When the coronavirus pandemic is over, we need to take a serious look at the leaders who made a bad situation worse, writes John Wren.
THE BLACK DEATH plague that swept through Europe in the mid-1300s had a profound long-term effect on the societies it ravaged. It killed 30-60 per cent of the population at the time. Its lethality was obviously much worse the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face, but it must also be pointed out the scientific knowledge and medical care was also near non-existent at the time. But there are similarities that must be recognised.
Prior to the plague, most European societies were feudal in nature. There were a relative few aristocratic landholders (that included the Catholic Church), a very large proportion of indentured serfs who worked the lands in return for food and the right to live in a hovel well out of sight of the “big house”. There was also a very small middle class made of mainly skilled artisans such as blacksmiths and masons. Thus, it had always been. The rich lived in comfort, fed and watered by the toil of their tenants.
The plague was transmitted by fleas carried by rats and first ravaged the lower classes who lived in much more squalid conditions than the wealthy. At first, the landholder class thought they were immune — that it only affected their labour pool. They did not know the disease vector and made little preparation to protect themselves. They largely thought themselves safe (a bit like many of the religious types in our society today who think their faith will protect them from the coronavirus). The marauding rats, of course, eventually made their way into the mansions and the disease wreaked havoc within them as well.
Once the plague had passed, society was forever changed. The fields needed to be ploughed and sowed, the crops harvested as usual, but in most communities, landholders suddenly found themselves without adequate labour to do the work. The workers who survived suddenly realised their labour was valuable — they negotiated better conditions with their existing landlords. Other desperate landlords tried to poach workers and even offered to pay them wages.
Workers suddenly found themselves with a commodity they could sell. The balance of power had shifted. In many cases, the landholders had died and the tenants divided up the land amongst themselves and eventually became self-employed smallholders. Many estates were simply abandoned and returned to nature over time.
Why the history lesson you ask? A month ago, Australia was a free market capitalist economy with an extremist Right-wing government that for the last seven years has degraded many of Australia’s traditional social infrastructure platforms — healthcare, education, the social welfare safety net (Newstart) and the NDIS, even the National Broadband Network was deliberately degraded, in fact, vandalised by the neocon Liberal coalition.
It has sought to undermine every state-owned institution that may give some of that power back to Australian workers. Unions have been attacked relentlessly. We have seen jobs shift from permanent to casual en masse — a shift that gives security to corporates at the expense of workers. Indeed, any suggestion of “socialism” is ridiculed. The Murdoch press, Liberal Party sycophants, especially the Sky News After Dark nutters, go apoplectic at the merest suggestion of socialism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the neoliberal agenda as the lie it always was. The free market, unfettered capitalism has shown itself to be utterly incapable of coping with the scenario. The fundamental reason being that nations are societies, not businesses and one cannot run a society like a business. If it is to be run at a profit, then all members of that society as shareholders must share in the benefits. That’s not how capitalism works — the rewards flow largely to those who risk the capital.
With the failure of the free market, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have been forced to use socialist initiatives to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic and the lockdowns. Massive increases to the social welfare net have suddenly been allocated. This, despite years of pleading for an increase to Newstart by many stakeholders for years. Massive amounts of money are being poured into the public healthcare system to try to prepare it for the coming onslaught (and believe me, it is coming). I expect many private hospitals will be nationalised, at least for the duration of the crisis.
Even so, the money has been misallocated. Morrison, as a devout Pentecostal, sneers at social welfare recipients. His fellow co-religionist Stuart Robert has already been caught completely unaware of the demands suddenly placed on Centrelink — handing out money to unemployed people, largely casual employees that their own neoliberal agenda created in the first place.
Morrison still believes in utterly discredited trickle-down economics. Much of his response has been towards businesses with the expectation that business owners will use the largesse to maintain the employment of their staff. Few will. Demand drives businesses. The money should have been allocated to everyone in a similar manner to the Rudd/Swann GFC response. That money would have been spent in those businesses allowing them to stay afloat. No business owner will employ staff if they have no work to do, at least not in the medium-to-long term.
Much of the corporate money is offered in the form of instant asset depreciation. That still requires businesses to spend the money in the first place and who would invest in new plant and equipment if there is no demand for their products or services anyway?
Even this week, we saw Morrison put together a task force of corporate Liberal crony types (and Greg Combet) to act as advisors on restarting the economy when the pandemic passes. With every catastrophe there are opportunities for profit. Make no mistake, these ghouls Morrison has assembled are not looking out for everyday Australians — they will be seeking ways to profit from the crisis. In past eras, war profiteers were tarred and feathered and driven from their communities.
When the COVID-19 pandemic passes, there will be a strong drive to return to big government. Voters will no longer tolerate an underfunded, under-resourced healthcare system. It could spell the end of the already dysfunctional private healthcare system. Workers caught out by the collapse of the gig economy will demand permanent employment and employers, if they want staff, will need to provide it. The NBN will require massive remedial funding. Its failure as millions are forced to work from home or shelter in place has exposed the frailty of its structure.
Pandemics always lead to societal change. The Spanish flu ultimately led to the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal that ended it. So, too, will the COVID-19 pandemic. When we do emerge from our bunkers, be prepared to fight for change. Morrison and company will not go down without a fight. We will get through the pandemic together, we must also win the recovery.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.