Contribution of Michael Williss, Australia on the ICOR webinar
Please note that while it was accurate at the time I wrote it, the “small” Delta outbreak in New South Wales (NSW) has become more serious. There have been 752 locally-acquired cases In NSW over the last seven days, 121 in Victoria and 14 in my state of South Australia. These three states are under lockdown at present Interstate travel within Australia is banned or restricted and there is a ban on all overseas travel, unless travelling to New Zealand or if an exemption has been granted. So, the situation has deteriorated significantly since the webinar. Comrade Louisa L has written a good piece on the situation in her home state of NSW: https://cpaml.org/post4.php?id=1626690536&catitem1=Community%20and%20Environment&catid1=16
For those unfamiliar with Australia, a few quick points.
Australia has a population 25.7 million.
It is a federation of six states and two Territories under a national government, also known as the federal or Commonwealth government.
The first confirmed case in Australia was identified on 25 January 2020, a man who had returned from Wuhan.
Since then, we have had over 30,000 cases, with 910 deaths. There are currently 170 active cases, only one of which requires intensive care.
Australia declared that there was a pandemic before the WHO, and its borders were closed to all non-residents on 20 March. Returning residents were required to spend two weeks in supervised quarantine hotels.
Although the government was quick to introduce these necessary coercive measures, its lack of preparation on other fronts had severe consequences:
There was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Although the federal government had established a National Medical Stockpile 16 years ago, its management had been outsourced to a private company. In early February a privately-owned Chinese company sent 90 tonnes of PPE to Wuhan. In late February, another Chinese company sent a further 82 tonnes. You can imagine how many surgical masks and protective gowns would be needed to make up this combined amount of 170 tonnes of equipment! And in such quantities, it could only have been sourced from the NMS. By March, our hospitals were running out of PPE, none of which was made in Australia. Private companies were urged to retool to manufacture these essential items.
Australia has placed itself at a disadvantage by not maintaining local capacity for the production of medicines and vaccines. The government-owned Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), established in 1916, was privatised in 1994 under a Labor government. Although it is the world's second largest influenza vaccine company, it did no research on a vaccine for Covid-19. It was contracted to make Astro-Zeneca under licence from the British in September 2020, although its first batches did not become available until March 2021. Medicine shortages in Australia were a "pre-existing problem" before COVID-19: somewhere in the order of 89 percent of all day-to-day prescription medications are supplied from overseas, mainly China and India. Having previously boasted that Australia would be at the front of the queue for vaccines, and was hoping to have 4 million people vaccinated by March and the entire country inoculated by October, the vaccine rollout has been very slow. So far, 6 million have had their first dose but only 900,000 or 4.3% have had their second dose.
Australian quarantine facilities have many shortcomings. Active cases not requiring intensive care are placed in hotels for the mandatory two-week isolation period. However, casual staff working across different facilities and inadequate ventilation have contributed to the spread of the virus from quarantine hotels. There is only one facility that really meets the required standards, and that is an accommodation facility at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, originally built by a Japanese mining company for its workers, but taken over in February 2020 to quarantine arrivals from overseas. Despite the demand for more such facilities (tens of thousands of Australians are stranded overseas and unable to return home), the federal government has only belatedly agreed to help the state of Victoria construct its own purpose-built quarantine facility. Quarantine is a federal government responsibility. The federal government has failed to provide adequate resources.
Aged care is another federal government responsibility. The sector has far too many casual staff, precariously employed, and working across multiple facilities. The majority of deaths from Covid-19 in Australia have occurred in aged care facilities, often run by the larger Churches as for-profit undertakings. After major break-outs last year, the Federal government imposed restrictions on these facilities to stop part time staff being moved between them to minimise the risk of transmissions. Late last year these restrictions were lifted as a result of pressure from privatised facilities claiming they couldn't pay decent wages under the new arrangements. The federal government has failed to provide regulatory oversight and adequate resources for this area.
The capitalist state cannot, and is not designed to, protect the working class from pandemics. It's structured to serve and facilitate the expansion of capital. Its only aim during the pandemics and mass outbreaks of illnesses is to minimise disruption to the creation of surplus value.
To this end, the federal government introduced a temporary wage subsidy, Jobkeeper, paid directly to some employers, to enable them to keep staff during the economic downturn. However, some very large companies were paid the subsidies even though they kept making massive profits. Demands have been made for them to repay the subsidies, which they diverted to investor profits and CEO bonuses. However, only three of 65 have done so.
The division of powers between the federal government and the States has seen the closure of borders to travel within Australia by State governments despite pressure from the federal government to keep them open so as not to disrupt business operations. As I speak, other States have closed their borders to travellers from New South Wales where there is currently a small outbreak of the Delta variant of the virus. Many other restrictions have been put in place, including the requirement to check in with a QR code if you visit any place of business so that the authorities can carry out contact tracing of anyone who has tested positive. I have to check in to watch my young grandson play football even though it’s in an open-air venue.
These and other curtailments of democratic rights can be accepted while there is the danger of the spread of the virus, but we have to be prepared for these state powers not to be removed and to be used during periods of social unrest and working class struggles.
We support the demand to abolish patents on vaccines and to make them available to all free of charge.