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Government spins and fiddles with ideology as the pandemic crisis worsens

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

When does the crisis over the spread of deadly and highly infectious disease, quarantine and vaccinations get recognised as a scandal?

It is not “politicising” it to say that if a government proves itself incompetent and cannot make any amends apart from deploying a lot of spin, it deserves to get criticism and be thrown out.

At the start of winter, Melbourne was the centre of a mounting crisis and all of the nation’s aged care homes were under deadly threat — because of botched, ideologically-driven mishandling of the so-called vaccinations “program”.

On the record

Control of the vaccinations in private nursing homes was grabbed off the states by the Morrison Government under the misconception it would be able to get them all vaccinated and claim credit; run a campaign, do media, apply spin-doctoring.

The states got the public sector homes vaccinations completed, for both staff and residents.

The Federal Government, wanting private enterprise solutions for everything, farmed out the process for the general public to small GP practices. For the private aged care sector, outside contractors were set up to do whistle-stop visits at facilities — plainly missing many of the potential clients.

On 1 June, just over 50% of the private sector residents had full protection. Staff members had less, receiving left-over doses of vaccine after residents had been served, or left to get their own as best they could. No figures on them were kept by the Government said to be in charge of the proceedings.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was the one nominated to attempt the spin this time. He said only six of the nursing homes in Australia had not been covered, then conceded it was 20. He said all the homes had been vaccinated, not specifying the much lower percentages for the actual people living in them, let alone the health workers.

Good trick? Did he suppose this substitution of spin for fact would be bought by the news media and the public?

Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck got into the same kind of trouble over numbers, challenged about a lack of urgency and lack of accountability, at a Senate Estimates hearing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a slogan going – it’s not a race – covering for the go-slow on vaccination nationwide, with deadlines for getting people protected missed and slipped and finally given up on. He told Parliament on the first winter day, amid jeers of disbelief, perhaps at the audacity of him, that the idea of “not a race” had not been his. The spin had come from a senior public servant — loyal old Dr Brendan Murphy at the Health Department.

So what?

Nothing was learned from the crisis last winter; the system this year flat-footed, reacting to outbreaks of COVID-19. There was the example of casual nursing home staff working at multiple sites. Staff, unintentionally, have been major sources of infection in the institutions. The dangerous practice of moving across sites was stopped last year, but allowed to resume and then imposed again this year — running very late. The people concerned are vulnerable workers without regular jobs; no program was set up to help them out so they could work in just one place.

About ideology — the mantra of small government is under suspicion again, blameable for the go-slow. If a government that is committed to the contraction of government services attacks the public service, it cannot have enough resources to handle a crisis. The small-government, low-tax agenda, especially low tax for billionaires, means low revenues.

Depending instead on the Chinese Government to buy more iron ore is a risky agenda. So is gigantic borrowing on the financial markets, blowing out the national debt and deficits, with the threat of future squeezes on government spending and more withdrawal of government services to the public to try and meet payments. Under the privatisation agenda, any crisis means contracts for private enterprise “providers” and constant doubt from case to case about who gets the priorities: the old people in homes or the shareholders? That is the financial ideology of neoliberalism — this winter, more than ever, failing and not working in line with the manifesto.

About spin. The Australian Government is headed by a former ad man known as “Scotty from Marketing”, said to have a great appetite for stunts – dressing as a worker and being a talking machine on television; also said to have poor aptitude for the hard slog of government.

The evidence for the Scotty from Marketing part is in the swarth of contradictory declarations, whatever might play and sound good at the moment. One time, it was Australia must open up and suffer the disease to “save the economy”, no “hiding under the duvet”; then it was lock out Indians and hide under the duvet.

The evidence of poor aptitude for statecraft is in the track record of government — all promises and announced deadlines, nothing happening. Chief exhibit: supposed to be getting enough doses available and inoculating the population; not getting it done by winter. Projections based on the rate of inoculations indicate it will now not be possible to vaccinate the adult population of Australia before July next year.

This is serious

Last year, more than 600 older Australians died as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care.

Melbourne, the epicentre, Australia’s one major concentration of population getting cold winters, started the season again in lockdown. Over the week leading up to 1 June, Victoria registered 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to the current outbreak of the disease; over 29,000 citizens had queued through for vaccinations, plus 6,000 getting a second dose. Nearly 40,000 got tested. There were more than 320 identified exposure sites around Melbourne.

The Victorian Acting Premier, James Merlino, could offer no real comfort:

“There is no doubt that this situation is incredibly serious. This outbreak may well get worse before it gets better.”

Echoing many, he wanted to know how the country had not gone over to purpose-built quarantine centres after getting more dangerous variations of the COVID-19 virus through the quarantine hotels, some of them not ventilated to cope, with no national standard. Many proposals for that have come from many quarters, all – for some reason, or for no reason – denied by Canberra.

Merlino said:

“If we had an alternative to hotel for this particular variant of concern, we would not be here today. If we had the commonwealth vaccine program, effectively rolled out, we may well not be here today.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese reacted to the bungle over nursing home data, likewise reflecting bewilderment being expressed across the country:

“It just shows how diabolical this is that the Government isn't even keeping records on this matter.”

Why semi-paralysis in government in a time of crisis?

Why the near-insult of part-processed, half-understood information given out to the public by ministers of the Government?

Why the arrogant assertiveness and PR shows instead of attacking problems with some big-scale government action?

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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