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Australia can no longer consider itself a global role model for managing the coronavirus. Our reputational loss, due entirely to the surge in infections and deaths in Victoria, was confirmed this week in these two sobering comparisons. Our average daily caseload now exceeds Italy’s, and is approaching that of the United Kingdom, according to the Financial Times’s coronavirus tracker.
But the rest of the world will probably forgive us this slip. Australia’s death rate remains thankfully low – just under eight for every one million people. In Britain it is 677; in Italy 581.
It is important that our leaders, and the hundreds of thousands of workers on the frontline, maintain this perspective. Australia is still managing the pandemic better than most nations for the simple reason that the first wave didn’t overwhelm our health system. Our death rate of eight per million remains in touch with our Asia Pacific peers: four per million in New Zealand, five in Singapore and six in South Korea, according to the Worldometer website.
Nevertheless, the Victorian outbreak, and the rolling threat it poses to NSW and Queensland, must be viewed as a catastrophic policy failure. Responsibility starts with Victoria’s mismanagement of hotel quarantine.
But the buck ultimately stops with Scott Morrison and a generation of conservative ideology. Once the virus jumped out of Melbourne’s hotels, and was spread across the community by sick workers who couldn’t afford to take time off, responsibility clearly extended to the federal government. It runs the industrial relations system, and has been slow to remove the incentive it provides employers to bully their staff into working while carrying the virus. The unions have been asking for paid pandemic leave since March.
Nevertheless, the primary fault at this stage of the infection cycle still lies with the Labor state. The Victorians had been willing to close other gaps in the federal safety net, most notably by providing direct support for university students. Why didn’t Premier Daniel Andrews and his ministers take the necessary steps to fully protect casual workers as well? Surely they weren’t waiting for the feds to wake up to themselves?
The Victorians can’t say they weren’t warned. Our second wave bears an uncanny resemblance to Singapore’s in April, which emerged among vulnerable migrant workers living in tightly packed dormitories.
But the federal government must accept the blame for the grim journey of the virus into nursing homes. The Commonwealth runs aged care, and it had the deadly example of Newmarch House in Sydney to alert it to the risks in their Victorian homes.
It was a shame to see the Prime Minister split hairs on this point by shifting the onus back onto the Victorians for letting the virus into the community. “The challenges of dealing with aged care are not unique to Australia,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Indeed, in every country in the world where there is sustained community transmission, it is inevitable that this will find its way into aged care facilities. When it rains, everyone gets wet. And that is what we're seeing with broad-based community transmission in Victoria.”
Morrison won’t need to run a focus group of older voters to know that he sounded a little callous. He would remember, also, how quickly the public mood turned against him during the black summer of fires when he played pass-the-hose with the states.
Every death in this pandemic is preventable if we are humble enough to learn from our own mistakes and be inspired by our neighbours. Taiwan, an island nation with a population comparable to ours, remains the gold standard. It has lost seven people in total to COVID-19, which translates to a death rate of 0.3 per million.
Australia lost its first 100 people to the virus between March and June, with almost half coming from NSW. Victoria will have added 100 more to that toll by the time the final count for July is confirmed. Almost half that number will have come from nursing homes. By any measure, this is a scandal and the Royal Commission into Aged Care didn’t pull any punches this week when it reminded both the federal and Victorian governments that every aspect of their responses to COVID-19 deserves to be investigated.
But commission chairman Tony Pagone QC said his inquiry did not have the resources to do this at the moment. “Our inquiries may reveal, as seems likely, that there needs to be a fuller and more forensic inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 in aged care,” he said. “Such an inquiry would need adequate time and resources extending beyond the time frame available to us. It will be for government to determine if such an inquiry is to be undertaken.”
It is hard to imagine Morrison stonewalling this request. The question is whether he wants to use a broader inquiry to restore the role of government in aged care.
The Commonwealth runs aged care on the Howard model of privatisation. It is the same model that applies in childcare, and it carries a certain political logic. The conservatives believe the private sector is more efficient at delivering services than government. But it can’t trust the market to set a fair price for young families and older Australians, so it subsidises consumption of these privately run services through direct handouts to the voter, sorry customer.
The great irony of the Victorian outbreak is that a Labor state adapted the Howard model by placing its faith in private contractors to manage the hotel quarantine of Australians returning from overseas. No other state, conservative or Labor, pulled this lever.
The Victorian outbreak contains a further ideological twist. Victoria assumed it was the state most likely to protect multicultural communities from the virus, whether they were vulnerable workers or residents of public housing. Yet the best intentions of this socially progressive government were undermined by a curious lack of connection with the very people it champions.
The problem started with the public health message: it was too centred on Andrews and his chief medical officer, Brett Sutton. There is no doubt that the two are popular. Andrews and Sutton are the most earnest, most compassionate double team in the country. But what value are their briefings if the government doesn’t back them up in each community, with messages tailored for each community?
This isn’t just about language. Health campaigns have to be delivered by one’s peers, not betters, if they are to change behaviour. They need to be bottom-up, not top-down. Victoria has been slow to appreciate this simple rule of public health.
Young Victorians are not fixated on their screens, soaking up every nuance of the Dan and Brett show. They are sharing conspiracy theories, and testing the boundaries of stage three lockdown. They are not alone in this, but they are one of the main carriers of the second wave.
Victoria’s self-image as the exceptional state has taken a battering over the past month. Successive Labor premiers had seen themselves as exemplars of evidence-based policy. The governments of Bracks, Brumby and Andrews correctly diagnosed a policy malaise at the federal level, across both sides, and went their own way.
This is real tragedy of the Victorian outbreak. The Howard model for privatised care is failing the nation because the progressive alternative unleashed its very worst element – the short cut of contracting-out.
If Australia is to think its way out of this pandemic, and make something of the future, both sides must shed the twin baggage of pride and ideology.