The COVID-19 pandemic has already infected more than 1.2 million people and taken almost 70,000 lives around the world. Unless urgent measures are taken here, it could overwhelm Australia’s health system, as it has in other countries, at the cost of hundreds, if not thousands of lives.
How can lives be saved? How can people’s livelihoods be protected? Here is what has to be done so that we can protect our health and livelihoods in the face of this immense challenge.
1. Mobilise the health system to save lives
International experience shows that this pandemic can overwhelm even modern health systems. Here’s what must be done to avoid the worst.
- Implement an immediate program of mass testing to establish how far the virus has spread. Where clusters are detected, implement isolation measures and concentrate treatment programs.
- To reduce the rate of contagion, move to implement a shutdown of all non-essential economic and social activity that cannot be done from home, including the construction industry & fossil fuel extraction, as well as schools and childcare centres. Government-funded care should be provided for children of essential services workers for free.
- Implement an emergency expansion of the health system, particularly into remote and regional communities. Prepare community facilities (sports centres, showgrounds, etc) to be used to house field hospitals for handling less-than-critical cases. Take over hotels and equip them with medical facilities to care for patients in recovery. Let existing hospitals focus on saving the lives of those most in danger.
- Place private sector health resources (hospitals, clinics and laboratories) under the control of the public health system to help mobilise all medical resources needed for detection, diagnosis and treatment of the virus.
- Recruit the extra staff needed to implement these measures. Redeploy workers within the public system; transfer and redeploy private health system workers. Call on retired health professionals and final-year medical, nursing and health students to be recruited to paid positions for their services.
- Organise local councils, working with the local public health system, to enlist and train volunteers for an emergency census to pinpoint at-risk households and those needing urgent social support, such as people in aged care. Involve the unemployed in this program.
- Implement a plan to secure the protective clothing and medical equipment needed for the program. Oblige all manufacturers in Australia to meet equipment orders as rapidly as possible; instruct companies that can convert to manufacturing this material to do so; nationalise those companies that fail to comply or seek to profiteer from producing any resources needed during the pandemic. Unions with coverage in these sectors to be given powers to ensure companies carry out their obligations.
- Boost funding to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and universities to research and develop a COVID-19 vaccine and anti-viral treatments, with any successfully trialled treatments to be produced publicly on a non-profit basis for use here and internationally.
2. Protect everyone
This virus doesn’t discriminate between “illegal” and “legal” people. Protection for each and every one of us is protection for all.
- Access to the health and welfare system, as well as any relevant government subsidies, must be made available to everyone currently in Australia, regardless of their legal status.
- Funding must be expanded to ensure vital services remain in place and can be provided for free. These include childcare centres that remain open; mental health, medical and domestic violence hotlines; and homeless and women’s shelters.
- An immediate program must be undertaken to house the homeless and ensure accommodation is available for all women and children trying to escape violent relationships, along with others in need.
- Consult with Indigenous communities regarding the best way to implement measures to suppress the virus and take direction from them in terms of immediate health and community needs.
- Transportation assistance and accessible care for patients with disabilities must be made available.
- An immediate amnesty to all non-violent offenders to reduce the potentially disastrous impacts of the virus on prison populations.
- All refugees and asylum seekers to be immediately released from detention centres. Appropriate housing must be found for all of them.
3. Protect livelihoods
To make sure no-one falls through the safety net, the government must pick up the tab, including by providing a job and income guarantees for all regardless of work status.
- Lock in a job guarantee program to ensure all workers – full-time, part-time, casual, sole trader, self-employed, visa workers and any worker that is stood down – maintain their ordinary-time wage during the crisis. Additional paid sick leave must be guaranteed for all workers who need to self-isolate.
- Make survival loans available to small and medium businesses on favourable terms. Implement a government subsidy program to cover costs incurred by sole traders, independent contractors and small businesses forced to move operations to home and/or online.
- Provide a secure income guarantee by raising all welfare payments to the new JobSeeker allowance rate ($1100 a fortnight) and make the rate permanent. End all exclusions, waiting periods, cashless debit cards and “mutual obligation” activities.
- Suspend all loan, credit and mortgage repayments for six months (with no accumulation of interest) for workers sacked during the crisis. Similarly for rent payments where agreement for rescheduling rent payment cannot be reached with landlords. Ban evictions.
- Freeze payments on all utility bills for workers who lose income or are sacked due to the crisis. Prohibit households having their access to water, electricity, telecommunications or gas cut off.
- Guarantee all households have access to internet/wifi. Ensure all school students have access to the technology required to participate in online teaching, free of charge.
- Ban price-gouging by unscrupulous entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the crisis.
4. Maintain our rights at work
The COVID-19 crisis is a perfect opportunity for unscrupulous employers to sack workers and cut back wages and conditions.
- Ban sackings, with harsh penalties against employers who seek to exploit the crisis to get workers off the payroll.
- Where workplaces remain open, workers must be provided with necessary personal protective equipment; i.e. trade unions, workplace delegates and health and safety representatives must have the final say on decisions relating to workers’ health. This should extend to the right to partially or completely halt all productive activities.
- Oppose unconditional bailouts of large businesses such as Qantas. Any financial support to take the form of government equity in bailed-out enterprises, with existing working conditions maintained.
5. Defend democracy
Governments are jumping at the chance to use the COVID-19 emergency to permanently abolish democratic rights.
- Oppose administering the crisis via government decrees or unelected committees. Reopen state and federal parliaments. Expand access to online and absentee voting rather than postpone elections.
- Repeal any draconian legislation passed under the guise of combating COVID-19. Oppose any move to introduce special powers for the military and police. Any laws restricting social activity should be approved by parliament and must have a sunset clause in them of no more than 2 months. A parliamentary oversight committee involving civil liberty groups and trade unions will be set up to monitor the implementation of these laws.
- Delay approval of all planning projects, particularly those requiring public hearings.
- Greater transparency of government data and modelling regarding COVID-19.
6. Support poorer countries in the fight against COVID-19
There can clearly be no nationalist solution to a global pandemic. To defeat COVID-19, all nations should work together.
- Step up Australia’s foreign aid to the region, especially its poorest countries, to help fight the pandemic. End all Australian military operations abroad and divert military expenditure towards pandemic relief.
- Work towards an international agreement on pre-screening of travellers that takes into consideration the need to stop the virus crossing borders but allows people to continue to move internationally.
- Coordinate global production and distribution of medical equipment such as testing kits, protective gear and respiratory machines to ensure it goes to the countries that need it most
- Fight to lift patent controls and restrictions in international trade treaties on urgently needed medical and pharmaceutical products. Support the proposal for a global COVID-19 relief fund, with funding to come from an emergency 1% tax on the wealth of the top 1%.
- Push to cancel the debt of Global South countries so that these funds can be redeployed to confront the COVID-19 crisis. End all sanctions and blockades against countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Gaza, so that they have all possible resources to use against the pandemic. Boost funding to the World Health Organization.
The measures outlined here are those that need to be implemented now, if the COVID-19 death toll is to be kept to a minimum and the living standards of the vast majority of the population maintained. However, even in the best case they will not prevent new pandemics from threatening us.
This is because the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just a passing, if horrific, problem, but the unavoidable consequence of an economic system that treats our natural environment as a source of profit. COVID-19, like its predecessors, SARS and MERS, confirms the terrible price we all pay for dependence on a corporate industrial agriculture model that treats the natural world as food inputs.
It is this system and the accompanying destruction of what is left of wild nature that inevitably generates pathogens like COVID-19, which pass from the animal world to human beings. Only a transition to environmentally sustainable farming practices and regenerative agroecology will save us from the horrors of future pandemics.
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[The plan to combat COVID-19 was released on April 5 by the Socialist Alliance along with a resolution on suppressing the spread of the virus.]