Sharing the pain

Scott Morrison is right. Until there is a vaccine, we will have to learn to live with this virus. The human toll of pursuing herd immunity is not one the country is willing to bear.

Victoria’s second wave, meanwhile, shows how the risk posed by the rest of the world can quickly become reality. For Australia, this risk can never be entirely shut out; Scott Morrison is right when he says this.

“Unless we’re going to … not allow any freight or any medical supplies into Australia or not allow any exports … there is always going to be a connection between Australia and the rest of the world.”

The choice then is not whether we live with the virus, but how we choose to do so. And if suppression is the only viable option, its costs must be borne equally.

When the sprawling Star casino, controversially exempted from Sydney’s lockout laws, is similarly given a pass on the state’s renewed restrictions on pubs, people notice.

When temporary visa holders and international students are lining up at food banks, the appearance of togetherness begins to fray.

Likewise, when childcare workers are the first people cut off from JobKeeper payments, after months spent risking their health to free up others to work.

Or when people living in public housing towers are subjected to treatment the government would never consider for other residents.

If suppression is the only viable option, the government’s plan needs to be coherent, its policy decisions explained.

The government has been playing a confidence game. But trust is falling, anxiety is high, and the country needs to know what it means to “just keep going down the middle”.

The treasurer has foreshadowed the extension of JobKeeper, in some form, as troubling cases spring up elsewhere around the country. His July 23 economic update will offer detail as to what this will look like.

But JobKeeper was always a blunt instrument, and four months into Australia’s fight against this pandemic, it’s fair for the public to demand a more refined and effective policy response.

If the government now seeks to implement something more “targeted”, the option of a Britain-style wage subsidy remains on the table.

By whatever means they choose to refine the first suite of Covid-19 support measures though, it is clear any savings must be reinvested.

The economy needs stimulus, people need jobs and the private sector isn’t going to provide them. Those shut out from government support for too long must be brought into the fold.

When the government stepped up, and stepped back into the lives of Australians, the country embraced the shift.

Now is not the time to take a step back.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2020 as "Sharing the pain".

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