Privatisation and pandemic profiteering: Time’s up for a system that started the crisis and can’t stop it

Vaccination was always a race! Stressed healthcare workers are paying the price for delay. Photo from Gold Coast Bulletin.
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“Private sector working together with private sector, and CEOs talking to CEOs…to ensure that the private to private effort is…solving problems in the national interest.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison is talking about his government’s COVID plan. And to further ensure the effort, his government mobilised the Australian Defence Force.

The private sector’s shambolic efforts so far show that it can’t solve the crisis — because capitalism is the problem.

Early childhood educators are a sector of the workforce hard hit by the pandemic. Photo from NJ Family.

How did it get so bad? Australia once had a dynamic public sector. For most people, public health, education, housing, transport, utilities, postal and employment services were vital to everyday life. But in the last four decades, all of it went under the hammer. Under successive Labor and Coalition governments, any public service not turned over to, or into, a business has been left to survive, or not, on ever-diminishing funds. Cost-cutting and efficiency, in the “national interest,” is always the justification.

Nearly 40 years ago, Bob Hawke’s Labor government and the Australian Council of Trades Unions (ACTU) signed a Prices and Incomes Accord to rein in wages demands. The global rate of profit was spiralling downward, and industry was screaming for stability. The 1983 agreement, and several updated versions, oversaw more exploitation of labour and the beginning of sweeping privatisation.

The rich got a lot richer. Internationally, the world’s top 1% now controls 43% of the wealth, while the bottom 70% share 2.7%. In April 2019, the ACTU released a report on inequality in Australia, which showed the top 1% holding a quarter of the national wealth and the top 10% cornering 52%. Meanwhile, in 2016-2019, working people felt the biggest drop in living standards in 30 years — their weekly costs outstripping household incomes by nearly three percent. This was before the pandemic.

Capitalism is unfit for humans. Marxists John Bellamy Foster and Inta Suwandi call COVID “the first global supply chain crisis” with its mindboggling losses in economic value, massive unemployment and underemployment, corporate collapse, increased exploitation and widespread hunger and deprivation.

Capitalists are scrambling to save themselves. This is what we, the 70%, are experiencing right now.

The distress has been overwhelming, especially for women, young and immigrant workers, whose jobs are first to go. Occupations facing the greatest losses — in hospitality and care-related services — are predominantly female and largely migrant. These workers are also concentrated in cleaning, farm and food production as well as child and aged care, health and hospitality. With no option to work from home, they’re at constant risk of exposure.

The short-lived JobKeeper payments increased some workers’ weekly earnings by $750. More men received this than women, 52.9% and 47.1% respectively. Workers on temporary visas, ineligible for government support, received nothing. When the top-up abruptly ended in June 2021, guess what: workers lost their jobs. JobKeeper’s replacement is the COVID 19 Disaster Payment, whose highly restrictive eligibility requirements will benefit even fewer workers.

From supermarket checkouts to childcare, women on the front lines of essential services are exposed to infection. They go home to look after their kids not at school and family members needing care on top of the shopping, cooking, cleaning and all the other critical responsibilities still regarded as “women’s work.”

This pressure-cooker environment of chronic, isolated lockdown has serious psychological consequences. The spike in mental illness is now known as the “shadow pandemic.” Domestic violence has also escalated since COVID’s onset.

Fund-starved hospital systems are at breaking point. In 2020, with the pandemic raging, Queensland’s Labor government cut $1 billion from its public hospitals! In every state, staff are exhausted from the long hours and stressful workload. Stories are coming out of public wards being moved into the private sections of hospitals, staff receiving crash training for new assignments of specialised care, and COVID patients being transported in public lifts. The recent breakout of COVID infections in Melbourne and Sydney hospitals were waiting to happen.

Even the government’s administrative arm, the Public Service, has been massively wound back. In 2019, the Morrison government abolished 2,500 federal public service positions. Services Australia, which runs Centrelink and Medicare, was among the worst hit.

Pandemic profiteers. Meanwhile the corporations and CEOs tasked by Morrison to get Australia through this mess are making a killing. From the outset, the private sector has benefited from lucrative government contracts to deal with new crises — be they people entering the country with infections or inept vaccine rollouts. Their “solutions” not only fail to solve the problem, they tend to worsen them. Using hotels for quarantine, which keeps spreading the virus, is a model chosen to prop up this industry.

In aged care, where three-quarters of all deaths occurred in 2020, Mable Technologies was contracted by the Morrison government, for nearly $6 million, to provide emergency staff for COVID-affected facilities — which it failed to do. By July 2021, after more contracts totalling an additional $156 million, residents were finally vaccinated. But so far, the majority of workers in 80% of facilities aren’t.

The cost of the vaccine rollout — somewhere in the billions of dollars — includes $10 million to McKinsey consultants, who last year advised the Morrison government to hold off on signing vaccine contracts. By June 2021, Australia was the least vaccinated of all OECD countries. Responding to the mounting pressure, Morrison infamously declared that vaccine rollout “is not a race.”

Little is known about the government’s contracts with vaccine companies, because they’re secret. One is with Commonwealth Serums Laboratories (CSL) to produce mRNA vaccines for COVID within the next 18 months. CSL was once Australia’s only publicly owned pharmaceutical company until the Keating Labor government privatised it in 1994. It’s now a thriving corporation — making $12 billion in global sales just last year.

Another deal is with AstraZeneca, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. For “national security” reasons, the terms and price are also undisclosed, but the cost is estimated at around $5 billion. That, until recently, the government exclusively relied on AZ indicates it was given precedence over others. And the arrangement has been fraught. Medical experts’ disclosure of a small risk of blood clotting sent Morrison into protracted damage control. Constantly changing advice and policy led to widespread fear and “vaccination hesitancy,” which still runs high.

JobKeeper — a relief payment enabling employers to keep workers — was a jackpot for some businesses. Those not harmed by the pandemic got an overall bonus totalling $12.5 billion — $4.6 billion landing in the coffers of the high-rollers. Giant retailer Harvey Norman, for example, pocketed $22 million on top of a $462 million profit made in the second half of 2020. Public outrage forced the company to pay some of it back — less than one-quarter. But there is no requirement to return these windfalls.

Profit versus safety. By the time the super-infectious Delta variant reached Australia, most of the population was unvaccinated. New South Wales was hit worst because of that state government’s business-as-usual approach to the pandemic. Then Delta rapidly spread, and by mid-August half of Australia was locked down. At this writing Victoria, NSW’s southern neighbour, is in its sixth, very hard, lockdown.

Restrictions and spreading infection are hitting many businesses like a sledgehammer, especially small ones. Exposure site alerts keep popping up. Repeated closures for some and scaled down trade for others, plus sealed state and national borders, are sending many to the wall. Industries dependent on immigrant workforces are facing serious labour shortages.

The Morrison government is now in a breathless race to vaccinate. First, it gradually lowered the age eligibility for AZ, from 60 to 18, assuring that blood clots aren’t necessarily risky for under-60s afterall. This is because Pfizer, always recommended for younger people, has been in short supply.

The biggest of Morrison’s innovation is the idea that people can safely live with COVID, abandoning efforts to achieve zero infection. The goal, of course, is to salvage a collapsing economy. His four-stage plan is to start easing restrictions once state populations achieve 70% vaccination rates for those over 16. Ultimately social distancing restrictions will be abandoned altogether. Morrison calls this his “freedom” plan — riffing off hard-right calls for “freedom” from lockdown, which have galvanised large protests across the country.

The race, however, has bypassed remote communities and towns populated by First Nations, who have only very recently begun to be vaccinated. It has also left out people with disabilities, prisoners and communities of colour. The remoteness or absence of medical facilities, misinformation and the lack of translated materials, poor health caused by discrimination and neglect and overall ongoing oppression put this significant population at especially high risk.

A new term, “vaccinated economy,” has entered government speak, coupled with the notion that being vaccinated or not is by “choice” and those vaccinated should enjoy more “freedoms.” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently announced that proof of double vaccination will be piloted for entry into venues or events. With NSW’s health system bending under the weight of spreading infection, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that the vaccinated can enjoy pubs, restaurants and events again, probably from October. Governments’ approach to COVID has always been to shift responsibility from the system to people. It’s punitive and divisive, and this latest deflection is ominous.

“Freedom” works around the needs of the top 1%. For the bottom 70%, it’s very precarious, especially when it comes to our civil rights. Morrison appointed an Army Lieutenant-General to head the federal vaccination taskforce. Soldiers and police patrol communities, particularly those of First Nations and immigrants of colour. Despite the prohibition of large gatherings, the far right has held big protests. In Melbourne, Victoria Police opened fire with rubber, plastic or some other type of bullet. For years, VicPol has been progressively militarised and armed with new weaponry and powers.

United Workers Union Farm WorkersChange who’s in control. We cannot trust the capitalist class to keep us safe. “Living with COVID” is dangerous. So is being policed with lethal force.

Recent union-led actions against workplace injustice are glimpses of what workers could achieve if organised on a larger stage. The six-week strike in Melbourne by predominantly female and migrant members of the United Workers Union forced McCormick Food, an international company profiting from the pandemic, to raise their wages. In Sydney, members of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union — locked out by their employer, Better Read than Dead, for taking industrial action over conditions — won the first Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for an Australian bookstore. Cleaners, members of the Health Services Union at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, imposed work bans on the COVID Unit until management finally supplied them personal protective equipment.

By joining unions and communities around these issues of working and living safely, workers and everyone abused by the system could take the reins in this crisis.

An immediate fight is for free, accessible vaccination for everyone, regardless of age or where someone lives. Establish health and vaccination centres, accessible everywhere including workplaces and remote areas. Make these services mobile, capable of reaching people unable to travel or leave their homes.

But vaccination alone cannot end COVID. Vaccines’ effectiveness reduces over time, and they can’t guarantee protection against new variants. Nor will COVID vaccines stop future pandemics. We need to go further. If the following were in place, we’d be able to respond rapidly and effectively:

Reverse privatisation. Hospitals and the entire health sector, research and development must be in public hands. Dedicate public funding exclusively to this, not the bank accounts of profiteers.

Nationalise all industries essential to meeting medical needs, multinational and local. They need to be controlled by workers — who not only run these industries, they are grounded in the community.

Internationalise vaccine research, development and distribution. Remove all patents from pharmaceutical companies. Prohibit hoarding by rich countries. Vaccinate the world! This must be a cooperative effort and globally coordinated.

The global profit economy caused COVID by creating the environmental conditions for the virus’s transmission from animals to humans. Ultimately, ending capitalism is the best preventative measure against future pandemics.

Workers can no longer be treated as easily disposable when economic crises hit, nor can women be forced to substitute for services under stress. Right now, we should organise for:

Job security and equal pay for the same work. End the inequality based on gender, citizenship status, age, ethnicity or race.

Free, quality aged, early childhood, health and disability care.

And remove the military and police from all communities.

To do this, we need to collectively exercise the right to organise in defence of our lives and communities and in solidarity with those on the front line.

When we shift control from capital to working and oppressed communities, we will be on the way to conquering the pandemic.

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