Health before profit—fighting coronavirus means fighting Spence and Morrison

The coronavirus has created a massive health crisis and precipitated an economic crisis deeper than the global financial crisis of 2008.

The Morrison government’s response to the coronavirus health crisis is shockingly inadequate. Both Morrison and the state governments have failed to deliver the massive expansion of health services that is needed.  Having cut billions in health funding over the past years, three quarters of the recent $17.6 billion stimulus package is going to businesses. Only $2.4 billion has gone towards any kind of health response. 

Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, says that the fever clinics ‘will progressively be rolled out over the coming weeks…to meet potential demand.” They are needed now.  The government’s testing regime is woefully inadequate.

What we need is an enormous shift of social resources to maximise the protection of health and living standards of ordinary people. China is testing 1.6 million people a week; South Korea is testing more than 10,000 a day. We need an immediate ramping up of testing measures to detect those that have the virus and ensure all those potentially exposed can be easily tested. Nearly half of hospitals in Australia are private – their resources must be commandeered by the government; ICU, beds, equipment and staff for fever clinics, respirators and private labs for testing. In response to suffering a surge of coronavirus cases, the Spanish government has taken control of private hospitals and healthcare providers.

There are no guarantees from the government for appropriate sick pay for all (workers, carers, students) who get sick or are required to self-isolate.  If schools, universities, or workplaces are forced to close, the workers, students and their families affected should not be the ones who pay the price. 

Fighting on campusSpence makes us sick 

At Usyd Vice Chancellor Michael Spence is using the budget shortfall from the COVID-19 as a justification to impose drastic austerity measures that hurt staff and students and endanger health. 

A petition and a planned rally on the 25 March by the National Tertiary Education Union has won sick leave for casuals for any work they miss in a 10-day working period if they have to self-quarantine or if there is a uni shut down. However, casual staff are still facing drastic income cuts, potentially inadequate and conditional sick leave coverage and there is a freeze on contract renewal for many fixed-term staff.

We join the National Tertiary Education Union in demanding that no worker at Sydney University pay for this health crisis. The university has significant financial reserves and should be demanding government funding to ensure that students (including international students) do not carry the financial or social burden of the coronavirus.  Spence’s salary—the highest of any Vice Chancellor in Australia—remains untouched.

University management has already moved to shift classes online. The Student Representative Council has called on the university to cease in-person classes and events and said it will shut down the SRC. It is understandable that the widespread response to COVID-19, including the response from the SRC, is to practice social-distancing. However, to get the guarantees and proper health response we need, we will have to fight the university management and the government. The SRC needs to be available for students who need help and to organise resistance.

Management has said all events on campus should be cancelled. Any restriction on organizing union meetings and rallies should be resisted. We will need meetings and protests, on and off the campuses, to win safe conditions and ensure workers don’t pay.

Protecting our right to organise is a condition of being able to protect our health and our lives from those who are only concerned with maintaining their system, their privileges and profits.

NTEU members at Melbourne Uni have shown the way forward. Their protest this week, occupied the University of Melbourne services building, demanding casual sick leave for any self-isolation or shut-down, increased uni health resources. Every workplace will need to look at what demands they need to make to ensure they get a response to Coronavirus that puts health before profit.

Shut-downs no substitute for a health response

Morrison has introduced restrictions on gatherings and events with more than 500 people. There are also widespread calls for closures of schools and workplaces. 

There is a medical rationale for some cancellation of work, study and other gatherings. However what is crucial for containing the virus is free and widespread testing, tracking and treatment. South Korea has been able to bring the virus under control without the lock-down of cities and restrictions on movement seen in some areas of China, through widespread and sustained testing.

The official medical advice currently is that shutting schools and universities is premature, because there is a low level of “community transmission”. In Victoria, the CFMEU Construction Division is calling for health measures and protection of workers’ income in the case of any shut-downs but is advising against the premature closure of sites by bosses. 

It is the government’s response that will determine, if and when, the virus is contained.

Guaranteed sick pay for all workers and an expansion to funding for a proper health-based response is urgently needed. Without these measures many will have to face a choice between working while sick and catastrophic loss of income. Without testing, and dramatically increased health resources, the virus will spread rapidly, and people will not be able to get the life-saving treatment they need.

  • Free and expanded virus testing facilities
  • Government-funded sick pay for all, including those required to self-isolate or care for those self-isolating or sent home from school
  • Free hand sanitiser in schools, workplaces and universities as well as implementation of all other necessary methods to reduce risk of infection
  • Expand hospital resources, and take over private hospitals to integrate them with the public system
  • Urgent financial, medical and staffing support for nursing homes and Indigenous communities to protect the most vulnerable
  • The government to organise home deliveries of essentials to all those needing to stay at home, particularly the socially isolated like the elderly or disability pensioners
  • Waive mortgage and rent repayments during the period of the health crisis and any shut downs
  • Forego all face-to-face interviews at Centrelink and JobActive agencies and lift all sanctions on payments
  • Increase Newstart and Parenting Payment by $100 a week


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