While many countries have closed schools as a measure to stem the rate of COVID-19 infection, New South Wales public schools are to remain open in stark defiance of the “social distancing” requirements of almost every other aspect of social and economic life.
On March 20, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that keeping schools open was in the “national interest.”
Two days before New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian argued that there was “no rationale” for closing schools, imploring the Independent and Catholic school system to reverse its decision. She also ruled out an extension to the April school holidays.
The tide of angry voices calling for schools to be closed is growing. Even the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on the measure, calling for preparations to be made now to close schools.
“NSW should immediately develop a plan for minimal supervision in schools of the children of essential health workers and others who have to go out to work. In the German city of Berlin, for example, schools remain partially open, to look after such students,” the editorial argued on March 21.
According to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, more than 100 countries worldwide, have instituted nationwide school closures in response to COVID-19, impacting more than half the world’s student population.
So why is Australia different?
Are Australian students somehow more resistant to COVID-19 than their peers in Britain, the US and elsewhere?
Are teachers somehow more expendable than those elsewhere in the world?
Many teachers are aged 50 or older, while many have compromised immune systems, as a result of illness and surgery. Teachers around the country are expressing their distress and feeling of abandonment as The Guardian reported on March 21.
While the advice from Australia’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Brendan Murphy is that schools should remain open for now, there is no scientific consensus that this is the best way to proceed.
Physician, journalist and broadcaster Norman Swan, who hosts the ABC’s Health Report, has been a consistent advocate for all schools to close. Meanwhile, thousands of doctors have called for a complete lockdown, including schools, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Morrison government has one overriding imperative however: the economy.
Morrison has no wish to be the first Prime Minister since Paul Keating in 1991 to preside over a recession, or the first Liberal Prime Minister to do so since Malcolm Fraser in 1982.
Everything the federal government does is subservient to this goal.
While it may appear reckless and indifferent to public health outcomes (because it is), forcing teachers, students, childcare workers and toddlers to go to school and childcare — at least until the planned April school holidays — leaves the sliver of a possibility that Morrison may avoid the “recession” tag.
A recession, as defined by economists, is two quarters (six months) of negative growth (falling gross domestic product or GDP) in a row. While the Australian economy may already be contracting and significant sectors, such as retail have been in practical recession for months, growth in house prices, government spending and iron ore exports to China, in particular, have helped the government avoid a technical contraction in GDP (at least up to last December).
While it will be tough, and many commentators have already given up on the possibility of avoiding a contraction in the March quarter, the government is hoping to cobble together enough economic activity to show that the economy grew, however meekly, in the first three months of the year.
Should it do that, on the back of keeping schools open, Morrison may weather a contraction in the June quarter in the hope that the ravages of COVID-19 pass and allow further growth in the September quarter.
As cynical, careless and hapless as this strategy may appear, it appears one of the few explanations for why the government refuses to take the necessary action to slow the rate of infection of COVID-19 and allow the (already) under-resourced health system to cope with this crisis.
Do not trust what bureaucrats on the government payroll, including Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, have to say.
Morrison is already on record as saying that the public service will unquestionably do the bidding of their political masters.
Independent experts, such as Swan, are among the few we can trust in these troubling times.
Our lives are worth more than their profits.
Next time you hear Morrison talking about the “national interest”, be aware that he is not talking about you.
[Graham Matthews is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]