COVID-19 disaster unfolds in Melbourne

The virus doesn’t discriminate, but capitalism does!

Woman holding
The ongoing battle for public housing is hard fought by the movements. There has never been a better time to demand a massive public jobs program. Build and maintain public housing, not subsidised renovations for the well-to-do. Photo: FSO archives.
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Victoria is in the midst of an escalating COVID-19 crisis, reporting a record 723 new cases on 30 July. Melbourne is now in hard lockdown, and the virus is spreading to regional Victoria.

Early in the pandemic, it primarily impacted international travellers. Cases hit the news of politicians, celebrities and even royalty contracting COVID-19. The public was told that this virus does not discriminate. While anyone exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be infected, the disastrous pandemic — when combined with the symptoms of capitalism in its neoliberal phase — is hitting working class communities hard. 

The treatment of public housing residents in inner suburban Flemington and North Melbourne has been the harshest yet. The apartment homes were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have deteriorated after years of underfunding. In early July, residents were ordered into a five-day total lockdown with zero warning — some caught out without food and medications. Instead of providing a healthcare response, the state government surrounded their homes with hundreds of cops and wire fencing! Many of the residents from refugee and immigrant backgrounds were terrified. The community has long fought against racist over-policing.

Faced with this punitive response, people locked in their homes organised. Residents demanded to be listened to and respected. They had long called for better information in community languages and practical action, such as increased cleaning of communal areas and hand sanitiser stations on every floor. Resident organising triggered a tsunami of community solidarity. The trade union movement and a host of non-government organisations swung into action to deliver what the State’s authoritarian mobilisation could not — much needed supplies, including culturally appropriate meals. 

Looking for scapegoats. As this second wave of infections emerged, Liberal politicians, amplified by the tabloids and radio shock jocks, tried to pin the blame on the Black Lives Matter rally of 6 June. But this was a well-organised and responsible rally, at which mask usage was mandated more than six weeks before the state government took this step. Hand sanitiser was freely available, physical distancing was required, and anyone feeling unwell was asked to stay home. Rally goers, knowing what was at stake, displayed collective solidarity and stuck to this plan. Channel 7, The Australian and the execrable Sky News all misreported a non-existent link between the public housing COVID-19 cluster and the protest. In mid-July, the Department of Health and Human Services finally issued a statement that “there is no evidence to suggest anyone contracted COVID-19 at the Melbourne protest” — let alone any connection to the public housing cluster!

The next group to be unfairly scapegoated for the spike of infections in Melbourne’s north and west, were Muslims, whose “large family gatherings,” including one associated with Eid celebrations being widely — and wrongly — blamed as the source. 

Inside the private security industry. Thanks to science, the real culprit of the growing number of infections and deaths in Victoria is now known. Genomic sequencing into the DNA of the virus proves conclusively that the outbreak sweeping the state is directly linked to breaches in hotel quarantine in late May and early June. The requirement for international travellers to quarantine for two weeks was established hurriedly at the end of March, with private security companies running the show. 

This industry is notorious for poor standards. Investigations by the Fair Work Ombudsman, as early as 2011, uncovered millions in unpaid wages. But nothing has changed. With more than 11,000 security companies competing for contracts, there’s pressure to cut costs. The industry is built on abuse of workers in slave-like conditions. A common business model is sham contracting, designed to distance bosses from their responsibilities. They recruit immigrants and young workers with few options. The official pay rate is a low $25 an hour, but wage theft is rife. Training is often non-existent, or rushed and not delivered in the community languages of the workers. Safety breaches are common.

The state government knows what makes this industry tick, given it commissioned a review, due to report in December, with the specific aim of raising standards in the private security industry. Now there’s another enquiry, this time to get answers into the quarantine breach fiasco. It will investigate the role of security companies, hotels and government agencies and is due to report in September. While it may identify specific errors and uncover some details, the pandemic is exposing massive systemic problems that are integral to capitalism.

Shocking inaction. Once the virus leaked from hotel quarantine, it began to spread in the community, particularly among workers who could not work from home. Eighty percent of all infections are now acquired at work. 

The union movement first advocated paid pandemic leave in March. With one in every three workers ineligible for paid leave and those with no leave overwhelmingly concentrated in low-paid jobs, the risk is high that workers will ignore advice to stay home when experiencing mild symptoms.

One group with rotten working conditions are workers in private aged care homes. Caring is seen as women’s work, and it is low paid. These workers are generally older, a third of them were born overseas, and 87% are women. The sector relies on a casual workforce, who cobble an income together by accepting shifts in multiple homes. A survey by the United Workers Union found that two-thirds did not feel well prepared to deal with a virus outbreak, one in three do not have enough sanitiser or gloves, three-quarters say there are not enough staff to provide quality care, and 90% are worried that colleagues may have to go to work if they have mild symptoms, due to a lack of leave entitlements.

On 27 July, the Fair Work Commission ruled that workers in residential aged care could access two weeks of paid pandemic leave — a short-term arrangement until October. But this was too little, too late. At the time of writing, COVID-19 had swept through aged care homes in just two weeks. One in every six infections is in private aged care, split evenly between workers and residents. 

Headline: "More staff needed" on magazine cover

The problems plaguing aged care are well known, and in a system driven by the bottom line, continue to be unaddressed. Image from the front cover of the Health Workers Union journal in the spring of 2018.

The risks were obvious, given outbreaks in two Sydney homes during the first wave. However, in March, the Aged Quality Safety Commission postponed unannounced visits indefinitely and, until May, had conducted just 20 announced visits across the 800 privately run Victorian homes. The grim statistics announced daily are heartbreaking, tragic and, in a system with different priorities, could have been prevented. 

While pandemic leave is a start, it is not nearly enough. These workers need living wages with full leave entitlements. Aged care should be not for profit, and workers — the ones who know what’s needed — should control how things operate.

We’re not going to take it. Frontline workers who cannot work from home are organising, insisting their safety must be a priority. Members of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union tenaciously demand improved cleaning, having won their demand for mandatory masks on public transport. 

Teachers are furious about the Department of Education and Training requirement for senior students to attend school. The growing number of school clusters is evidence that opening schools is not safe. Teachers collected almost seven thousand signatures in less than two weeks on a petition to the Minister, demanding remote learning for all students during the lockdown. Workers know what’s needed to stay safe. Dozens of Australian Education Union branches have voted for detailed motions on COVID-19 safety. Public servants, working hard to process the huge spike in demand for help, are demanding that offices be made COVID-safe. 

This is urgent, as a number of Services Australia workers at Epping Customer Service Centres have been infected. Many workers delivering critical government services are engaged on a casual basis through labour hire companies and, at the time of writing, had not yet won paid pandemic leave. 

In the private sector, retail and fast food workers face risks daily and are fighting back. (See “Young workers take on retail giant.”). These examples of frontline organising are shoots of resistance — others must follow suit. The union movement has been weakened by a lack of democracy and a seemingly endless wave of anti-union laws. Faced with a battle for workers’ lives, it’s time to throw off the shackles. 

No safety, no work! Workers and their unions must have the final say over workplace health and safety, and not be forced to work in unsafe workplaces.

Groundhog Day! The ugly face of late capitalism is on display for all to see as the catastrophe unfolds in Victoria and beyond. But there are no lessons learned at the top, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg invoking Thatcher and Reagan as his heroes — models to be emulated. Both were anti-union warriors, infamous for union-busting. Their philosophy was to flog off the public sector, deliver small government and let the market rip. It’s in those parts of the world where this philosophy is most entrenched that COVID-19 is causing the most devastation. 

Unfortunately, many of Frydenberg’s most trenchant critics have little better to offer. We’re presented with a “debate,” which poses only two options. The choice, we are told, is bitter austerity versus trying to bail out capitalism through economic stimuluses. We’ve seen it all before — big corporates may bounce back, but there is no reprieve for workers. Australia is now in recession, but even in the so-called “boom” times, wages were flat and workers did it tough. It is not the “wrong kind” of capitalist plan — bad bosses or poorly managed facilities that have brought society to this point — it is the logic at the heart of the system, with its lack of planning and relentless drive to squeeze more out of workers. 

COVID-19 did not cause the economic crisis — it triggered what was waiting to happen. Capitalist production is chaotic, and the virus is making this more visible. Profits are prioritised, there is scarcity and hoarding, there is price gouging and there is rampant profiteering through bailouts and speculation. For weeks it was impossible to get hand sanitiser, and manufacturers jacked up the price. Other businesses rushed into production, and now there are millions of litres that can’t find a market. Manufacturers are crying foul and asking for handouts to avoid going broke! Will masks be next?

The system that brought us decayed and overcrowded public housing, that could not organise a hotel quarantine system when faced with a deadly pandemic, and that profits out of neglecting vulnerable seniors and the exploited women workers who care for them, does not deserve to be revived. 

Instead of more capitalist chaos, more authoritarianism and a world in which the threat of war increases daily, the deadly response to COVID-19 is a compelling reason for revolutionary change. Imagine a world where the primary goal is the wellbeing of people and the planet. Where decisions are rational, based on science and planning, and where workers run the show. There would be shared abundance for all. It’s called socialism. 

The Freedom Socialist and Radical Women have developed a program of fighting demands, A socialist feminist response to COVID-19 Get in touch if you would like to work with us to make this a reality. 

Alison Thorne is a delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union in Melbourne. She is campaigning for permanent jobs, paid pandemic leave and for safe conditions on the job.

Postscript: On 3 August, the Premier declared a State of Disaster, allowing only the most essential businesses to trade. Teachers won their demands for all learning to be from home. The federal government was forced to announce limited paid pandemic leave. Too little, too late!

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