TONY SMITH. Viral vulnerability is universal – the economic impact is not.

Apr 8, 2020

While I sit at home in splendid isolation contemplating viral vulnerability, I am alarmed by the way some members of the Australian community are being disadvantaged by government responses to the pandemic. I was ashamed to see the lines outside Centrelink offices. Perhaps we are all in this together, but some seem to be deeper in than others.

Historian Erin Maglaque in the London Review of Books recently discussed a work on the plague in Italy in 1630. John Henderson’s Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague In An Early Modern City has some chilling warnings for Australia today. Of particular interest is the ease with which the Sanita’s approaches to quarantine and public education spurned a culture of blaming the poor.

While there might have been some truth in the beliefs that the living conditions of the poor could encourage the peste, in those superstitious times, decisions were not necessarily rational. There was a distinct element of scapegoating and blaming those who had no means of retaliating. At least the Sanita recognised that improving living conditions demanded that the city supply isolated families with good food, wine and firewood. The lockdown applied to everyone. Florence fared better than many other Italian cities during the epidemic, suggesting that the citizens took the crisis seriously.

While we might not have resorted to blaming those Australians most vulnerable for this pandemic, we have been cavalier about the measures taken on the assumption that ‘we are all in this together’. The virus might be no respecter of personal assets, but the government’s approach to isolation shows little empathy for people who are being thrown out of work.

The lines at the Centrelink offices suggest that as a community we consider people who depend on social welfare to be burdensome ‘others’, barely of us at all. It is impossible to detect any humane basis to the policies that begrudge applicants every cent. The Coalition frequently asserts that they are guardians of the public purse and that they have a duty to ensure that money is well spent and not wasted. Yet, one assumption of the welfare state is that applicants have intrinsic merit on several grounds, one of which is that when they are employed, their taxes and productivity contribute to the general state revenue.

Another reason that applicants deserve dignified treatment is that by helping them retain their places in the community, we ensure that society continues to be strong. The humanitarian imperative about helping fellow Australians has, unfortunately, largely been eradicated.

In the same LRB William Davies reviews Keir Milburn’s Generation Left. Inter-generational conflict is a fraught topic, but the finding which is perhaps most relevant to our current circumstances is that recovery following the 2008 financial crisis was unequal. This is not just a matter of age, although the young seem to have suffered greatly.

Research into housing by Sydney University political economists identifies five classes: investors, indebted owners, outright owners, tenants and the homeless. The interests of these classes can be in conflict, and political decisions are bound to privilege some classes and disadvantage others.

Perhaps political parties favour their supporters and the classes they believe to be important for the economic recovery. If this is the case, it is not surprising that investors and home owners would be favoured. Following the financial crisis, home owners – older and in better paid managerial positions and professions – recovered quickly while the wages of the young stagnated, entrenching their relative disadvantage. Milburn suggests that for those who had degrees, assets and careers, it was as though 2008 hardly happened, while for those whose life journey had barely begun, the crisis was a defining event.

While Milburn’s work concentrates on England and has some interesting observations to make about the ages of the voters who supported Brexit, it shows clearly that generations achieve political significance only when economic factors are added. One sure finding is that crises do not threaten existing patterns of advantage. Rather, they tend to ensure that the haves and have nots stabilise. To compound the problem, while the personnel might remain in their relative positions, the gaps actually increase.

How long it takes to overcome the health crisis is anyone’s guess. The economic recovery on the other hand, is predictable. Governments will either opt for a recovery based on full employment and wages growth, or resort to the old, discredited trickle down rhetoric as a means to explain away the plight of powerless young renters in casual employment. Does anyone have any doubt where the Morrison Government’s priorities lie?

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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