Pandemic: inconvenience for the privileged, tough luck for the poor (SMH 2.9.2020)

The popular coronavirus refrain that “we’re all in this together” is a call for everyone to pull together and be more conscious of the interests of others, not just our own. What it’s not is a statement of fact.

Far from it. When you take a closer look, what you see is inequality and injustice – on many dimensions. Some of these have been created by the way our governments have decided who gets help to cope with the pandemic and who doesn’t.

But others are the consequence of our politicians going for years pushing problems under the carpet because fixing them would just be too expensive for taxpayers.

You and I have generally been content for these problems to be kept out of our sight. But the virus has drawn these injustices to light. In some cases, the victims have continued to suffer in silence. In others, they’ve continued going about their business in ways that have undermined our efforts to limit the virus’s spread.

Like many of us, no doubt, I’ve been aware of much of this. But the recent writings of Dr Stephen Duckett, of the Grattan Institute, have brought it together in a way that’s shocked me. Duckett is the nation’s leading health economist. Most of what follows comes from him.

His account begins at the beginning. We congratulate ourselves that we were quick to block the arrival of foreigners who could be bringing the virus with them. We closed our borders to China early, and soon added Iran and South Korea to the list. A planeload of repatriated Chinese Australians from Wuhan was quarantined well away from us at the Christmas Island detention centre.

“However, we baulked when countries like us – white and wealthy – began to show higher levels of infection,” he says. “Italy had higher levels of infection than the Asian countries, but our borders remained open to Italians.”

The United States was the next source of infections. “Some Aspen skiers, returning home, brought the infection with them. They were asked, probably politely, to self-isolate in their Portsea beach houses. They did not, and the virus spread. The first wave of infections was mostly these international transmissions, returning travellers, probably wealthier than the average Australian.”

At that time we didn’t know much about the virus, except that it seemed to have started in China. With people of Chinese appearance being vilified in the streets, Australians were not shown at their best (or brightest).

Look at Victoria’s second wave, however, and you see people at the other end of the income scale helping to spread the virus and being its greatest victims. Low-paid and poorly trained hotel-quarantine guards, with precarious job security, were the human channels from supposedly quarantined travellers to the guards’ families and friends.

It was not by chance that the first areas in the renewed lockdown were social housing towers where immigrant families lived cheek by jowl. “Communication problems with residents were exacerbated by the authorities’ failure to adequately recognise the need for cross-cultural communication. And the authorities in turn seemed not to trust the residents, with whom they had little contact,” Duckett says.

Generations of neglect of public housing have caused overcrowding in the estates and created the conditions for rapid transmission of disease. The same could be said of jails, where our enthusiasm for locking up offenders has not been matched by our enthusiasm for building new prisons. Then, of course, there’s our neglect of residential aged care.

When you think about it, the device of limiting the spread of the virus by locking down large parts of the economy and encouraging people to stay in their homes inevitably hurts the poor more than the well-off.

As a general rule (to which there will always be exceptions, without that stopping the rule from holding much truth), the more skilled, better paid and permanent jobs can be done safely from home, whereas jobs that involve the face-to-face delivery of services are more likely to be less skilled, less well-paid and less secure.

Many of these jobs – particularly in hospitality and tourism – just disappeared, while others kept going, but with greater risk of becoming infected. Health workers were particularly exposed, often with inadequate access to personal protective equipment. Disgracefully, this sometimes led to them being shunned in public.

The “flexibility” afforded by the growth in part-time and casual work has been of great benefit to employers and some benefit to young parents and full-time students. But when casuals work multiple jobs to make ends meet, any infection spreads further. And when they lack paid sick leave, their temptation to keep working despite symptoms is great.

Then there’s our treatment of overseas students and others on temporary visas. The moment their costs exceed their benefits to us, we cut them adrift without a shilling.

“The privileged among us have been inconvenienced by the pandemic; the vulnerable have suffered and in some cases died because of its unequal health and economic effects,” Duckett concludes.

First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on September 2 2020.

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Economics Editor, Sydney Morning Herald.

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