Friday Politics: Who’s to blame for the rising Covid death toll?

Even before taking over as NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet was outspoken about his perception that NSW needed to “reopen”. Picture: Sylvia Liber

On Thursday, Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly insisted we were “past the peak” of Omicron. That was the same day 85 people died from the disease. Statistically, he appeared to be correct because the next day ‘only’ 84 died, followed by ‘just’ 83 on Saturday.

That’s cold comfort for relatives and friends.

The tragedy of human stories is always buried by numbers but we need to look beyond the numbers. These don’t tell us why things happen. If we want to understand the meaning of the figures being handed out on a daily basis in the press releases we need to ask better questions; ones that aren’t necessarily apparent.

Why, for example, after doing so well for so long did the disease suddenly rip its claws through our defences and why has it run so rampant in the very communities least able to protect themselves, the elderly and disabled.

Today Australia has, per capita, more people dying of the disease than Germany; more than twice as many as Japan and India; and vastly more than Singapore and Taiwan. The latter two countries have excellent medical reporting data (so there’s no doubt about the numbers) and are both open to the world. So how come they’ve been able to withstand the supposedly relentless onslaught from Omicron, the variant that’s getting blamed for the increased mortality rate here?

Australia faced a succession of waves of the virus but – critically and significantly – we have only had two defence strategies: border walls to prevent it arriving and then lockdowns, implemented by the states, once it broke through. These were either targeted (in the case of New South Wales) or widespread closures (think Victoria) but the key point is that they were chosen by the premiers.

Despite all the noise about a ‘national cabinet’ and all the live crosses to the Prime Minister’s courtyard, the reality we in the media were missing was that Scott Morrison was backsliding out of a decisive role defending the country from the virus, despite all the huffing and puffing.

This irrelevance became evident just three days after Dominic Perrottet took office as NSW Premier on the October 5 last year.

He’d earlier, and very publicly, crossed swords with the state’s Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant. He’d vocally opposed her imposition of a sudden, pre-Christmas closure of Sydney’s northern beaches, extraordinarily warning she should “take a pay cut” for “needless lockdowns”.

Gladys Berejiklian ignored him. She continued selectively imposing quarantines until she resigned when ICAC announced it was investigating her conduct for a potential breach of public trust in relation to her one-time lover, former Wagga MP Darryl Maguire. Bypassing health advice that had kept the state protected, Perrottet opened doors. Hundred-dollar lunch vouchers were offered to workers to get them into the city and the new Premier rapidly charted a new road-map to accelerate out of lockdown. The results were predictable.

Over November and December nothing much happened. Breakouts take time to prepare. Dan Andrews broke and decided to match NSW. The virus continued mutating and began feeling its way through the community. Then January arrived and with it the explosion. Since then the death rate has soared, making a mockery of any previous ideas of Australian exceptionalism.

We will never again possess one of the lowest death rates to COVID in the world.

And Perrottet? He’s still at it. Over the weekend he was still insisting “we need kids back in the classroom. We can’t go back to what has occurred the last 24 months.” He’s right, of course, because we will never again possess one of the lowest death rates to COVID in the world.

The fact the medical system hasn’t collapsed isn’t due to some brilliant forethought by the government and everything to do with the fact that although Omicron’s more contagious it also appears to be (slightly) less virulent and a greater number of people have received vaccinations.

Now a taskforce is going to be formed to “examine” deaths in aged care. Really? Now? I would have thought the federal Health Department would have been all over this issue, just as one might have expected some earlier announcements of support for aged care workers and, dare one suggest, the disability sector.

It’s these front-line workers who have borne the brunt of what have been, effectively, continuous lockdowns for months. Perrottet’s seemingly labouring under the assumption that people living in group homes or institutions don’t feel the restrictions and claustrophobia as the walls close in around them in the same way that ‘workers’ do. The federal government, meanwhile, seems to have an even more casual approach to providing relief for the sector. Workers providing support in government subsidised home care and residential aged care will receive two payments of up to a meagre $400 each.

These workers are amongst the lowest paid in the community, so such payments would be welcome. At this very moment, however, their union is asking for pay rises that would see award rates boosted by 25 percent. This sounds like a huge amount and yet, even given in full, this would still leave workers receiving just between $52,000 and $63,000 a year.

The chaos enveloping the aged care and disability sectors doesn’t require a taskforce – it needs action. A Minister who finds himself off at the cricket at a moment of crisis like this isn’t ever likely to be capable of bringing the energy to the task of implementing necessary changes. The news that 20,000 people in the aged-care system are still completely unvaccinated demonstrates how vulnerable the sector is to a new wave.

We don’t need a taskforce to understand what went wrong with the health rollout. Restrictions were dropped way before the country was double vaccinated. Pfizer boosters were initially restricted. There weren’t nearly enough rapid antigen tests and these were being required unnecessarily. It doesn’t require a huge investigation to find the culprits.

  • Nicholas Stuart

    This piece first appeared in the Canberra Times, where Nicholas Stuart is a regular columnist. He is also editor of ability.news

Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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