Covid-19 has been a circuit breaker. Now we need to flip a different switch

11/02/2021

A horror year, 2020 has brought some salutary lessons. But can we change our ways because of our trauma? Or will we: continue to ignore climate change; bring back overseas students and depend on their privileged place in universities; boost migration to support the housing price spiral; turn a blind eye to inequality and social injustice?

The world was not prepared for another pandemic, despite the lessons of the Spanish Flu, HIV-Aids, Sars and Ebola. Even the World Health Organisation was behind the eight ball, obfuscating, playing down the risks and denying for a time the efficacy of face masks.

Some countries fared better than others because, unlike the US, they had a universal health care system (though that didn’t help the UK); others showed again the stark inequalities of society, with non-whites and the already disadvantaged more vulnerable to the disease and more likely to die from it. Trump’s quixotic treatment of the proposed stimulus package for a time, exposed the essentially unfair stance of conservative politics.

In Australia, the pandemic strained our federation and showed inter-state rivalry that is still strong. Our ‘federation’ is still weak. Prime Minister Morrison’s ‘national cabinet’ proved to be fragile as State Premiers went their own way, closed borders. Victoria, which clamped down hard on social restrictions was smugly vilified by some.

In his attack on Victoria’s Premier, Scott Morrison ignored that border control and aged care were Commonwealth matters; the concerted onslaught of the Murdoch media was reinforced by the selective and disgraceful comments by Coalition ministers such as Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt.

Victorians’ acceptance of severe lockdown provisions showed a combination of self-interest with strong communitarian attitudes to avoid harming others. The wealthy skiers who flouted the rules were the exceptions.

On the health front, the pervasive mantra of ‘mental health’ proved hollow, as the number of people, depressed and anxious (for good reason), could not be helped because of a shortage of trained mental health professionals. Trained in what? Doling out anti-depression pills? Counselling on how to deal with the realities of life, how to cope with what is an external, not internal problem. Similarly unemployment, or marriage breakdown? The mental health industry’s claims of effectiveness are not supported by evidence, yet it has become an ‘untouchable’, with almost every broadcast program carrying a warning and phone helpline numbers given in case it has caused any distress.

And the hollowness of neo-liberal economic theory was exposed by the Coalition’s Keynesian adoption of large stimulus payments, only to be cut back just as the economy looked to be recovering. Suddenly the ‘dole bludger’ was a ‘Jobseeker’ and in need of a much higher fortnightly payment than had been supplied to those on welfare before.

We saw banks yet again allowed to lend to risky clients, not punished for fraudulent practices; businesses were also to be bailed out by government subsidies and the new Jobkeeper allowance. Cutbacks made it clear that past economic policies have been misguided and Australian businesses are not the saviours of the economy they often pretend to be, their insistence on ‘saving the economy’ at the expense of stopping the pandemic a clear indicator of where their values lie: money first, human lives later.

The pandemic also revealed the fundamental stupidity of our higher education system. Over-reliance on overseas (mainly Chinese) fee-paying students to cover a drop in government funding, the decline of our TAFE system and Dan Tehan’s ill-informed changes of HECS/HELP fees for domestic students doing courses that purportedly will not lead to an immediate job, indicate a nation at sea on the role of tertiary education and training.

It also showed that being present on campus, or at school, made little difference to learning, causing an unprecedented upheaval in how we conduct our whole education system. Massive spending on new buildings, at the expense of better-qualified teachers, will have to stop.

This applied as well to city-based workplaces, with home-based working online making much CBD office space redundant and expenditure on roads to get people to work more efficiently look outmoded. Old management practices are resistant to change and calls to return to an empty CBD office may fall on deaf ears. Presence in the office was never an indicator of productivity.

In the meantime, we had time to watch the US-Trump experiment implode and to wonder about how reliable our own media are in reporting truth or fake news. Despite a peaceful inauguration of Joe Biden, he becomes president of a divided society close to civil war. Another revolution in accepted ways is needed here.

Given that we do not yet know the efficacy of the vaccines, we likely face a future of repeated breakouts, social lockdowns and disruption. 2020 has taught us that change is ubiquitous, and our political and social institutions are no longer fit for purpose. What a year it was, not altogether wasted, if only such rethinks would occur.

The epidemic has been a circuit breaker for much that is wrong with Western capitalist systems. But have our opportunistic, dullard politicians noticed? Let alone are they capable of seizing the day?

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