polio, it’s easier for politicians to dismiss.
As for the strokes, heart attacks and sudden deaths that are twice as likely in the year following a Covid infection, the distance between the illness and the event is often big enough for the connection to be missed.
All this makes it easier for politicians to underestimate the scope and scale of the policy failure. It makes it easier for the media to do so too, especially given media proprietors’ ideological preference for the “let it rip” approach. So it is that five people dead in a car crash on the Hume Highway will play big on evening news bulletins, but 50 dead nationally from Covid the same day will not.
It’s a version of the philosophical thought experiment: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If 50 Australians a day die in hospitals with no TV news cameras to record it, does it constitute a political problem? Right now, unfortunately, the answer is no. The lack of media censure for pandemic management failure is a key factor in that failure’s perpetuation.
Another problem is the federal government’s chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, who has emerged as the Hamlet of pandemic policy.
At the end of August, Kelly was hand-wringing about whether a pending national cabinet decision cutting isolation from seven to five days was safe or not but leant towards caution. On Wednesday, former independent senator Rex Patrick tweeted the result of his freedom of information request for the release of any advice or submissions from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee that informed that meeting’s decision. The response was a refusal, as “those documents cannot be found or do not exist”.
A month later, on September 30, Kelly stood with the prime minister, backed the end of iso rules and declared it “time to move away from Covid exceptionalism” – a neoliberal slugline par excellence.
Albanese pointedly repeated Kelly’s line. He added, “The flu has existed, and health issues have existed, for a long period of time and the government hasn’t always stepped in to pay people’s wages while people have health concerns.”
Covid is not flu. It has killed 40 times more Australians than flu this year and without the iso rules national cabinet just abolished, it would have killed even more.
Given fiscal stringencies, there are alternatives to ending iso rules and government-paid pandemic leave. National cabinet could have continued iso and made employers, many of them currently enjoying super profits, responsible for paid pandemic leave instead.
Finally there is, of course, political self-interest. With the Victorian state election on November 26 this year and the New South Wales state election scheduled for March 25 next year, no one wants to stir up the cookers.
So after more than 12,000 Australian deaths so far in 2022, there’s no worries about lifting the pedal bearing down on Covid transmission and seeing what happens, apparently. Everyone can worry about it after those big state elections are over, right?
One consequence of the national cabinet decision, and Kelly’s pejorative attack on alleged “Covid exceptionalism”, is that significant public health figures are now going public with concerns hitherto raised with government in private.
The statistics cited in this piece are taken from two major public contributions since the national cabinet decision was made.
“COVID is an exceptional disease and was at its deadliest this year, causing more deaths between June and August 2022 than at any other time,” opens one published in The Conversation by UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute biosecurity program head, Professor Raina MacIntyre; the Burnet Institute director and chief executive, Professor Brendan Crabb; and the head of the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, Professor Nancy Baxter.
MacIntyre, Crabb and Baxter take direct aim at Kelly and highlight the mass deaths occurring on Labor’s watch this year. Ending iso will hasten the next Covid wave’s onset, they argue, and iso and paid pandemic leave are “still needed as viral evolution continues to outpace immunity”.
The other major contribution was from former professor and director of the Royal Children’s Hospital’s neurology department, and now independent member for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan. Ryan wrote in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that ending iso and paid pandemic leave is the Albanese government’s “first real misstep”, with potentially grave consequences.
The government is gambling with its political fortunes and our health, Ryan said, in a sober piece calling for iso and paid pandemic leave to be restored, government health advice to be made public, for that advice not to rest solely on the view of Kelly, and for a national summit to “rebuild a consensus approach” on the virus.
Ryan could well turn out to be Australia’s real shadow Health minister.
The actual shadow minister, Liberal member of parliament Anne Ruston, has so far been too busy burnishing her right-wing credentials – for example, with a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference gathering in Sydney last Sunday – to be much bothered with Covid. Though she did tweet the Halton report’s comment that, while enjoying early success, Australia’s “relative performance is beginning to ‘wane’ ”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Albanese’s Covid choice".
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