Once again, Australia has distinguished itself as a model example of how not to deal with a disaster. As we enter 2022, over the space of a few months, Australia has gone from having one of the lowest COVID case rates per capita in the world to having over 1 million active cases, with over 70,000 official new cases each day.
The country’s testing system is collapsing, and the death toll is rising. The economy is reeling, and shortages of basic goods are striking once more. Meanwhile, Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison is spending his time extolling the virtues of the free market and sparring with an anti-vax tennis player. So, how did we get here?
The Endless Summer
Despite previously establishing one of the strictest responses to COVID-19 in the world, Australia changed tack dramatically late in in 2021. Channeling some of his government’s favorite themes — Australiana, surfing content, and Margaret Thatcher — Scott Morrison declared that “the days of lockdown are over. . . . We have no choice but to ride the wave. What’s the alternative?”
Riding the wave has turned out to be a lot less fun than it sounds. Impossibly long lines have forced almost 100 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing centers to close. These delays mean that many tests expire before they can be processed. In response, Morrison has declared PCR tests unnecessary and allowed rapid antigen tests (RATs) to be used to confirm COVID cases instead. The predictable rush on RATs — amid despicable price gouging — has now rendered the tests almost impossible to find.
In addition to the near-total collapse of the existing testing regime, the entire health system is at a breaking point. Ambulance Victoria this week issued a very rare “code red,” warning all patients they will be waiting many hours for emergency care. Some hospital wards are operating with less than half of their normal staff, due to positive cases among health workers.
In New South Wales and Queensland, health authorities have ordered COVID-positive nurses back to work in non-COVID hospital wards to help the system cope. Across the country, hospitals have canceled elective surgeries, and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) has warned that if nothing changes, state and territory hospitals could crash completely.
The picture isn’t just grim in terms of the health of actual people. The health of the economy is looking dicey, even though reviving the economy was the questionable main justification for ending restrictions. Many workplaces are closing or reducing hours as huge numbers of staff fall sick. Supply chains — particularly for fresh produce — are grinding to a halt as 50 percent of transport workers find themselves in isolation. And banks are reporting that consumers are behaving as if the harshest COVID restrictions were still in place. So much for the supposed recovery of Morrison’s most mourned COVID victim.
“That’s What the Private Market Is for”
Morrison has tried to distract from this fiasco by sparring with anti-vax tennis player Novak Djokovic, as he attempts to enter the country to play in the Australian Open. Even moderate and conservative commentators, however, have derided this tactic as embarrassingly transparent and a failure. The PM’s declaration that “rules are rules . . . no one is above these rules” is ringing extremely hollow, not least because he has personal access to endless free testing and because of the exemptions he regularly grants to the billionaires who donate to his party.
Morrison’s core politics are built on the assertion that the private market can and will meet human needs, and that any expansion to public health care provision is an attack on business. However, the “ride-the-wave” era is exposing the cruel and duplicitous underpinnings of this perspective. Indeed, Morrison has steadfastly refused to use federal resources to distribute RATs freely to the public. Justifying the move, he argued that distributing tests should be left to the “private market”: “Whether it’s in the big warehouse pharmacies or the other pharmacies or the supermarkets, they can now go and stock their shelves with confidence that they won’t be undercut by the government.”
People on low incomes, who are the least able to afford RATs, are four times as likely to die from COVID-19 in Australia. When challenged by a journalist as to whether the most vulnerable could actually afford RATs at market rates, Morrison glibly responded that “some people can, and some people can’t.” New South Wales premier and rising conservative star Dominic Perrottet has also ramped up the free-market mantra of personal responsibility, insisting that “governments can’t do everything.”
This new era represents a change in tone for the government, which previously tried to avoid making ideological sticking points too obvious. Gone are the days when the prime minister would tell the treasurer to shut up about Ronald Reagan, hissing that “we’re supposedly all in this together.”
To the outside world, the Australian government’s response looks like pure chaos. However, there’s been a consistent theme running through Morrison’s playbook: never let a crisis go to waste. On this, the government has followed through, using the pandemic to reduce workers’ rights, grant tax cuts to the richest, drive up the rate of casual and precarious employment, and channel profits to its friends and backers.
And there’s been no shortage of business winners. One particularly galling example is pharmaceutical company Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL). Formerly a publicly owned producer of vaccines, former Labor prime minister Paul Keating privatized the company in 1994 in what has been deemed “one of the worst privatization deals ever entered into by an Australian government.” As a result, the Australian public financed CSL’s aggressive global expansion while paying the company $1 billion to provide many vaccines that we used to own.
Private aged-care providers are another noxious example of pandemic victors. Despite the gory mayhem that unfolded in these cutthroat, profit-hungry facilities in 2020, the government still funds big business private providers to the tune of billions of dollars, with close to zero accountability.
But it’s not just the biggest boys who are enjoying riding the wave. A host of smaller opportunists have emerged to profit from the fear and chaos by cornering the market on RATs. Businesspeople like nightclub tsarina Martha Tsamis have transformed themselves overnight into medical goods importers, selling RATs to desperate hospitals and citizens. Some unscrupulous doctors have also branched out into this Wild West profit frontier.
Protect and Expand the Public System!
Australia doesn’t have a national health service like the United Kingdom. It has a universal public health insurance scheme, funded by a 2 percent levy paid by all taxpayers in addition to their other taxes. Introduced by reforming Labor PM Gough Whitlam, it’s an imperfect system that only survived the rise of neoliberalism due to mass support, including a 2-million-strong general strike in 1976.
Though the system is flawed, knowing that you won’t simply die or go bankrupt if you fall ill has made Medicare a widely cherished institution. Despite this — or because of it — business interests and the Liberal Party have consistently sought to undermine Medicare since its inception.
Now, despite the truly heroic efforts of health workers, the pandemic has pushed Australia’s stuttering public health system to the brink. As the president of the Australian Medical Association said last week, “It’s almost a perfect storm of pressure. And it’s just not true to say our health system is so resilient it can cope with anything. There are limits, unfortunately.”
Morrison’s policies have shown us what those limits look like. Awareness that something must change is growing. As economists who oppose the current trajectory have explained:
There is both an economic and a political opening to fight for and win an ambitious, comprehensive, and sustained plan to reconstruct Australia’s economy and society after the pandemic. . . . More than a cyclical “recovery,” we need a full-fledged national reconstruction plan. . . . We will need to invest tens of billions in repairing and improving health facilities (including services like aged care and community health), training and employing more healthcare workers — and being better prepared for the next pandemic.
Only this kind of publicly funded expansion of public infrastructure can save us from the short-term self-interest of big business that Morrison has prioritized. In 1976, following Whitlam’s sacking, Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser set his sights on public health care. It was only saved because hundreds of thousands fought to defend it. Today, we are in a similar situation: if we don’t fight to protect public health care, it may fall victim to the Liberal Party’s attacks.