Trade and industry, Social policy, Health | Australia

2 April 2020

After a decade of rejecting reciprocity in favour of transactional policies, it is no surprise Australia is struggling with collective action in the face of a pandemic, Marco Rizzi and Katie Attwell write.

The pandemic crisis is deepening. The number of new COVID-19 cases registered across the nation on a daily and weekly basis is consistent with the early counts in numerous other countries, and the Australian government is ramping up its response by the day.

As COVID-19 shutdowns and emergency measures come into effect across the world, calls for community spirit have been an essential ingredient of the fight against the virus. Naturally, this has also been a salient feature of Australian public discourse on the crisis. This is because public health responses often rely on collective action and responsibility.

But if solidarity is lacking in Australian society’s standard day-to-day operation, can it be expected to come from nowhere to face this challenge? The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that for Australia, there is a pressing need to generate a lasting culture of reciprocity between the people and their government.

In the current climate of fear and confusion, many Australians have declared their surprise and outrage at the seemingly inexplicably selfish behaviour of those who stockpile toilet paper or refuse to self-quarantine. However, such behaviour should not really be such a surprise. In the past 20 years, Australia’s neoliberal policies have firmly oriented its population towards self-preservation. From there, it is only a short walk to outright selfishness.

Governments strong-arm Australians into buying private health insurance to get ‘superior’ healthcare, and vast swathes of public money subsidise private schools only available to families who can clamber above the rest.

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Taxation policies, particularly as they pertain to home ownership, have caused generational conflict, which threatens to smash more than just avocados. Yet now, suddenly, Australians are supposed to have always been a people who take care of each other? Australians have been encouraged to accept a structural lack of solidarity between a government and its people. When the government sees precariousness of labour as an unavoidable byproduct of contemporary economics, so will the people.

When the government has taken this position for so long, and then issues emphatic appeals to patriotic solidarity, it will also of course fail to recognise that factors such as social class, gender, occupation, and support networks are a key inhibitor for people’s ability to comply with measures that have a direct impact on their livelihood. It’s unacceptable to simply call those who do not comply ‘un-Australian’.

The government simply must acknowledge the ethical difference, for example, between your average, casually employed, hospitality worker, and a privileged symphony orchestra attendee, who both failed to self-quarantine while awaiting a diagnosis in the early stages of the pandemic.

The argument that schools should not close because health-working parents will have to stay home with their kids might be logical for public health, but it is also highly gendered, when we consider that much of the health workforce is female. Australia is in no position to firmly tackle this issue because for so long, it has been satisfied to allow gender inequality to continue.Unwillingness for the government to bear the burden of public health has been apparent in recent policy, and presents a key missed opportunity for governments to demonstrate the reciprocity needs in this kind of crisis.

The fact that universal influenza vaccination remains unfunded, with people left to go it alone, reinforces this reality. As does the government withdrawing funding support for pathology and testing, leaving vulnerable Australians from cancer patients to pregnant women to fend for their health themselves.

Measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus are becoming stronger by the day, and if what is happening in other countries is anything to go by, they are likely to continue.

In this situation, it is imperative to reflect that sanctions for failure to quarantine, and the possibility of an eventual mandatory coronavirus vaccine, demand a high level of social solidarity that Australians are showing they do not yet have. However, it could be achieved with a number of strategies.

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First and foremost, there is a need for immediate and adequate remuneration for precarious workers who get sick, need to self-isolate, or who will lose work due to business closures. A number of measures have been introduced at both federal level and in several states as stimulus packages to combat the economic downfall of the pandemic.

These initially included freezing household fees and charges, payroll tax exemptions for business and extended paid leave for COVID-19. But they were not enough, as quickly became apparent. And when the Jobseeker payment was augmented by a new COVID payment, instead of being raised to sustainable levels, Australians concluded that some must be more deserving than others.

To tackle the fundamental issue of securing people’s ability to survive on a daily basis, which inevitably requires a guaranteed income for those who are not contractually secure, the government has now added the JobKeeper initiative, a wage subsidy for businesses who have had to stand down employees in the crisis.

Whether this support package will do enough for eligible businesses and employees (and for how long) is an open question that time will answer, but what is clear is that the nation’s economy has relied for too long on a model of labour relations that is unsustainable in the face of systemic crises such as this pandemic.

Secondly, Australia needs to think about what lies ahead, after COVID-19. A vaccine will restore society’s freedom and mobility, but public trust in government remains vulnerable, and the country lags behind most developed world jurisdictions in lacking a no-fault compensation scheme for rare cases of vaccine injury.

Scientists across the world are working around the clock to develop a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19, but these are highly complex products that require extensive testing before they can be safely distributed.

In an emergency, most regulatory frameworks possess the tools to accelerate the experimental phase of a new product to speed up its accessibility to patients.

This obviously comes with associated risks. A new and hotly demanded vaccine will once again throw this issue into the spotlight, even if only one or two people suffer adverse events.

To show its willingness to engage in reciprocity, the government must provide adequate support for those who may suffer as a result of this, or any, vaccine. Getting ahead of the curve and setting up an appropriate, easily accessible redress scheme may prove critical to this.

Unfortunately, Australia’s transactional, rather than reciprocal, political culture cannot be changed quickly in response to a crisis. But later, when Australians pick over the bones of ‘these uncertain times’ – the time the whole nation stayed home, punched on in supermarkets, and tried to navigate families, careers and staying alive in chaos – acknowledging it will shed light on what must be done.

A nation’s response to adversity is only ever as strong as the community solidarity its citizens have built together. Hopefully, looking back on this, Australia will decide to do better next time, because there will be a next time.

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