COVID-19 Will Hit the Already Marginalized the Hardest

The Australian government is preaching unity in the face of coronavirus but its emergency measures, which protect business interests above all else, are set only to deepen inequality.

A food delivery driver wearing a face mask rides past the Myer Bourke Street department store on March 29, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images)

Liberal Party Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Australians that while not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is “well-prepared and equipped” to deal with it. The government will steer us through if only “Team Australia,” as treasurer Josh Frydenberg calls it, can band together. Labor Party (ALP) leader Anthony Albanese has heeded his call and stressed the need for bipartisanship.

But the reality of inequality across the country gives lie to the notion of a Team Australia. Since the early 1980s, wages and conditions have deteriorated along with public services. Both the ALP and Coalition governments have been hacking away at the welfare state. The result is the most unequal and dislocated society in seventy years.

Morrison’s emergency measures have been confused and directed by business priorities. Despite distributing a $750 cash payment to welfare recipients and temporarily raising unemployment payments, according to the Australia Institute, two-thirds of the handouts — which total AU$189 billion — will go to business and are aimed at keeping credit flowing. So far, there have been no serious measures to reinforce a health system weakened by decades of underfunding.

Although the pandemic is in its early stages, there is no doubt that as it peaks in Australia, workers and marginalized groups will be hit the hardest.

Open for Business

In anticipation of large-scale deaths, the government is already building a narrative that places blame in the hands of all but themselves. After the number of cases sharply increased on Sunday, Morrison and chief medical bureaucrat Brendan Murphy slammed “young people” for failing to follow government advice to practice social distancing.

This is partly an attempt to deflect criticism that the government has dragged its feet at the onset of this crisis. In defiance of the pleas of experts and workers on the front lines, the government has insisted on keeping Australia open for business as long as it can. This is why Morrison refused to close schools (and overrode states that did). The economic price of parents staying home to look after their kids was not one he was willing to pay.

The refusal to close schools exposed public school teachers, cleaners, and support workers to the danger of infection. Teachers have reported on the impossibility of adhering to social-distancing guidelines in overcrowded public school classrooms. The United Workers’ Union has raised concerns that cleaners — an essential but invisible workforce that relies heavily on migrant workers and international students — are already facing shortages of protective equipment.

Countless workers now face a terrible choice between physical distancing and having enough money to house and feed themselves. There are 2.5 million workers who have no access to paid-leave entitlements. While a few employers have granted paid sick leave for casuals, there are no national laws guaranteeing it. Analysis by Swinburne University academics found that 38.9 percent of casual workers earning less than $600 per week have less than $600 in savings; 11.5 percent of this group are already in debt.

The attorney general Christian Porter brushed aside these concerns, arguing that casuals should have “already made provisions.” However, the reality is that many low-paid and precarious workers are only days or weeks of self-isolation away from destitution. Those who fail to comply with mandatory self-isolation measures  — imposed not only on travelers, but on those who have been in contact with people who have been infected — face fines of up to $50,000 or six months in prison.

The Victorian state government is now forming a dedicated police task force to enforce social-distancing measures among individuals — a corollary of their plan to blame individual workers for social problems incubated by decades of neoliberalism and the gutting of the public sector.

Unemployment Crisis

Only a day after the government announced a $720 million bailout of the airline industry, Qantas announced the immediate redundancy of two-thirds of its workforce, throwing a staggering twenty thousand people out of work. Precarious workers in hospitality, retail, tourism, or education and academia are facing months with no work, if not longer. Goldman Sachs has conservatively projected that unemployment will shoot from 5.1 to 8.5 percent within just one year, which will mean a further 468,000 people out of work.

Already, there are images circulating online showing long queues forming outside Centrelink welfare offices around the country. At the same time, the online platform MyGov crashed after a surge in demand.

According to Jeremy Poxon, media officer for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, the welfare system will soon be overwhelmed. Prior to the current crisis, the application system was already bug-ridden and deliberately geared to generate rejections. He explains:

The Australian social security system was already a chaotic hellscape — yet remarkably, it’s set to get even worse. Newly laid-off workers won’t access entitlements because the system has been made as impenetrable and confusing as possible.

As part of a new response package, Morrison has announced a “strictly time-limited” $550 per fortnight increase to the JobSeeker Payment. This amounts to doubling the earlier rate. It is an obvious concession to just how inadequate the normal allowance — which had not increased in real terms since 1996 — really was. Young people receiving Austudy (for students) and Youth Allowance have, for now, been excluded from the raise.

For decades, governments have justified their refusal to raise unemployment benefits by stigmatizing the unemployed, painting them as undeserving “dole bludgers,” responsible for their own poverty and a burden on hardworking taxpayers. Morrison was careful to say that his sympathy lay with those “people who have never known themselves to be out of work,” suffering through “a difficult period for them and their family.” These workers had better hope that their suffering is “strictly time-limited” lest the time come that they are thrown on the scrap heap with the rest of the undeserving poor.

From Renting to Homelessness

One consequence of the spike in unemployment will be widespread rent stress. He has instead called on landlords to voluntarily “make sacrifices.” But relying on the generosity of landlords will not be enough to prevent a wave of homelessness.

Public housing was designed to prevent this. Yet, between the early 1980s and today, spending on public housing has been cut by over a half. Prior to this crisis, there were already 150,000 applicants on the waitlist for public housing, with a wait time of between one and two years — and often longer.

According to a social worker based in Melbourne, even those who are placed in emergency housing will be at a far higher risk than those in private accommodation. As she explains:

Long before current events, we faced a daily battle in the homeless sector against limited and often inappropriate accommodation. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting this. Cowboy boarding house operators offer subpar conditions at the best of times, and it’s apt to assume they will not be taking precautions like deep cleaning and daily surface cleans.

Imprisoned and Facing Infection

As investment in welfare and public housing has declined, those who fall through the cracks have entered a booming prison system. Australian prisons are filled to more than 100 percent overcapacity. In what has been called a “new convict age,” Australian incarceration rates have increased by 135 percent since 1985, meaning that the per capita prison population is now at its highest rate since 1899. This comes despite falling crime rates.

Combined with COVID-19, this has the potential to lead to a vast human tragedy. More than 370 legal professionals, academics, and prisoners’ advocates have signed an open letter warning that Australia’s overcrowded jails and detention centers will be facing an “uncontrollable outbreak” of COVID-19, potentially becoming epicenters for its transmission in society as a whole.

Even as visiting hours, education, and rehabilitation programs are canceled, jails need to be serviced daily. There is no way to effectively screen all of the essential staff, among them caterers, guards, and health workers. Isolation and quarantine are impossible where living and dining quarters are shared, where windows are designed not to open, soap is a luxury, and hand sanitizer — containing alcohol — is banned.

According to the national criminal justice spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns, the prison health system is severely deteriorated through systemic underfunding: “If you enter jail healthy, you come out unhealthy. And if you are unhealthy when you enter, you come out worse.” In his view, this is the result of bipartisan law-and-order politics that place prisoners’ rights a distant last.

Barnes, as well as the other signatories, have called for the release of those imprisoned for summary offenses (i.e., fines) or nonviolent (e.g., drug-related) crimes, as well as those almost due for release and older prisoners serving out sentences for decades-old crimes. Tragically, the bipartisan tough-on-crime approach that placed many of these people behind bars will be the single most powerful force keeping them there, facing certain infection.

The Value of Life

The peak of the pandemic is yet to come. The social crisis it has precipitated is also just beginning. Yet looking at what is unfolding elsewhere, we have an idea of what to expect here and the scope of the disaster.

Already, workers are taking the hit and the damage is set to get worse. If Josh Frydenberg and Anthony Albanese are at all serious about “Team Australia,” they’ll need to do much more to ensure that workers, renters, and prisoners are adequately protected in the coming months and beyond, and not sacrificed on the alter of Australia’s business interests.