Lockdowns, Delta and a new stage in the pandemic

Discussion document produced by Solidarity’s National Committee

Sydney’s Delta outbreak has dramatically changed the situation with the pandemic in Australia. NSW is facing a lockdown with no end in sight, and Melbourne’s current sixth lockdown will now run to at least four weeks. Snap lockdowns are likely to follow in any state where new cases emerge.

The Delta variant is clearly more contagious and more difficult to contain than earlier strains of the virus. After two months of lockdown in Sydney there is still no sign of cases dropping. Yet in Melbourne it took only four weeks during the second wave last year from the beginning of the city-wide lockdown for cases to begin falling.1

Eliminating Delta is not likely to be possible. Even the ABC’s Norman Swan has admitted that, “In New South Wales the consensus among the epidemiologists that you speak to is that they are not going to get it back to zero”.2 Melbourne’s current difficulty getting its Delta outbreak under control shows how much things have changed.

The only way out of this is much higher levels of vaccination. Scott Morrison’s bungling of the vaccine rollout means this is far behind where it should be. Most European countries have around 60 per cent of the total population fully vaccinated, versus around 25 per cent here (or 33 per cent of adults).3

The failure to vaccinate aged care workers is a shocking scandal. There are still 40 per cent of aged care workers without even one dose of vaccine. Yet they were all supposed to have received one in March. As a result there are 34 aged care facilities in NSW with outbreaks or under monitoring after close contact with a case. Only 51.9 per cent of residents in NDIS group homes are fully vaccinated, when they were also meant to have been finished months ago.

According to the Doherty Institute modelling prepared for the National Cabinet, lockdown restrictions cannot be relaxed until we reach 70 and 80 per cent of the adult population fully vaccinated. Doing otherwise would cause unnecessary deaths and hospitals reaching capacity due to uncontrolled spread of the virus. But the inability to eliminate Delta means that, at some point in the next few months, the virus will have to be allowed to circulate relatively more freely.

To allow this, vaccination levels need to get as high as possible, well past 80 per cent of the population. There needs to be every possible measure to encourage vaccination. In NSW the current rate of vaccination is among the fastest in the world. But more can be done.

Vulnerable and marginalised groups must be a particular focus. It is criminal that in some Indigenous communities in regional NSW, who are currently facing an outbreak, full vaccination rates are below 10 per cent. Aboriginal health services in Victoria, in contrast, have shown that with proper resources, community based organisations can drive very high vaccination uptake.

Vaccinating the last 20 or 30 per cent of the population will be the most difficult, after all those willing and easily able to access vaccines are completed. The ACTU are calling for vaccination leave for workers, and casuals also need access to special sick leave so they can take time off in case of side effects.

Nationally it is estimated that 70 per cent of adults will be fully vaccinated by the end of November. On current trends NSW will reach this level towards the end of October. This means Sydney faces months more of poverty and rising tensions as working class areas remain under hard lockdown. The left cannot be uncritical supporters of lockdown measures. These are being implemented in a way that means punitive policing and financial misery for large sections of the working class. They continue to be used to restrict the right to protest.

Health measures like testing and contact tracing still need further funding. In NSW they have begun to buckle under the pressure of higher cases, with the number of people interviewed within a day of testing positive down from 76 per cent to 46 per cent in the past week.4 But so far contact tracing has managed to slow the growth of NSW’s cases and prevent them from going completely out of control.

Sending in swarms of police and the army to enforce lockdown measures in western Sydney has produced class tensions and bitterness across Sydney. Migrant and working class areas in the west are being targeted while Sydney’s wealthier east and north shore receive very different treatment. The operation has seen police given extreme powers, with a curfew, $3000 on the spot fines, the right to demand ID, and the Police Commissioner telling officers to “go high-level enforcement”.

The problem is not just the double-standards that have seen disadvantaged, working class areas of Sydney targeted. It is the whole approach of relying on policing to deal with the health crisis.

Increased policing and police powers mean further harassment of Indigenous people, ethnic communities and the poor. We have seen this already throughout the COVID crisis. Suburbs with high Aboriginal populations including Mount Druitt, Redfern and Liverpool received the most fines during last year’s lockdown and there are reports of similar patterns of racist policing in Western NSW as the outbreak spreads.

According to legal researchers, “In Victoria, a parliamentary inquiry found people in lower socioeconomic areas were twice as likely to be fined as those in higher socioeconomic areas.”5

Instead of punitive policing, the government could have ensured anyone locked down had financial support (including rent assistance and a prohibition on evictions), sent in health workers and community workers to assist households struggling to deal with the restrictions, and ensured that testing and vaccination was widely available.

Financial support for those in lockdown is still hopelessly inadequate. Unlike at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Scott Morrison has refused to raise JobSeeker, forcing people to go through lockdown in poverty. While the $750 disaster payment for those who’ve lost 20 hours of work matches the level of JobKeeper, this time around many workers have already spent savings or taken out superannuation to get through earlier lockdowns.

There are also major issues around safety for those still in the workplace. A Unions NSW survey of 3000 workers found that only 18 per cent said social distancing was observed at all times, and one in five said that mask wearing was not enforced in all indoor settings. Unions have reported problems including a lack of PPE for cleaners at Westmead hospital and an effort to continue work at Eastern Creek distribution centre after a confirmed case. Workers need to organise to fight for all necessary safety measures.

Finally, nationalism and imperialism are hamstringing the global COVID response. The failure of Australian governments to drive a hard vaccine roll-out early stemmed, in part, from a false confidence that Australia’s extraordinary border regime could provide indefinite protection. As both vaccination rates and domestic COVID cases rise, the case for border closures will fall away.

Currently, vaccines are virtually absent from the world’s poorest countries, leading to the possibility of new, even more dangerous strains developing. This is a product of vaccine hoarding by the rich nations and the dominance of vaccine manufacturing by multinational pharmaceutical corporations and the logic of profit.

COVID Zero and harder lockdowns

The fact that the measures in Sydney are not working to reduce cases has led some to call for a harder lockdown, like the campaign for a “Lockdown to Zero” run by Socialist Alternative. This is a deeply mistaken approach.

The NSW government has been far from transparent about how the virus is spreading. What we do know indicates that essential workers picking up the virus at work is one important factor. But spread between households has also been an important source of infection, often in circumstances where people rely on family for childcare and other support. This is consistent with the relative absence of large clusters in individual workplaces, compared to clusters in Melbourne’s second wave in abattoirs, supermarket distribution centres and among aged care workers.6

Addressing this requires greater rights and protections for essential workers and greater social support for struggling households. But campaigning for COVID Zero and a harder lockdown inevitably means accepting the police crackdown. Opposition to punitive policing and the operation in western Sydney is completely absent from the “Lockdown to Zero” demands.

Calling for a harder lockdown also means taking a position as the most enthusiastic supporters of lockdown measures—and being seen to support the financial disaster and punitive policing for huge sections of the working class that this brings. It also implicitly accepts the idea pushed by Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews that ordinary people are to blame for the spread of COVID, rather than pointing to the failures of government to adequately prepare and respond. The anti-lockdown “freedom protests” have shown that, if there is no response from the left or the unions, far right and anti-vaxxer groups can capitalise on the class tensions resulting from lockdowns.

More severe lockdown measures also disarm the working class from any possibility of fighting around the terms of the response to the pandemic. They have already been used to prevent union officials holding workplace meetings of those still at work and against safe forms of protest action like car convoys or last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Contrary to claims that they are some sort of “mockdown”, the NSW lockdown measures are already severe. Berejiklian has introduced a curfew and a one-hour limit on outdoor exercise in western Sydney, as well as a requirement to wear a mask outside at all times all across Sydney (except when exercising). This is despite her admission that these further measures would do little to stop transmission, and were simply designed to make restrictions easier to police.

Thousands of people still travel to work because their jobs are essential to keeping the city fed, and to deliveries and healthcare. The NSW local government areas (LGAs) where COVID cases are concentrated have restrictions that are comparable to those in Melbourne’s second wave, held up as the model for a hard lockdown. Only “authorised workers” can leave their LGA to go to work, meaning parts of manufacturing, most financial services, and administration, non-essential retail, and other service industry workers must stay home.

As part of Melbourne’s strictest “stage four” lockdown, construction was also limited to 25 per cent of workers on site, but was never closed down entirely as it was for three and a half weeks in the most restricted LGAs in Sydney. Melbourne also had other restrictions on the number of workers on site in meat processing and warehouses and distribution centres.7 But Sydney has also imposed other requirements for workers leaving Sydney’s LGAs of concern which never existed in Melbourne: a requirement for testing every three days, now replaced by a requirement to have one dose of vaccine or rapid antigen testing at their workplace from 6 September.

Some have called for the restrictions on workplaces in western Sydney to be applied city-wide. But this would do nothing to stop the spread of cases across the 12 LGAs of concern, which currently have 80 per cent of Sydney’s cases.

As we reach 70 and 80 per cent of adults vaccinated, there will be big questions ahead about the terms on which schools and workplaces are reopened. Simply calling for continued lockdown in the context of high levels of vaccination will become redundant. But with the virus still able to spread, even through a largely vaccinated population, safety measures and the responses to individual clusters at schools and workplaces will remain important. These are issues that can be taken up by unionists in every workplace.

When the pandemic first hit 18 months ago, it seemed likely that the economic consequences were going to be greater than the Great Depression. A massive round of borrowing and initiatives like JobKeeper forestalled that. But the government has not been so generous this time around, with far lower levels of stimulus spending. Behind the official unemployment figures the number of hours worked has fallen and the numbers of unemployed are increasing as thousands stop looking for work. Wages are falling.

The other side of COVID is again looking worse than the situation prior to COVID. Prolonged lockdowns in NSW and Victoria will likely produce another recession in the Australian economy. Economists are predicting a 4-5 per cent fall in GDP in the September quarter. The rhetoric of being “all in this together” is behind us.

Labor federally is positioning itself as a responsible, reliable opposition and capitalising on Morrison’s pandemic failures by sticking to the line that Morrison had just two jobs – the vaccine rollout and quarantine. For now that is paying off. The Coalition is well behind in the polls, 53-47 on a two-party preferred basis.

But Labor has also dropped most of the reformist policies it took to the last election – negative gearing has gone and Labor now accepts Morrison’s tax cuts for the rich. Similarly the union leaders are missing in action in regard to the issues around wages, casualisation, increasing JobSeeker and so on.

COVID has dramatically limited the possibilities for protest around climate change, refugees, and basic union struggle. The enthusiastic support of much of the left for lockdown measures has only added to that retreat. The left’s ability to shape the response to COVID depends on defending the right to protest and encouraging the development of class struggle. The frontline heroes of the pandemic are still heroes whose should not have their wages cut to pay for Morrison’s “recovery”.

We need to insist that a health crisis demands a health response that deals with the inequalities that have left the poor, the working class, the aged and Indigenous communities most vulnerable; and that the COVID crisis cannot be an excuse for increased police powers that only serve to maintain those inequalities.

1 This is not because Sydney took longer to go into “hard lockdown”. As in Sydney, Melbourne’s lockdown measures scaled up gradually, with the most restrictive Stage Four measures only introduced about three weeks after the city-wide lockdown began.

2 Coronacast, 18 August, see transcript here

3 See graph “Percentage of the population fully vaccinated by country” at “Covid Australia vaccine rollout tracker”, The Guardian

4 “Parents with COVID must isolate from their kids. But NSW Health isn’t taking their calls“, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2021

5 Viki Sentas, Leanne Webber and Louise Boon-Kuo “COVID has changed policing — but now policing needs to change to respond better to COVID” The Conversation 30 July 2021

6 For instance at Cedar Meats 67 workers were infected, 167 cases were linked to Sommerville Meats and 160 to the JBS Abattoir, while there were more than 20 cases at Woolworths’ Mulgrave distribution centre.

7 Most warehouses and distribution centres were limited to two-thirds of their daily peak workforce, however supermarket distribution was exempted.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for your article. Norman Swan for a long time pushed the ‘Zero Spread’ policy and was very critical of both the Fed’s poor quarantine program and NSW govt failure to lock down hard enough. The reason why he eventually went along with the ‘living with covid’ strategy was that he gave up criticising the NSW government’s poor approach and instead accepted it as a fait accompli. In other words he got into bed with them, and too much of a wuss to dissent. If you look at the discourse of the key epidemiologists in Australia, you will see the same linguistic process: a failure to confront and dissent from the NSW/Fed position – that we needed to ‘live with covid’, and then transforming that uncontested position into a ‘political reality’ and then into the ‘epidemiological reality’. I have discussed two of Swann’s coronast episodes in more depth on Twitter. Sadly, I think it’s too late now to shut industry down and get back to Zero Spread in NSW and Vic (as they have achieved in most states of Australia), at least until the govts in question realise their folly when cases start rising again in the third wave, as they did in other countries that adopted this policy. Apart from anything else, to try and shut down all industries now would not only be unattainable goal, but an insult to the workers who could otherwise not be able to pay their bills (the failure to establish a universal living wage at least for the duration of the Covid pandemic is yet another sad story in Australian politics). So we must play our own dumbed down version of the Squid Game, trying to put food on the table, knowing that in doing so, some of us and our family members will get very ill or die a very lonely death because of our actions (and failure to act when it was time to do so). Though to be fair, in NSW and Vic it was always going to almost impossible to turn things around, given the resources and determination of the bosses and their mates (liberal and labor) in government, not to mention scabs like Swan and the other medicos (unable to remove their snouts from the trough of government subsidised modelling studies) to open up for the sake of profit. I guess there is some lesson here – the need to build grass roots organisation and education so that we don’t end up with such public policy check-mates in the future. In any case, good luck with your work and solidarity.

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