Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Trick or treat?
With NSW hospitals under increasing pressure, Berejiklian sticks with “additional freedoms” for the vaccinated

Image of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian addressing the media earlier today. Image via ABC News

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian addressing the media earlier today. Image via ABC News

NSW has recorded another daily record of 919 cases, along with two COVID-related deaths, including a mother aged in her thirties who died at home. The dismal news comes amid fears of vaccination rates still remaining too low to turn the tide. The state’s contact-tracing and testing systems are under considerable strain, as is the healthcare system: one of Sydney’s largest hospitals was forced into emergency operations, while doctors warn of cracks emerging and doubts are raised over the viability of “contingency” ICU staff. (Health Minister Brad Hazzard today insisted NSW’s “world-class” health system was coping, while failing to answer whether it still could cope at the projected caseloads.) Some of those sick with COVID-19 are still failing to call for help, and the NSW press conference today included a lung specialist who urged those struggling to breathe to call an ambulance, clarifying that treatment would be free. There are reports that hundreds of Aboriginal people are now infected, with elders among those hospitalised, while less than one in five aged-care homes are close to vaccinating all staff. Despite all this, Berejiklian remains committed to the long-awaited “freedoms” for the fully vaccinated (unless they live in an LGA of concern), set to be announced tomorrow or Friday, now that the state has hit 6 million doses. It’s still unclear what those freedoms might be, but the frontrunner remains beauty services. Labor and the Coalition continue to bicker over the “national plan” to ease restrictions, with the prime minister accusing premiers that reserve the right to lockdown (something the Doherty Institute modelling allows for) of backing away from the plan. But the most obvious departure from the plan is Berejiklian’s touted easing of restrictions, which goes against the spirit of the current phase – and will likely make things worse for the unvaccinated majority.

Much debate has been focused on the “national plan”, and what premiers will or will not be allowed to do once the nation reaches the fabled 70–80 per cent vaccination targets. (It’s prudent to note that these are, of course, two different numbers, despite their regular amalgamation by leaders and journalists talking about the hastening dawn.) But amid the debate, Scott Morrison has been happy to ignore the fact that it is the NSW government that is deviating from the plan. The current phase, in the PM’s own words, is about suppressing the virus, with the aim of minimising community transmission while the country gets vaccinated. And yet NSW, with just over 32 per cent of its adult population fully vaccinated, and with an outbreak spiralling out of control, is set to ease restrictions for the vaccinated next month, despite the fact those people can still catch and spread the virus. (That’s to say nothing of disturbing US reports of rising breakthrough Delta infections among the fully vaccinated.) In today’s press conference, Berejiklian insisted that the state authorities were “working night and day to put downward pressure on those cases”. But how is it that the NSW government can be easing restrictions when it is still deep in the suppression phase, especially after premiers committed to minimising transmission? It’s obvious that the NSW government can no longer bring cases back to zero, and nor should it be aiming to. But does it now no longer think it should be doing everything it can to keep numbers as manageable as possible?

Berejiklian is no doubt eager to fulfil her promise, after using the 6-million-jab milestone as a motivator for some weeks. But her steadfast commitment to it, which surely no one expected would apply under any circumstances, is dangerous and unfair. Berejiklian insists that her “reward” for the 32.18 per cent is safe, and will be based on health advice. (Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant is said to be being consulted, as always, though she didn’t directly answer when asked in today’s presser whether she was comfortable with easing restrictions, given the case numbers.) But how could this “reward” do anything other than increase the cases circulating in the community during this perilous time? The decision is unfair on those in the local government areas that are expected to be excluded (leaving Sydney more divided than ever). And the likely corresponding rise in cases – just so that a minority can maybe get haircuts that no one will even see – is also unfair on anyone in NSW who has been unable to access a vaccine yet, whether through ineligibility or its unavailability. Desperate parents of extremely vulnerable children, who are meant to be able to access a vaccine at this point, have reported extreme difficulty in booking them in, while other kids say they are scared for themselves and their family members. Obviously, a time will come when Australia will have to shift its mindset, and Berejiklian has repeatedly claimed that she is leading the way there. But is right now really the time to start experimenting?

It’s not just that letting some people move more freely in NSW is unfair and dangerous. It’s also that this risky departure from the national plan is needlessly stupid, and will only increase the number of cases to be managed as Australia enters the contentious next phase, thus increasing the chances of more “vigilant” public health measures being required. The federal and NSW governments are clinging to the updated advice from the Doherty Institute that getting back to 30 daily cases doesn’t matter, that reopening can occur in either the tens or the hundreds of cases (though there’s no mention of thousands). But they seem to be missing the point that the Doherty Institute itself has reiterated in recent days (and which has also been made by others): more stringent measures will be needed if the caseload exceeds the test-trace-isolate-quarantine (TTIQ) capacity – which may well include lockdowns.

As we’ve all learnt (though it took some of us longer than others), the price of locking down late is a longer and more stringent lockdown. The price of easing restrictions early – for a small few, and for little benefit – may be unnecessary lockdowns down the track. Berejiklian wants to offer a treat to the 32.18 per cent of adults in her state who are fully vaccinated. But the trick may just be on all of us.

“It was done on a first-in, first-served basis. What other type of government grant is done on that type of criteria?”

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who chairs the committee investigating the Beetaloo Basin gas-drilling program, suggests there is a “stench” surrounding a $21 million grant to Empire Energy, given its links to the Liberal Party.

“You can either cut the size of the slices of the cake or you can grow the cake. We have to focus on growing that cake.”

With half the country in lockdown, Liberal backbencher Jason Falinski calls for the government to cut spending and overhaul tax policies.

“This is a wake-up call”: The pandemic hits regional Australia
When COVID-19 first hit towns and remote communities across western NSW, only eight per cent of Indigenous people were fully vaccinated. Now, with the virus spreading fast, there are serious concerns for the community. Today, Bhiamie Williamson on the situation on the ground in western NSW.

The fully vaccinated rate for Indigenous people in Western Australia, compared with 27.2% of the state’s overall population. The gap is widening in every state except Victoria, amid reports that hundreds of Aboriginal people have now contracted COVID-19.

“For-profit superannuation funds may be able to escape having to inform members of their historically poor performance after a last-minute change to benchmarks by the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.”

Josh Frydenberg’s last-minute changes to the new superannuation rules, which passed parliament in June, will mean for-profit funds won’t have to disclose poor performance. Industry Super Australia chief executive Bernie Dean says the government is “letting some of the biggest dud funds off the hook”.

The list

“Survival of the Filet-o-Fishest: Emerge from the primordial soup and order some fast food”

A Biography of Daphne, a current group exhibition at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), available during lockdown via a short curator-led video tour, teases one thread from Ovid’s exquisitely complex tapestry, and runs with it: the myth of Daphne and Apollo, in which the nymph Daphne evades Apollo’s pursuit by transforming into a laurel tree. If it sounds like an obscure subject upon which to base an exhibition of contemporary art – especially at this moment, trapped as we are in a seemingly endless present of pandemic and climate emergencies – that’s because it is. Group exhibitions of contemporary art all too often reach for broad-scale relevance, and in doing so fall victim to a frustrating vagueness of intention, but A Biography of Daphne manages to sidestep this pitfall.”

“Morrison’s whole career has been based on the ability to leave jobs unfinished while getting himself promoted out of trouble. Now that he’s in the top job, however, he’s run out of options. There is nowhere to go and the COVID-19 crisis is simply too big to leave unfinished. Worse still, he has built a whole government in his image, which means he has a whole cabinet full of ministers who can’t possibly finish the things they have started before the next election.” 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



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