The COVID crisis should be the catalyst for an intervention
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was doubtless genuine this morning when he described the spate of deaths in Victoria’s aged-care facilities as a “terrible tragedy”, and he was right to express outrage at ghoulish conservative commentary implying that a certain number of deaths among the elderly should be accepted as a trade-off for less cost and inconvenience for the rest of us. “There have been some suggestions,” said Morrison, “that somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to this virus. That is a just hideous thought. An absolutely amoral, hideous thought.” But, if the prime minister is genuine in his concern, there is a lot he can do right now, beyond overseeing a “codified national preparedness plan” or waiting for the final report of the aged-care royal commission. As the Nine newspapers reported, the Greens have called for a $3 billion federal investment in aged care to increase staff ratios so at least one registered nurse is rostered on at all times, in every facility. Greens leader Adam Bandt argues that privatisation in the sector has gone too far – he wants the royal commission expanded to investigate the issue – and says that too many nursing-home operators have been “profiting from the misery” of their residents.
Victoria’s new coronavirus case numbers dropped again overnight to 322, but today marks the deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with 19 deaths – of which 14 were in aged-care facilities. Today’s devastating testimony to the aged-care royal commission by counsel assisting Peter Rozen, QC, reinforces the idea that it is the fundamental business model that is at fault, causing our COVID-19 death rate in aged-care facilities to be among the highest in the world. “It is the system operating as it was designed to operate,” said Rozen in his opening remarks for the three days of hearings. “We should not be surprised at the results.”
The sector’s problems are well known. Inadequate regulation and under-funding (for which Morrison himself is partly responsible) are two prime causes. The PM has announced extra in-home aged-care places, and flagged that further measures will be announced in the October budget, but that is months away. On Friday, national cabinet agreed to develop rapid-response units to prevent further outbreaks similar to Victoria’s, but of course that will not fix the structural problems in the sector. Aged care needs an urgent intervention and COVID-19 should be the catalyst. Morrison is riding high in the polls and could, if he chooses, use this pandemic to make a lasting difference in aged care. Otherwise, bemoaning a terrible tragedy is simply crocodile tears.
Major new investment in aged care is not the only area where the Morrison government could step up. Fresh research from the Grattan Institute shows that a $5 billion increase in federal childcare spending – increasing the subsidy for low-income earners from 85 per cent of costs to 95 per cent – would boost GDP by $11 billion per year, in what chief executive Danielle Wood calls a “win-win”. Given the COVID-19 recession has had a disproportionate impact on women, an increase to the childcare subsidy would remove disincentives to work and, as Wood says, “should be central to the government’s plans for lifting Australia out of recession”. The government’s focus should be on a care-led recovery, instead of a gas-led recovery.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was doubtless genuine this morning when he described the spate of deaths in Victoria’s aged-care facilities as a “terrible tragedy”, and he was right to express outrage at ghoulish conservative commentary implying that a certain number of deaths among the elderly should be accepted as a trade-off for less cost and inconvenience for the rest of us. “There have been some suggestions,” said Morrison, “that somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to this virus. That is a just hideous thought. An absolutely amoral, hideous thought.” But, if the prime minister is genuine in his concern, there is a lot he can do right now, beyond overseeing a “codified...
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