Despite giving hope for better management of the COVID pandemic, the Albanese Government has only continued the L-NP's reckless approach, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.
FEDERAL HEALTH MINISTER Mark Butler is an experienced politician.
Therefore, one would expect him to be circumspect with the use of the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” when commenting on anything to do with the ongoing COVID -19 pandemic.
This is particularly so as the Minister currently oversees a “vaccination-only” preventative strategy. This could not be further from an abundantly cautious approach and is in direct contradiction with the “vaccination-plus” strategy recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Butler is clearly not acting with “an abundance of caution” at home. What his use of the phrase signifies is only his decision to require pre-flight virus testing for Chinese visitors to Australia. Even though the latest highly infectious variant has recently appeared in the U.S. and the UK, visitors from those countries are not required to produce a negative test as a condition of entry into Australia.
This is not a health decision. It is political, as Butler has now admitted.
The Government’s vaccination-only strategy is deeply flawed, given the limited time (approximately 20 weeks) that vaccine efficacy is estimated to last. Many of us who had our fourth dose 20 or more weeks ago are now unprotected, as a fifth dose is not yet generally available.
So far, the Federal Labor Government has failed to differentiate itself from the cavalier attitudes of the defeated L-NP, led by former PM Scott Morrison. This seems reckless, given voter dissatisfaction with Morrison’s strategies. Labor claims we are in a post-pandemic phase and it is time to end the so-called “COVID exceptionalism” that saw mandatory masking, social distancing and other fundamental preventative measures.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently contracted the virus for the second time, but not even this appears to have changed his opinion that the pandemic is over, despite more deaths on his watch than at any other time since this health crisis began.
Albanese gave an election campaign undertaking in May 2022 that Labor would consider a new national COVID strategy to reduce deaths. We have yet to see an indication of any such consideration.
There are now “uniquely Australian” variants emerging as is inevitable when the disease is left to rampage through populations where governments employ only a single preventative tool and fail to run ongoing public health campaigns to teach their populations how best to protect themselves and others.
In a damning article in The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton reveals that the Albanese Government is entirely unprepared for the probability of highly infectious new variants and is in danger of repeating the errors the Morrison Government made in failing to acquire sufficient appropriate vaccines:
‘The full version of the report, obtained by The Saturday Paper under freedom of information laws, paints a disturbing picture of what could lie ahead as the virus mutates further and existing vaccines become less effective.’
As well, it appears that the Labor Government is perpetuating discredited L-NP strategies of concealment, as it continues to withhold from the public and scientists' research data and modelling that is vital to understanding COVID-19 and forecasting its progression. It was the sharing of this information early in the pandemic that allowed the development of vaccines:
‘It heralded a great era in cooperation, with researchers collaborating across institutions and borders, sharing their results in real-time. That work couldn't have been done if all the research was being locked up by governments. But in Australia, they're doing just that. One of the researchers involved in producing forecasts for government goes as far as to call Australia's approach “damaging to our public discourse”.’
Then there is the matter of antivirals. In Australia, these are available free on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) only to people in specific high-risk categories. However, if you can afford it, you can buy them privately regardless of your health status. Antivirals can inhibit the spread of the virus in the body and lessen symptoms. If it is safe for you to take this medication (and it isn’t for everyone), you ought to be able to access it regardless of your income.
What currently determines accessibility to antivirals in Australia is individual financial circumstances. What would your mother think of that arrangement, Mr Albanese?
What all this amounts to is a deeply upsetting failure by Federal Labor and state and territory governments to adequately manage the ongoing pandemic. Any government’s priority is to protect its citizens. None of our governments is fulfilling this duty of care.
Many of us expected Albanese to take the lead on the appropriate management of COVID-19. In opposition, Labor gave us plenty of reason to hope for this outcome, with its strong and consistent criticism of the Morrison Government’s failures.
The pandemic is not over. We have no clear idea of how bad it will get, or how extensive the long-term implications of this virus will be. That the Albanese Government has chosen to continue Morrison’s narrative of cabinet secrecy, denial and dismissal is devastating for those Australians who voted for the honesty and transparency Albanese promised as part of his election campaign.
Devastating as well for those who lose the ones they love to a disease that can be effectively mitigated, if only there was the political will.
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