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Labor leaves COVID-care up to individuals

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

With COVID-related hospitalisation on the rise, Federal and State Governments have chosen this time to abandon responsibility for public health, instead urging people to take "personal responsibility", writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

ONLY WEEKS into its first term, the Federal Government and Labor State Governments have outsourced public health policy to the abstract concept of "personal responsibility".

According to this concept, we choose, cause or instigate our own actions and therefore are morally accountable for their consequences. It’s a concept usually embraced by conservative and libertarian ideologues.

It’s more than alarming to watch it so enthusiastically adopted by Labor as a justification for abrogating the moral responsibility of governments for the well-being of their populations in the midst of an escalating pandemic that is, clearly, beyond the means of the individual to contain and control.

It would be difficult to find a more morally bankrupt justification for abandoning an entire population to the whims of a virulent infection.

The former L-NP Government led by Scott Morrison first introduced the notion of "personal responsibility" into the pandemic narrative, ironically as a means of undermining the Labor states. The Coalition delegitimised any form of action, including mask-wearing and vaccine mandates, as part of its undermining of state public health measures, especially action by Labor states.

In an inexplicably cowardly about-face, Labor has internalised the L-NP narrative and perpetuated the abandonment of significant public health measures, with Health Minister Mark Butler announcing yesterday that even free access to rapid antigen tests for concession card holders will cease at the end of July.

We now have the bizarre spectacle of Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston calling out Butler. And as much as there is to criticise about Ruston, in this instance, she is justified in saying the Government was flying in the face of advice from best-placed health groups.

Calling on Mark Butler to explain the grounds for this decision, Ruston said:

“Whilst these measures were not intended to be permanent, Mr Butler must outline what expert advice has formed the basis of his decision to end this program.”

Doctors and pharmacists have also condemned Butler’s decision, saying it sends the wrong message to the public about the importance of testing.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posted photos on social media of him receiving his COVID booster, urging the rest of us to hurry up and do the same.

Unfortunately, neither Mr Albanese nor the health care worker administering to him wore masks. It’s almost as if he did it on purpose. If there is no “personal responsibility“ taken by the country’s leader – and not even a public health campaign about the importance of masks – where does that leave us?

A clue to the motivation behind these cavalier Labor attitudes can be found in statements from Victorian Labor Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas. After acting Chief Health Officer Ben Cowie recommended that masks be mandated in certain circumstances, including retail, Thomas consulted with “industry and business leaders” who opposed the proposed mandates.

In her own performance of personal responsibility, Thomas chose to follow their wishes rather than expert recommendations.

Albanese, Butler, Thomas and all other government leaders exercising “personal responsibility” in the decisions they are choosing to make about public health, are personally morally responsible for the consequences of their decisions. Because we choose, cause and instigate our actions, they might also be legally liable.

If you choose to ignore expert advice on health measures when you are responsible for the health of millions of people, you might be held accountable for your choice. If you’re going to make the public personally responsible for its collective health in a pandemic, the public may well find you personally responsible for repercussions.

When both major parties base public health policy on the desires of business, it’s time to look for politicians who give a damn about the rest of us.

The people who will suffer most as a result of this political abdication of responsibility (apart from those who fall ill) are the healthcare workers tasked with dealing with overwhelming numbers of sick and dying people. 

Many healthcare workers have themselves become infected, leaving hospitals, ambulance services and GP practices understaffed — putting enormous strain on those who are still standing. Reinfections may occur as soon as 28 days after recovery, making frontline workers especially susceptible to repeated illness.

From the Federal Government Department of Health and Aged Care website:

We are now beginning to see a new wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants. We expect that this wave will lead to a substantial increase in infections, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths, at a time when our communities and health systems are already under strain. Without increased community and public health actions, this impact may be similar to that experienced during the BA.1 wave in January this year.

This pandemic has clarified for us, as probably nothing else could, just who the major parties work for — even the ones we naively hoped were on our side.

We are in a phase of increasing illness, increasing reinfections, increasing hospitalisations and increasing death. Our Federal and State Governments have chosen this time to abandon all responsibility for public health, instead resorting to the esoteric concept of “personal responsibility” when none of us can personally control this situation.

My mask will protect me and others up to a certain point but if the majority aren’t wearing them, protection is so much more difficult.

We live in a society. Who knew we’d have to tell Labor that?

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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