Day one of winter and Melbourne is in its fifth day of hard lockdown. News breaks that COVID cases have again been detected amongst aged care workers and residents. Those who lost loved ones in the outbreak last year are incredulous. How could this be happening?
In 2020, 655 aged care residents died in Victoria when COVID-19 tore through facilities run by private operators. This tragedy shone the spotlight on a sector that for decades has been plagued by inadequate employment of trained nurses, chronic understaffing and a workforce that is low-paid, casualised and working across multiple sites.
Last year there were no vaccines available to protect people. Now there’s a range of vaccines available. The federal government promised to have all aged care residents and workers vaccinated by the end of March. But this promise put the vaccination program to the test — which exposed gaping holes.
Deadly debacle. As of 5 June, only 2.2% of the Australian population had been fully vaccinated, putting Australia just ahead of Ghana and Sri Lanka and just behind Nepal, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. The U.S. has 41.6% vaccinated, the UK 40.2% and the UAE 39.3%. Even Australia’s northern neighbour, Indonesia, is ahead with 4.1% fully vaccinated.
On the surface, the vaccination program announced in mid-February appeared to take the right approach. Vaccinations were free for everyone. Workers on the frontlines and the most vulnerable community members would be highest priority. Those at the top of the list, group 1A, included aged and disability care workers and residents and frontline workers, such as those in healthcare. All were promised a vaccination within the first six weeks, with plans to administer 4 million doses by the end of March.
With much fanfare, the Prime Minister and Jane Malysiak, an 84-year-old aged care resident, were vaccinated together on TV. But when it came to the follow-through, the vaccination program unravelled. The March goal fell short by 3.4 million doses! Shortly after, the government quietly abandoned targets and began parroting the line, “it’s not a race!”
More than three months after the program commenced, there’s been no on-the-job vaccination program for aged care workers, and the communication is shambolic. Workers can only get access to leftover doses from residents and are otherwise on their own. The private outfits contracted to deliver the program are clear that their contracts did not include vaccinating care workers.
Tens of thousands of those identified in the priority 1A group have still not been vaccinated. This includes half of Victorian paramedics. The disability services sector has not received anything close to the priority it was promised. On the eve of winter, only 355 residential and group home residents had received two doses! Of the 26,000 residents, only 3,500 had received at least one dose.
The government has abdicated responsibility for its own program. It did not even know how many aged care workers had been vaccinated. Only with the Victorian outbreak in full swing did it belatedly require aged care facilities to report staff vaccination levels — now estimated at less than 10%!
The nurses’ union, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), called for the Minister for Aged Care, who is responsible for this mess, to resign after he said he was “comfortable” with how the rollout is progressing! Lisa Fitzpatrick, ANMF Victorian Branch Secretary, asserts, “the Morrison government has abandoned Victoria’s private aged care nurses and personal care workers.” She adds that, “for staff to be told to organise their own vaccination makes a mockery of their importance as a 1A priority cohort,” adding “don’t blame staff for not being vaccinated when you never told them you had no intention to vaccinate them at their workplace.”
Stop the profiteering. There’s no shortage of money being spent on the government’s response to COVID-19. But the response is disjointed, and it is going to the wrong priorities. To deliver on programs of the size and importance of the quarantine or the vaccination rollout takes coordination and planning. This requires a skilled permanent workforce. Instead of directly employing a public sector workforce to do the job, this government relies on highly paid consults to develop strategy documents. It outsources service delivery to the private sector, which then relies on casual labour hire workers.
This same model of relying on the market to deliver what should be essential public services has produced the crisis-ridden, profit-driven aged care system. When COVID broke out in aged care last year, workers doing shifts across two or three different homes were identified as a major risk for spreading infection.
A program was introduced to provide a payment to stop the practice of working across multiple sites. Last November, well before the vaccination rollout started, the government scrapped this program! It only reinstated the payments once the virus was already circulating again in Victorian aged care. Only 33 grants were paid to aged care companies that operated across only 90 of the 600 private aged care facilities in the state. Employers had to apply for the funding. The Health Workers Union says many employers refused to apply. It is calling for workers to be able to lodge applications themselves.
A system incapable of learning. We don’t need more enquiries to identify the problems. In the last couple of decades, there have been more than 30 enquires into aged care! We’ve got the Disability Royal Commission looking into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities. We’ve also had reviews into the failings of hotel quarantine. Around the country, state and federal government departments funnel billions to the private sector. And governments don’t even question the practice of outsourcing to private companies for programs that should be in public hands.
The symbiotic relationship between governments and huge corporations that profit from taxpayer dollars is illustrated by the vaccine rollout itself. The government contracted four private providers to deliver its program, amongst them Sonic Health. Sonic donated half a million to the Liberal Party. It’s been awarded $312 million in government contracts since the Coalition came to office in 2013!
What’s urgently needed is a well-coordinated and planned public response to COVID-19 that vaccinates everyone who wants to be inoculated quickly. This is a race — a race to get profit out of the equation!
- Stop the epidemic of outsourcing and private consultancies — fund direct public sector employment!
- Overhaul the aged care and healthcare system, bring it into public hands and put the system under the control of workers, patients and residents.
Megan Cornish, Vaccine distribution fiasco makes the case for public health care, April 2021
Alison Thorne, A working class answer to healing the broken aged care system, January 2021
Dr Susan Williams, Polio and COVID-19: A tale of two vaccines, December 2020
Editorial, Global solidarity: the essential ingredient to defeat COVID-19, August 2020