The COVID-19 pandemic has again hit the headlines as another wave of infections, fuelled by new Omicron strains, spreads. Unfortunately, we are not well prepared because public health took a hit over the first two years of the pandemic.
Big corporations only want to take the minimum steps necessary to ensure a profitable business environment.
Coalition governments, in particular the former federal government and New South Wales, waged a political assault last year against public health measures under the banner of “living with COVID-19”.
Popular support for public health was also undermined by the unnecessarily authoritarian aspects of the lockdowns in 2020 and last year.
Government responses to the latest wave have been contradictory.
On one hand, state governments reduced from 12 weeks to four the time after infection a person is considered unlikely to be reinfected. In addition, access to anti-viral treatments and fourth doses of vaccines has been expanded.
On the other hand, the federal government insists it will not extend the $750 paid pandemic leave that was being given to workers needing to isolate. It ended in June. It will also discontinue a program that provides free rapid antigen tests to healthcare card holders.
The Victorian government, to the cheers of big business, publicly rejected health advice to reinstate a mask mandate for indoor public areas. The Queensland government eased vaccine mandates in schools at the end of June.
For most of this year, the political and media establishments have acted as if the pandemic were over. Implicit, or explicit, is the suggestion that high vaccination rates mean we no longer need to worry.
However, more than 10,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Australia. The majority of these deaths happened this year. In Queensland, for instance, the death toll currently stands at more than 1300, yet only seven are from the first two years of the pandemic.
According to OzSAGE, this is the “first time an infectious disease has been a leading cause of death in modern history”.
The conclusion is that the public health response needs to be massively expanded.
This does not mean simply re-imposing lockdowns. There is a lot more virus circulating in the community, making that approach less effective, and there would not be sufficient public support.
What can be done?
First, there needs to be an ongoing public education campaign about the seriousness and stage of the pandemic. This would help boost vaccination rates — particularly of third and fourth booster doses — and effective mask use.
Second, people who are sick should be encouraged and supported to stay home. Pandemic leave payments should be reinstated and expanded.
The funds are available, as the billionaires’ pandemic super-profits show. They must be taxed.
Nobody should take any notice of the Labor government’s complaints about budget deficits while it doggedly proceeds with the stage three tax cuts for the rich.
Third, basic health care measures that should have already been done include expanding the public health system and recruiting more staff on fair pay.
Air filters, or at least carbon dioxide monitors, and ventilation measures need to be installed on a much wider scale in schools, government and commercial buildings. The funds can come from a levy on big corporations.
We also need to boost resources for laboratory PCR tests since rapid tests are less effective at picking up the new Omicron strains.
All of this needs to be done with a people-before-profit focus that pushes for adequate public funding and resources for public health while respecting people’s dignity and intelligence.
[Alex Bainbridge is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]