It’s been a shocking start to 2020 in Australia. Bushfires swept through a huge swathe of the country, devastating communities and wildlife. Weeks of toxic smoke hung in the air and impacted major cities. Golf-ball sized hail caused widespread damage in Canberra. Shortly after, Sydney and other parts of the country were hit with flash flooding. All this was happening against the backdrop of the unfolding global coronavirus pandemic.
Despite ample warning about the conditions resulting from prolonged drought, the government was woefully under-prepared for a summer of bushfires and extreme weather events caused by global warming. With the healthcare system already under enormous strain, co-payments rising and services rationed — courtesy of three decades of neoliberalism — the government released the Australian Health Sector Emergency Plan at the end of February in a scramble to get organised. Frontline healthcare workers are speaking up about problems, including inadequate guidance and the dwindling supplies of Personal Protective Equipment.
It’s crucial to understand why catastrophes are causing such devastation — and to focus on solutions. The nub of the problem is that capitalism makes things worse! At the heart of the system is the imperative to prioritise private profit ahead of human need.
Don’t mourn, organise. As Australia burned, communities forged bonds of solidarity and demanded real action on climate change: 100% renewables with no new fossil fuel projects, together with a just transition for communities and guaranteed jobs for affected fossil fuel workers. Respect for the knowledge of First Nations grew. So did calls for Indigenous-led land management, with jobs on country, to repair ecosystems and reduce emissions and fire risk. Those who rallied, marched and organised in workplaces demanded that climate criminals pay up and funding be poured into projects to support communities and wildlife.
There are equally pressing demands arising from the health crisis. A whopping 32% of the Australian workforce — 3.3 million workers — have no access to paid leave. Unlimited paid leave must be mandated for all workers who are sick, required to self-isolate or provide care. As the community follows public health advice and businesses in hospitality, events management, entertainment, sport and tourism close, these workers are feeling the impact. They must be fully compensated with a living wage.
It is only a matter of time before education is delivered remotely as schools close. Action is needed now to provide every student with a free laptop. Unlimited internet access must be free of charge for students, people working from home and everyone in self-isolation. To stop internet providers, pharmaceutical giants and suppliers of medical equipment from price gouging, profiteering must be outlawed.
Global cooperation is urgently required to both solve the COVID-19 pandemic and address climate change. Neoliberal capitalism, coupled with hyper-nationalist jockeying between rival powers, is not conducive to this. What’s needed is to pool knowledge and resources. This can be achieved by nationalising the global healthcare and energy industries, putting them under the control of workers and users.