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CoronaCrisis: The Democracy of Health and the Health of Democracy

Ideas Up for Debate

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has questioned many of our society’s assumptions. Suddenly, governments have been moving towards ideas that only a few weeks ago seemed absurd:

  • that millions of people might be able work from home
  • that people should be paid wages in times of crisis, whether they can work or not
  • that you might not be to blame if you’re unemployed. What counts as “unemployed” is up for debate.
  • that the Government can “intervene” by increasing unemployment benefits
  • That some sectors, such as the airline industry, would be better off in public hands (i.e. nationalised)
  • that the market can’t solve everything, and in some cases can’t solve anything
  • that people have a right to free healthcare
  • that healthcare workers are some of society’s heroes

All of these ideas were considered “outrageous” by political pundits only weeks ago. This tells us something about the way ideas can become so normalised that they end up as “common sense.” Then a crisis occurs, and everything is thrown up in the air. The speed of events is astonishing and decisions are made in a time lag – two weeks too late, as the Italian example highlights.

The Federal and State Government Responses

The response of the Australian Federal Government response has also been absurdly slow – confirming a pattern with the United Kingdom and United States Governments and ignoring the successful policies of China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. The government has been hesitant to instigate the necessary shutdowns, particularly of schools, in time to halt or lessen the spread of the virus. The opinion of some experts is even more scathing. Adjunct Professor Bill Bowtell, from the Kirby Institute for infection and immunity at University of New South Wales, told The Saturday Paper (21-27 March Issue) that:

“[the Government] were warned 12 weeks ago … They did not accumulate test kits. They did not accumulate the necessary emergency equipment. They did not undertake a public education campaign. They gave no money to science, no money to research, no money to the International Vaccine Institute, to money to the World Health Organisation. They diligently did not do anything useful.”

The Federal Government has slowly been instituting physical distancing (often referred to as social distancing) policies, but in the eyes of many health experts, this is still far too slow. There must be a complete shutdown of all non-essential services.

“When people are told that it is too dangerous to go to a café, but they are fine to get a haircut, they are right to be confused,” argues one health expert. “If the messages are contradictory, many people will ignore them, and we will waste our best chance to contain this virus.”

The Federal Government has also introduced two stimulus packages – a mixed bag. Australia’s Prime Minister has announced a $66 Billion dollar “stimulus” package in addition to an earlier $17.6 Billion dollar package. Some of this money will go to a “wages subsidy” (of up to $100,000). In this context, ‘wage subsidy’ is misleading, since the subsidy is not dependent on future employees’ wages, but rather to ones from the past. Since many of these businesses will already have laid off workers, or will do so in the future, it is in essence a subsidy to that business or the business owners. $1 Billion dollars will go to the tourism industry. These subsidies also include tax breaks for medium and big businesses, particularly on assets and equipment. Mostly, the money will go to ensure a line of credit, that is, to allow more borrowing.

Other government proposals include allowing individuals who have lost earnings to use their superannuation, to which there has been a significant backlash. There has been a laudable doubling of the Newstart payment for those on welfare benefits. For a good analysis of this, see the Guardian’s podcast “Coronavirus Australia: What Does the Economic Rescue Package Mean For You?”.

For some, these measures put the burden mostly on working people. They will do little to help avoid the predicted 15% unemployment. The COVID-19 crisis is also clearly intensifying conflicts between staff and upper levels of management. As the “leaderships” of institutions prioritise the “institution” (hospital, healthcare centre, university, school) over the needs of its staff, these seem likely to continue.

Though the Government’s measures also include money for 100 pop-up COVID-19 fever clinics and a new Medicare item to deliver health advice remotely, the health industry has been conspicuously absent, or at least sidelined, from the policy proposals and press conferences of the Government. In other words, the response of the Government – particularly the Federal Government – has been focused more on the health of the economy rather than the health of its citizens and healthcare workers.

Indeed, Australia desperately needs greater funding to go into health care – especially into hospital beds and staffing in our Intensive Care Units — education (in higher education (which has been ignored), thousands of staff are being laid off), and other useful social services. Australia has 3.8 hospital beds per 1000 population, well behind Japan, South Korea and China, but a bit ahead of Italy and Spain. For years, health spending has decreased in relation to health cost inflation. In other words, health expenditure has declined.

We will need to keep a critical eye on the Government decisions. The future is uncertain and the Government response equally so. We need to make sure that policy decisions are in the best interests of healthcare, the majority of people and of society as a whole. We can’t afford “shock policies” that have accompanied crises in recent years, such as the Global Financial Crisis or the two Iraq Wars.

The Danger of “Shock Policies”

While governments may push through some policies that seek to protect the population, they can also use the crisis to push through regressive agendas in the interest of society’s elite. This is what journalist Naomi Klein has called the “shock doctrine.” She describes, “the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures…”. Klein explains:

“This strategy has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Shock tactics follow a clear pattern: wait for a crisis (or even, in some instances, as in Chile or Russia, help foment one), declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”, suspend some or all democratic norms – and then ram the corporate wishlist through as quickly as possible. The research showed that virtually any tumultuous situation, if framed with sufficient hysteria by political leaders, could serve this softening-up function. It could be an event as radical as a military coup, but the economic shock of a market or budget crisis would also do the trick. Amid hyperinflation or a banking collapse, for instance, the country’s governing elites were frequently able to sell a panicked population on the necessity for attacks on social protections, or enormous bailouts to prop up the financial private sector – because the alternative, they claimed, was outright economic apocalypse.”

In the current COVID-19 crisis, these sorts of policies will most likely include attempts to vary or undermine wages and conditions, like a recent submission to the Australia’s Fair Work Commission for “award flexibility” in the Hospitality Sector. These sorts of solutions exacerbate inequalities, make things worse for the majority in the long run. They are policies that will adversely impact some of the most vulnerable people. (For those interested, there is a good discussion of some of these issues between Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein and Greek MP Yanis Varoufakis at the Adelaide Writers Festival in March)

A Question of Democracy

The danger of these kinds of policies is exacerbated by the move toward increasingly centralised decision making by the Government, which is particularly enabled in Australia by the Biosecurity Act of 2015. This is, in the words of one commentator, a “big-brother” intrusion that we must expect. According to the act, the State can implement various “dictatorial” measures which would usually be considered infringements on human rights and individual liberties. They can, in effect, coercively isolate individuals, force individuals to carry out medical testing, lock down areas of Australia (think roadblocks and military presence). Once a human biosecurity emergency is declared:

“The federal health minister is vested with unfettered personal power of a kind normally only found in a dictatorship. The minister may determine “any requirement” and make “any direction” needed to prevent or control the disease. These cannot be disallowed by parliament and override any other law. Failure to comply is liable to five years’ imprisonment.”

The great concern about such power is that they can be used to implement exactly the kinds of “shock policies” described above, and that they can be used to limit any legitimate democratic resistance to them. In particular, the Federal Government may use the crisis to pass its union busting Ensuring Integrity Bill, designed to destroy the ability of unions to defend themselves and operate democratically.

Serious measures will need to be taken in the context of this pandemic. We have to ensure that those measures help to restructure the social system in a more democratic fashion, which will help the lives of everyday Australians, not the profits of big corporations. Some, like Alison Pennington, have argued that this is a chance to institute a campaign for “sectoral bargaining”:

“A sectoral-bargaining system … allows workers to negotiate with multiple employers in a sector at once. This is how we can fight neoliberal strategies that fragment operations, like franchising and contracting out jobs. They have ripped minimum protections from underneath millions of workers not by direct confrontation, but by outflanking, by making more jobs more insecure. With the stroke of a pen, one workplace can become one dozen.”

Those questions are open to discussion. However, the crisis measures aren’t an excuse to make the lives of Australians worse rather than better.

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