In the face of a COVID-19 surge in July, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared a “state of disaster”, and imposed a Stage 4 lockdown that includes an 8pm curfew and a five kilometre limit on travel. Lockdowns demand an enormous sacrifice from workers, and increase the power of the state, but they do not address the main reasons behind the spread of COVID-19.
The number of infections in Melbourne is now dropping. But, as experience in other countries has shown, unless the problems that led to the outbreak are solved and the measures needed to control the virus are put in place, infections will simply pick up again when it ends.
Lockdowns have been the main response of governments globally to the pandemic. The lockdowns were not inevitable. They were necessary only because governments failed to properly prepare for a pandemic.
A proper response would centre on mass testing, to allow contact tracing and quarantine of known cases. There are a number of countries where this has proven to be effective in keeping the virus under control.
But the pandemic has also exposed broader problems as a result of the way capitalism puts maintaining profits above all else. There have been second waves and numerous outbreaks as a result of the failure to provide the resources needed for health care and safe workplaces.
We need to fight for measures like properly funded, nationalised health and aged care, adequate provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), permanent jobs with paid pandemic leave, workplace redesign for safe work, and safe public transport. Such measures would make unsustainable lockdowns, unnecessary.
The second wave
Victoria’s second wave is a product of a neo-liberal, casualised economy.
The second wave was sparked by infection leaking from the quarantine hotels for returned Australian travellers. In Victoria the government used private security firms, with a poorly-trained, poorly-paid, sub-contracted casual workforce, with inadequate PPE, working 12-hour shifts, and often in more than one location. In some cases guards were not even told they were working with positive cases.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has admitted that 80 per cent of cases have been spreading in workplaces, and that some people have been forced to work with symptoms because otherwise they will not have an income. COVID-19 is spreading in workplaces with large casual workforces that require work at close quarters for prolonged periods, for instance in abattoirs and aged care homes.
Notably there are over 1000 cases of COVID-19 in private aged care homes, but only five in public ones. Public aged care homes in Victoria have legislated nurse to patient ratios of one to 15 (in private homes it is closer to one to 100) and far fewer casual workers.
Aged care workers have only recently been granted pandemic leave. Rather than celebrate Coalition Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter complained that this, “represents a cost impost on businesses at a time when they can least afford that cost impost”.
Premier Andrews has claimed that the debate about insecure work can wait for another time. It can’t—failing to act will make it harder to control the virus and prevent future outbreaks. His $1500 payment for a fortnight’s quarantine after a positive COVID test, recognises the problem, but doesn’t solve it. It is hard to access, with long delays, and is too low to cover lost wages completely. It also doesn’t stop bosses cutting shifts, or laying off casual workers who don’t come in because they are sick.
Imposing a lockdown does not solve any of these fundamental issues that have produced the surge in COVID-19 in Victoria.
The lockdown response
The position of the hard right, for instance, Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, has been to dismiss the seriousness of the virus, and insist that the economy comes first, and lockdown is to be avoided.
As the crisis in the US was beginning in March, Trump exclaimed, “Let’s lift the lockdown and pack the churches for Easter!” and talked of “liberating” particular states from lockdown. The result is that the US leads the world in infections, death, fear and misery, with Brazil and India not far behind. There are now over six million COVID-19 cases in the US and over 180,000 deaths. And the numbers will continue to grow.
There has been a reflexive response on the left to be enthusiastically and uncritically in favour of lockdowns. In Australia this has been the position of the ALP, the Greens, many union officials, NGOs and some of the far left. Indeed shutting things down further, harder and faster, from schools to non-essential businesses, has been seen as taking an even more left-wing position.
Whilst it should be self-evident that lining up with the right is madness, to simply be a cheer squad for lockdown is no alternative. Lockdowns are a sign of failure. They are imposed from above, often in panic, because of governments’ lack of preparation, previous cuts to health care, and their complete opposition to radically restructuring society in the manner needed.
For instance there were only 14 contact tracing staff in Victoria in March. Contact tracing capacity actually decreased in the weeks leading up to the lockdown. The state government’s outbreak squad visited the public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington for the first time in July only one day before they faced “hard lockdown”. It took over two weeks to test everyone in the towers.
Testing results in Melbourne have taken over three days to come back, even in workplaces with positive cases. There has been insufficient capacity to carry out asymptomatic testing at many schools or aged care homes with positive cases.
Lockdowns are very blunt instruments. They can be needed when the virus is out of control. But the terms of the lockdowns are always set by those who run the system, whose primary concern is to keep capitalism intact.
Lockdowns work by attempting to limit the spread of the virus by reducing instances of physical contact between some groups of people. But it is always a political choice about what is actually locked down and what restrictions are imposed, which social activities are allowed and which are not.
When the Chinese government welded shut the doors to apartment blocks in Wuhan, it did not care that that the virus was going to spread inside those apartment blocks, any more than Dan Andrews cared that residents would be at risk when he subjected the North Melbourne public housing towers to a hard lockdown. In both cases they were more concerned to prevent community transmission by isolating the apartments.
Lockdowns are a sign of failure, failure to prepare, failure to have sufficient PPE stockpiles for medical workers and others, failure to have enough testing and tracking resources. Governments have introduced measures (on the size of household gatherings, allowable sporting events, limits on exercise, closure of selective businesses like gyms or restaurants) in different ways in different countries. Some measures, like curfews, have been adopted simply to increase police powers and enforce social control and compliance with the lockdowns.
What is considered “essential” work or social activity differs from country to country, and is essentially determined by negotiation between employer groups and the state.
No lockdown can completely shut workplaces, since activities like health care, aged care and food production are necessary to sustaining life. This means some of the primary sites of spread in Victoria, such as abattoirs and aged care, have continued operating even under Stage 4 restrictions.
More importantly, lockdowns are not a long-term solution. Unless the necessary measures, in particular mass testing and tracing, are put in place, cases will eventually spread again when the lockdown is eased.
This has been acknowledged by the World Health Organisation, which argues: “The prevention of transmission is best achieved by identifying suspect cases as quickly as possible, testing, and isolating infectious cases. In addition, it is critical to identify all close contacts of infected people so that they can be quarantined to limit onward spread and break chains of transmission.”
As The Economist has pointed out: “In the early days of the pandemic, almost all countries tried to ‘test, trace and isolate‘ those infected in an effort to quarantine them and break chains of transmission. But many governments, such as Britain’s, abandoned this approach when case numbers grew rapidly and they did not have enough testing capacity and staff to do the job. Panicked countries in Europe and elsewhere imposed national lockdowns in an effort to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.”
“But the places that did best in the first months of the pandemic”, they add, “are those that never stopped contact-tracing” including, “South Korea, Denmark, Germany, Vietnam, Uruguay and Rwanda.”
As with lockdowns everywhere, Victoria’s lockdown has been put in place using authoritarian measures that strengthen police powers and in general are directed at individual workers, with threats of massive fines, public shaming, or even jail.
The “hard lockdown” of nine public housing towers (two without any COVID-19 cases) in Melbourne is a good example. Five hundred police were used to seal residents in the towers, with police on every floor, creating the very “cruise ship-like” conditions authorities claimed they were dealing with. The basic needs of residents, from food to medicine, were an afterthought.
Police are entirely the wrong response for a health crisis. Victoria has handed out more than three times as many fines as any other state, but it did not stop the second wave. Rather than distribute free masks, people are fined $200 for not wearing them. Fines of $1652 are dished out for trivial breaches of lockdown.
It is obvious that we are not “all in it together”. The impact of lockdowns are determined by class divisions, and overwhelmingly falls on the working class. Domestic violence and mental distress has increased. It is much easier to lock down in a Toorak mansion, than overcrowded public housing.
Workers have also borne the brunt of the economic consequences. While the Morrison government pumped in $700 million to prop up Qantas, 20,000 workers were stood down by CEO Alan Joyce, and over 8500 have now been sacked. Over two million casuals and migrant workers have been locked out of Jobkeeper payments.
Shame and blame
As the second wave has spread, the Victorian government has tried to blame ordinary people for its own failures. Lockdown inevitably and intentionally leads to scapegoating the individuals who breach it. The hard lockdown of public housing was a deliberate racist political move to attribute blame for community transmission to the migrant residents in the towers.
The Victorian Labor government was happy to spread stories about security guards sharing lighters or sleeping with guests, whilst refusing to answer questions about its responsibility for the disaster at the quarantine hotels. Daily there are media stories of outrage about handfuls of people in a KFC, or holding a party.
The spread of COVID-19 from Victoria into NSW was the result of a freight company who had people travelling for work, but the media has focused instead on two women returning to Queensland who failed to disclose they had been in Victoria. The racist shaming of these women will only lead to a wider reluctance to report symptoms to authorities. There has been no shaming or penalties for the bosses of aged care, abattoirs or security firms.
Lockdown and protest
Support for lockdown has strengthened the state’s power to shut down protest. The idea that lockdowns are crucial to manage the spread of COVID has also resulted in a reluctance to protest within unions and social movements.
The crackdown on protest has been deliberate and systematic. Refugee supporters in Melbourne were fined $50,000 and one person charged with incitement. Seven Black Lives Matter protesters in Sydney were fined $1000 each, whilst Prime Minister Scott Morrison could mingle with crowds at the NRL, where thousands are still allowed. The CFMMEU were fined under health regulations in Victoria for a protest after two organisers were viciously assaulted.
There has been a concerted campaign to blame Black Lives Matter protests for the second wave, for instance by federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller. Yet there is no evidence of any transmission occurring because of the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia. The smears have been a deliberate attack on anti-racism and the right to protest.
From car convoys to socially-distanced protest or pickets, the risk of spreading COVID-19 at demonstrations is small. Not protesting simply leaves us at the whim of the government and employers, unable to respond to the greater COVID-19 risks that leave aged care, workplaces, public housing, and refugees vulnerable.
We need protests and strikes to fight for the measures that the state and business refuse to implement or pay for to deal with the pandemic. Protest is essential.
Being a cheer squad for lockdown restricts our ability to protest and organise, undermining the very tools we need to fight for, and win, the social health measures needed to deal with the pandemic. We need protests for action on climate, for union rights, for refugee rights, and for democratic rights, to make sure that we do not return to the “business as usual” that corporations hanker for and Morrison is determined to re-impose.
The pandemic has exposed the priorities of capitalism. Millions of lives are at risk because the system, and our rulers, put profit ahead of health and human needs. We need to fight to mobilise all the social resources necessary to protect health, and maintain workers’ living standards in the face of the crisis.