Many have been shocked in recent days and weeks to see just how fast and recklessly public health measures to combat COVID-19 have been abandoned or undermined.
The New South Wales Coalition government — with federal government back up — has essentially imposed a “let it rip” policy on the rest of the country. Other state and territory governments have accommodated this, due to an arrangement on lockdowns struck in December, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
This is very dangerous and must be reversed.
Case numbers have exploded to record levels — there were more than 35,000 on January 1, reaching 1 million nine days later — with governments gambling that vaccination, combined with a hopefully milder Omicron strain, would be enough to not overwhelm the health system.
While it seems to be true that Omicron is a less severe variant, there are problems with this approach.
First, many of these decisions were made when there was not yet data to confirm that Omicron was less severe (it still is not certain), meaning that, at best, this was a reckless gamble with vulnerable people’s lives.
Second, even now nobody knows what the nature of “long Covid” — long-term health problems stemming from COVID-19 — will be for the Omicron strain.
Corporate profiteers do not care if large numbers of people suffer debilitating symptoms of long Covid — as long as they can maximise profits in the short term.
Third, regardless of severity, the health system is in danger of being overloaded simply because of the higher case numbers and the insufficient number of health workers available to treat the sick.
Already, on January 1, The Guardian reported a leaked internal email stating that “critically understaffed public hospitals in New South Wales are planning to fly in nurses from overseas ... as managers beg staff to cancel leave and take on extra shifts amid surging Covid cases”.
The number of COVID-19 patients in NSW hospitals has more than doubled since Christmas and this number is likely to increase.
Other states also have strained hospital systems, or at least insufficient excess capacity to deal with an Omicron surge.
This is proof that public health measures beyond vaccination and “optimism” are still required for dealing with COVID-19.
Yet, governments are moving in the opposite direction.
Premier Dominic Perrottet and Health Minister Brad Hazzard led the way in December by abandoning mask-wearing, QR codes and vaccination certificates in a number of settings.
Then, in the face of massive queues for COVID-19 tests before and after Christmas showing a testing system in crisis, on December 30 National Cabinet changed the definition of “close contact”, reduced quarantine time for them and promoted a shift from PCR testing to rapid antigen tests (RATs).
Apart from the dangerous flow-on health problems, it hands the bosses more power over workers. The new definition conspicuously does not mention workplaces — where the virus has mostly spread. A close contact is now classified as someone who has spent four hours or more with a confirmed case in a household or “household-like setting”.
There is no requirement for workplace contacts of a positive case to self isolate regardless of whether they’ve spent 15 minutes or eight hours with a known positive case, unless that contact also then either develops symptoms or tests positive. If someone is worried about spreading the virus — taking personal responsibility — the boss can sack them or refuse to pay them for not turning up to work.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “Omicron requires us to take a gear change of how we’re managing the pandemic”.
The “gear change” is in synch with former PM Tony Abbott’s admonishment of governments that, he said, were acting like “trauma doctors — trying to save every life”. He said back in September 2020 that the country needed to adopt the approach of health economists “trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of death we might have to live with”.
In other words, they think too much public money has been spent on saving lives in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now Morrison, Perrottet and Hazzard are driving the neoliberal push to lower public expectations about the public health system and governments keeping people safe and secure.
The changes to the definition of close contact shift the political framework from boosting public health systems to individuals needing to “take responsibility” — as if workers and others have not been doing this for the past two years.
Rather than slowing down the national plan to “open up”, the new rules will ensure more people catch the virus. Hazzard’s prediction that “we’re all going to get Omicron” is more likely to happen.
The almost daily changes in definitions of “close contacts”, isolation requirements and availability of (free) PCR tests are being made in the name of “freedom” and “learning to live with the virus” when, in fact, they are motivated by a short-sighted desire to boost corporate profits.
They do this by allowing businesses to function (thereby avoiding financial support from government) and forcing individuals to pay for RAT tests (if they can get them) instead of publicly-funded PCR tests.
They are also pushing the reactionary idea that the virus will be combated by individuals taking responsibility rather than the state providing adequate public health and financial resources for those affected by the disease.
As Dr Nick Talley argued in the January 1 Newcastle Herald, “we should try to keep a lid on it for now, and we can”. He made the obvious point that unless we are all safe, the economy isn’t safe either.
“Even if hospitalisations with Omicron are rare, if case numbers are huge many will need to be admitted and there is then a big risk the health system buckles,” Talley said.
He argued that keeping the case numbers down is also important while the booster roll-out and vaccination of children are completed “to protect the many who are vulnerable”. Omicron appears to be a higher risk to children compared to Delta, he said.
Michael Ryan of the WHO Health Emergencies Program cautioned against reducing the isolation period for people with the virus, as Australia has done, saying the data about this is “not certain” because of the “very limited number of studies” done.
“We’re also talking mainly about younger people. Maybe younger people have a shorter duration than older, but we just don’t know. So, we need to be very careful with interpreting these data.”
The Western Australian government is, for now, an apparent exception to the trend. So far, WA has had negligible cases and hospitalisations compared to the rest of the country. It scaled back New Year's Eve celebrations and increased restrictions for interstate visitors. It has not changed the definition of close contacts.
Socialist Alliance co-convenor Sam Wainwright told Green Left that "[Premier Mark] McGowan has insisted on keeping WA’s borders closed until early February on the basis that, by then, 90% of over-12s will be double-dosed [currently the state is at 84%].
“This is better than Morrison’s plan to drop restrictions at 70% and 80% vaccination of the ‘eligible population’ which, of course, means letting the virus circulate when really only 60% of the population had been vaccinated.”
However, Wainwright said WA’s zero COVID-19 policy, supported by closed borders, “has both obscured and been motivated by McGowan’s knowledge that the state’s health system is already under strain”. This is because the government has cut the health operating budget by 4% since he was elected in 2017 despite the state running a surplus.
“Furthermore, McGowan has relied on the most far-reaching mandates in the country — 75% of the workforce — to push up the vaccination rate,” he said.
“This has hardened anti-vax sentiment among a small minority of the population. However, McGowan remains very popular. After all, people like living in a COVID-19-free environment and most were planning to get vaccinated anyway.”