For a while, Australia was the envy of the world. Elsewhere, people were dying of COVID-19 in the millions and hospitals were overrun. Meanwhile, by the end of 2020, Australia had eliminated community transmission of the virus and its people enjoyed relative safety and freedom.
That short-lived freedom was hard-won. Border closures, quarantine, lockdowns, mandated masks, and social-distancing measures worked. This was only possible because of unprecedented expansion of income support, moratoriums on eviction, and improved entitlements for casual workers. The advocacy of unions and civil-society organizations helped win these essential measures.
Although Australian governments did not explicitly make eliminating the virus a goal, elimination was all but achieved. As a result, the period from October 2020 to June 2021 was a short-lived reprieve during which we returned to a semblance of normality. When there were outbreaks, state governments controlled them with snap lockdowns and contact tracing.
At the same time, Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison assured us that it was “not a race” to achieve high levels of vaccination. For a while, quarantine protected us, but the federal government complacently refused to strengthen it. New South Wales (NSW) premier Gladys Berejiklian boasted about her state’s ability to avoid lockdowns through contact tracing.
Then the highly virulent and contagious Delta variant broke through Australia’s protective wall. For the last two months the Delta variant has spread, endangering our safety and exposing the weaknesses in Australia’s pandemic response.
Opening Borders Means Transmission
Commentators from across the political spectrum have advocated for the easing of border restrictions. It’s not just the usual suspects, like the far-right groups that organized a 3,500-strong anti-lockdown protest in Sydney’s central business district in July or conservative media platforms like Sky News. Many center-left academics, public intellectuals, and commentators are also making arguments for opening up borders and limiting lockdowns.
A report produced by the Sydney Policy Lab in May this year heralded the shift. Published before the Delta variant took hold in Australia, the report argued that vaccinations are a sufficient primary strategy for dealing with the virus, and that border restrictions and quarantines run contrary to multiculturalism. Opinion pieces have echoed these arguments, accusing Australia of being a “hermit nation” and suggesting that it’s impossible to eliminate COVID-19.
At the same time, there has been a push to lower our vaccination target to 70 percent of the eligible population or lower. Some have argued that we should reopen borders and end lockdowns when we hit a vaccination rate as low as 20 percent. These arguments mimic the rhetoric of corporate mega-bosses like Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, who believes that we should reopen even though it means that “some people may die.” For neoliberals, the preventable loss of life is a trifle in comparison with the benefits — or rather profits — secured by freedom of movement.
Vaccination Is Not Enough
Any strategy short of elimination will be a disaster for both the health and economic stability of Australians. According to the government’s own modeling, if we open up when 70 percent of those over seventeen (56 percent of the population as a whole) are vaccinated, it will result in two thousand preventable deaths within six months. Recent modeling suggests that if Sydney exits lockdown on August 26 — even with an adult vaccination rate of 70 percent — it will lead to 100,000 cumulative hospitalizations, 10,000 patients in intensive care, and thousands of deaths.
Of course, there will be huge economic costs. Experts estimate that the hospitalizations will cost over half a billion dollars. This threatens to destroy the moderate prosperity that Australia gained as a result of essentially eliminating the virus — in 2020, GDP increased by 1.1 percent. Australia has performed better than countries where less consistent or strict restrictions allowed the virus to spread in the community.
The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 can be transmitted even by people who have been fully vaccinated. Consequently, prematurely ending lockdowns and restrictions on movement guarantees that the virus will rip through unvaccinated populations. This will disproportionately impact working-class, migrant, and non-white communities.
The current NSW outbreak has its epicenter in southwest Sydney where only 15 percent of people over fifteen are fully vaccinated. By comparison, Sydney’s affluent, Liberal-voting North Shore has the highest vaccination rate in the state.
The virus has been brutal for young workers in southwest Sydney. The Delta variant has spread through essential workplaces such as supermarkets, health care centers, and businesses that supply food and essential goods. At one KFC in Punchbowl, the virus infected a dozen employees. Tragically, a 27-year-old forklift driver in southwest Sydney recently died from COVID-19. His wife, who works in aged care, is now also in the hospital.
Ending lockdowns and opening borders will hit workers in multicultural suburbs hardest. It’s utterly disingenuous to argue that we should end restrictions and allow international travel in order to preserve multiculturalism and combat racism.
Others who advocate for opening up cite the mental-health impact of lockdowns. However, this ignores the devastating consequences of the epidemic of long-COVID cases that will accelerate if we open up prematurely. We also haven’t sufficiently studied whether vaccination protects against long COVID or its long-term health impacts.
Anecdotally, it’s clear that long COVID can be a long-term, chronic condition causing significant disability. Like many chronic health conditions, long COVID is harmful to mental health. Some sufferers have been unable to work for over a year after initially contracting COVID-19 and struggle to obtain treatment in the health system.
Disability care is in a woeful state in Australia. While the Morrison government is dismantling the National Disability Insurance Scheme, an ongoing royal commission is revealing horrifying stories of abuse and systemic mismanagement. People with disabilities are more likely to experience poverty and domestic violence than other Australians.
Once again, to argue that we must open up to protect mental health means ignoring the chronic illness and disability caused by long COVID. Clearly, the consequences will be far worse for working-class people.
The Left Must Fight for Elimination
We have eliminated COVID-19 in Australia before, and we can do it again. New Zealand has committed to a long-term elimination strategy, and has so far avoided the ravages of the Delta variant.
Australia’s hotel quarantine scheme is better than nothing, but it’s obviously flawed and has repeatedly allowed the virus to escape into the community. We could easily fix this by constructing government-owned and managed, purpose-built quarantine facilities. This would also allow Australia to increase its intake of migrants, refugees, and international students, and to repatriate Australians who are still stranded abroad.
Even with an excellent quarantine system, border closures and snap closures will still be necessary for elimination. The problems they cause can be ameliorated by redistributive measures. This should include permanent increases to welfare and expanded income support measures.
Giving all workers paid pandemic and vaccine leave would dramatically reduce the spread of the virus in poor communities where workers cannot afford to lose income by taking time off to be tested or vaccinated. These measures would also undermine anti-vaccination sentiment. Additionally, we need to overhaul the vaccine rollout to prioritize all frontline workers. This will halt the spread of the virus in Australia’s developing underclass of young workers in essential jobs who are disproportionately migrants.
The Liberal federal and NSW governments are relying on vaccination to determine where and how they implement lockdowns and border restrictions. It’s clear they don’t care about ordinary people — only businesses and the wealthy. This perspective is also gaining support in the Labor Party.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has spent most of 2021 hammering home his slogan that Morrison’s “job” in 2021 was vaccination. While premier Gladys Berejiklian promises that vaccination rates are the way out of lockdown, newly appointed NSW Labor leader Chris Minns has remained virtually silent.
This ignores the broader failure of Australia’s response and indirectly undermines the argument for elimination. Vaccination isn’t enough to eliminate the virus — and the consequences of not eliminating the virus will be devastating.
It’s true that the Morrison government had bungled the vaccine rollout. It’s easy and politically attractive for centrist ALP politicians to focus their fire on this issue to the exclusion of others. However, this approach ultimately buys into the Liberal narrative.
Labor’s commitment to neoliberalism has stopped it from advocating serious redistributive measures and the reconstruction of our health and social-welfare systems. The Left must put forward a far stronger alternative. We must fight for an elimination strategy.
That does mean lockdowns and border closures. But more importantly, it means fighting to put working-class people first with a broad pandemic management strategy that breaks with the pro-business logic of neoliberalism. To be COVID-free, in addition to vaccines, we need better quarantine, better income support and welfare, and an overhaul of our health system.