The tragedy for the coronavirus victims in aged care could have been avoided, or greatly reduced, if authorities had implemented early calls for radical reforms to the very sick health system.
This is still a question for the present catastrophic stage, if we are to draw the correct conclusions for the millions of older people, who are the first and hardest-hit victims of this disease.
Warning bells have been ringing for a long time about the terrible situation prevailing in old peoples’ homes, most of which are owned and run by private enterprises with considerable federal government funding.
After having received hundreds of submissions (including a lengthy one from the Fair Go For Pensioners Coalition), almost a year ago, the Royal Commission into the Care for the Aged said in an interim report that the homes for the aged are underperforming and ill equipped. It said there were chronic shortages of trained staff, most of whom work in other homes and other casual jobs — ideal carriers of viruses. It said residents were often left unattended, psychologically and even physically abused.
It said they were operating in breach of their legal obligations and that they should mend their ways.
Apparently very few took any notice.
Once again, we see the classic case of cutting corners and unloading the problems on to the victims and the public system.
The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this to the surface: it has made a bad situation catastrophically worse.
What happened in St Basils is the worst possible example: it seems the health of the business is valued more than the health of the most vulnerable people who paid well for their care.
When responsibility is allocated, these values must surely be reversed.
It is extremely important to note that 80% of all homes for the aged-are privately owned and run for profit. The rest are publicly-owned by the state government. Furthermore, all the virus victims come from the private homes sector.
The virus is striking in working class homes and the work places of migrants, refugees and ethnic minorities who, because of necessity, live in crowded environments and are in the frontline of the virus march in hospitals, cleaning, retail shops, transport, hospitality and security services.
For a great many English is not their main language. This affects millions of people, not a handful.
There is no immediate or longer-term policy that will be successful if it does not seriously take into account the class and ethnicity of the population.
There is an obvious need to involve the linguistic and cultural knowledge and dynamism of a multitude of vibrant minority organisations. Even now as the necessary draconian measures are underway, the health authorities’ communication is basically monolingual.
It is a matter of concern that many, if not most, of the major ethnic community organisations, councils and multicultural commissions have not, so far, stepped in to fill the gaps and partner with governments and health authorities in policy making and to deliver services.
For instance, looking at the planned “zoom” activities of the historically influential Greek community in Melbourne, not a single one is related to the most important issue of the day — the lives and livelihood of its own community.
There is still time to assume the role for which these organisations were established: to be proponents for the rights and welfare of the disadvantaged and discriminated ethnic minorities.
It is time for us to seek and obtain “a voice of our own”, like our Indigenous brothers and sisters are determined to achieve and who are making historical gains.
A heartfelt thanks is owed to relatives of those who died in St Basil’s aged-care home for honestly and publicly speaking up, and to the many volunteers and staff who give their best.
There needs to be radical change in the aged care system. People’s health should not be ignored or put off for another day. Health and education should not be left partly or wholly to the vagaries of money-hungry private multi millionaires of any ethnic background.
Aged care facilities should be publicly owned and managed and freely provided for from the public purse. That should be the objective while working for immediate progressive reforms, along with strictly adhering to the protective virus measures.
[George Zangalis is the vice president of Fair Go For Pensioners Coalition, a former president of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union Victorian branch and a life member of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria.]