Globally, nearly 6 million people have lost their lives during this pandemic. In Australia, 4500 people have died from, or with, COVID-19 since the pandemic started two years ago. Devastatingly, more than 2000 people died here just over January and February.
No matter how governments and bosses like to dress it up “letting it rip” has caused untold harm to our families, workplaces and communities.
Shame on every single government in Australia and around the world which has put profit-driven neoliberal capitalism before the health, safety and lives of working people around the world. Further, shame on every government of every wealthy nation which has stood by and let the virus rip in poor and developing nations.
Governments did not take steps to end vaccine apartheid by giving poorer countries free vaccines and medical support. Letting the virus rip allows it to spread and mutate — and that means more waves, more cases and more deaths.
Our experience in Australia has been a bit different to many others. Until very recently, closed borders and strict lockdowns have been reasonably effective in keeping infections and deaths lower than other countries.
Here, most COVID-19 deaths have been preventable. If we had had purpose-built quarantine facilities, a well-funded health system and public service, an efficient roll out of vaccines and boosters, effective personal protective equipment (PPE), a work system that is not based on casual, low paid workers and state-run aged-care facilities, the death rate could have been much, much lower.
Aged-care residents have been left starving, malnourished, sitting in urine and faeces, with wounds untended, unshowered, sick and dying. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been unacceptably high numbers of COVID-19 deaths. In Victoria’s second wave, private, for-profit aged care facilities had the biggest outbreaks and the most deaths. There were hardly any outbreaks during the second wave in state-run aged care facilities. If vaccines and boosters had been rolled out on time and efficiently, far fewer older people would have died during the Omicron wave.
If aged care nurses had access to proper PPE, were paid a living wage so they didn’t have to work across numerous homes and had access to Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), we could have saved more lives.
One in three workers in Australia are in low paid, insecure, casualised work. A third of the workforce does not have regular work, regular hours and regular pay.
The Victorian premier acknowledged in 2020 that casual work was a significant contributing factor to the second wave. The second wave was sparked in leaky hotel quarantine, and was stealthily fuelled by a reliance on casual workers. Casual workers with no sick and holiday pay could not afford to stay at home when they had symptoms.
The state government was forced to introduce isolation payments so workers could afford to stay at home when sick. Having a basic income helped to reduce the transmission rate. But those types of payments are really only a band-aid solution.
The real answer requires structural change: all workers need paid leave, a living wage and regular, secure work.
We know that violence against women always spikes during disasters and catastrophic events. When the economy suffers, it is always the most vulnerable workers and communities who take the biggest hits: women, Aboriginal people, older people and casual workers.
What has any government, from either side, done to support those groups? I feel pretty let down by elected leaders.
I watched Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins speak at the National Press Club recently. Both survivors of horrific trauma, they demonstrated strong, courageous, dignified, transparent, effective leadership on many issues that were not talked about even a decade ago.
Historically, when governments have not represented us, we’ve hit the streets: we’ve stopped wars; won equal marriage and demanded climate change and safety for women and Aboriginal people.
When bosses haven’t paid us a fair wage and safe workplaces, we’ve walked off the job. We’ve sat at the bargaining table and when they haven’t met us half way, we’ve worked to rule, taken industrial action and gone on strike. Some battles we’ve won, others are a work in progress.
The pandemic has made hitting the streets and taking industrial action a bit harder. But it’s made hosting the tennis and the cricket a bit harder too. But we’ve had the tennis and the cricket — done a bit differently — and found ways to hit the streets too. Tens of thousands of our feet hit the streets for Black Lives Matter and March4Justice protests. Mobilising on the streets is still do-able.
We’ve never won anything without a fight. Workers are already voting with their feet and walking off the job, but in a different way. Essential workers in essential industries are resigning in droves. They’ve even got a name for it — “the Great Resignation”.
Workers are tired of the low pay and pressured work and the high COVID-19 risk. I don’t have all the answers on what our next steps should be. But during times of shared struggle and collective responses, the union movement has always found ways to lead us forward.
We need to find a way forward right now in these challenging times. As Tame and Higgins said so well the other day: “We don’t want words. We want action.”
During the pandemic, the Australian Services Union library workers in Geelong grew its membership, put in strong delegate structures, built a movement of workers at the branches, made strong demands on their employers, took industrial action, including strike action and they won. It wasn’t easy, but they did it.
New South Wales nurses’ backs are so far up against the wall, they are striking, they are clearly at breaking point. I don’t know if they’ll win or not. Getting organised and mobilising are the basic foundations on which our movement is built.
History tells us time and again, when we do dare to struggle, we dare to win.
[Adele Welsh is a member of the Australian Services Union, a co-convenor of the Geelong Women Unionists Network and a member of Socialist Alliance. The article is based on a presentation to the “COVID-19 and Workers fight back” public forum on February 12.]