Samuel Pepys: October 5, 1665
The Bill, blessed be God, is less this week by 740 [deaths] of what it was last week.
Today, for the first time in months, the number of deaths from covid19 over the past twenty-four hours in Victoria has been zero. Over the past day, no one has died of the virus. It’s hard to think back to the first wave, when days and weeks went by without deaths, and we thought that by locking the country down early we had escaped the infections that we were seeing in Europe and the USA. We have still done much better than the USA, which has recorded more than 200,000 deaths, a number too big to comprehend, and the UK, where community transmission still seems rampant and yet the country has not been properly locked down. But more than 800 people have died in Victoria, and so it is very hard to celebrate the amazing flattening of the curve that has taken place. Every single one of those deaths will have caused pain, especially because people who have died of covid19 have usually died isolated and alone, and those who loved them will not have been able to hold funerals for them.
I wish I could believe that things would change in Australia as a result of this outbreak, that lessons would be learned by governments. The vast majority of the deaths in Victoria have occurred in aged care. Partly this will have been because the residents of aged care are a uniquely vulnerable population. Partly it will be because once an illness gets into a ‘home’, no matter the size of the home, it tends to go through all the residents. Aged care facilities see this every year with flu and every time there is a bout of gastro. It is very hard to protect the residents once an illness is in the facility. It is almost impossible to limit an illness anywhere with communal cooking and washing. Even in hospitals, where staff are presumably most careful, patients pick up infections.
But it seems that the infection got into many of the aged care homes in the first place because their staff worked casually and part-time, working across multiple sites and without sick leave, so that they sometimes didn’t self-isolate while infectious and they sometimes took the infection from one home to another. Have governments learned from this that insecure work is a health risk? Maybe not. According to The Saturday Paper the Victorian government still had to turn to outsourcing to run the ‘hot’ hotels in which people are now quarantining, because those hotels were put into the hands of Alfred Health which had already outsourced cleaning and patient management to Spotless. They couldn’t suddenly undo decades of outsourcing just because we now see how dangerous it is.
Even worse, the federal government didn’t mandate paid sick leave at the beginning of the pandemic. It still hasn’t. Again, for decades LNP governments have done their best to destroy unions and they have pretty much succeeded. Vast swathes of the workforce is now made up of casualised labour, without security or leave entitlements. This has now literally killed people, and yet the federal government is still anti-union, still talking rubbish about ‘flexibility’.
The willingness of Melburnians to endure Stage Four lockdowns in order to protect each other is a sign that there is still a community here. Despite what governments have tried to do throughout my adult life (despite the rubbish spouted by the evil Margaret Thatcher whose death should not be celebrated, I agree, Patrick Stokes, but whose example should never be followed) we obviously continue to believe that we are all members of a society, we are not simply isolated individuals. But Australian governments have made that society into one in which the poor and most vulnerable are literally to be allowed to die in order to benefit them and their donors. Aged care makes that absolutely clear. Presumably Scott Morrison, like Tony Abbott and John Howard before him, believes that he will be able to pay for appropriate care in his old age. The rest of us, if the past year is anything to go by, can look forward to being cared for by well-meaning but under-trained, under-paid, casualised workers. If covid19 is not a ‘once in a century’ pandemic, we can also look forward to dying for the sake of the economy. Because it does not appear that the lessons of covid19 are going to be learned.