Monday, August 30, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Magic numbers
Politicians across the country ask that we focus on their preferred figures

Image of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Image via ABC News

As the nation reaches 1000 deaths and endures a record day for cases, an unvaccinated man in Dubbo has become the first Indigenous person to die with COVID-19. The avoidable tragedy is a consequence of unforgivably low vaccination rates among the Indigenous community (NSW government data shows huge gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates in every region of the state), along with the Berejiklian government’s risky strategy that ultimately allowed the outbreak to spread beyond Sydney, even while knowing about these inexcusable figures. In today’s press conference, Premier Gladys Berejiklian continued to boast about the state’s accelerating vaccination rates, despite those rates being appalling among the vulnerable populations that were supposed to be a priority. (The press conference was held before public confirmation that the Dubbo death was an Indigenous man.) Berejiklian asked that people remain focused not on case numbers (a record 1290) but on vaccination and hospitalisation rates. Meanwhile, the number that used to matter most – “unlinked” cases – is no longer being published by state health authorities. In Canberra, the PM is pushing ahead with his optimistic “national plan” rhetoric, insisting people focus not on the lives being lost but on the “30,000” lives that have been saved – a number that at some point during Question Time bizarrely became “millions upon millions”. Scott Morrison is also no doubt hoping that his party colleagues remain focused on Newspoll’s “preferred prime minister” finding, where he has edged further ahead, and not on the “two-party preferred” figure, where the Coalition has fallen to its lowest level this term, trailing Labor 46–54. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, meanwhile, would prefer that we stop focusing so much on the Doherty Institute’s 70 per cent vaccination threshold, and focus instead on 80 per cent as the trigger for major change. “Seventy is not the magic number,” he said today – a clear dig at the NSW premier, who has described it as just that. It certainly won’t be a magic number if it’s not applied across vulnerable cohorts, or if the health system buckles under the pressure before it is even reached.

Berejiklian’s requests for people to focus more on hospitalisation and ICU rates is a strange one, considering that it is, in fact, what many people are alarmed about, amid many reports of a healthcare system already under extreme pressure. As The Saturday Paper reported, national cabinet analysis shows that while states have built up surge capacity for ventilators, they do not have the staff to operate them all. (This comes after last week’s report about ICU bed capacity, with no doubt more to come.) Today’s headlines, meanwhile, have revealed that Sydney ICU nurses are sedating patients more to manage their workload, insiders are raising the alarm over the “ticking time bomb” of outbreaks in mental health wards, and an anonymous western Sydney doctor has “no confidence” that hospitals will cope. Despite all this, Berejiklian this morning warned that October was expected to be the worst month of all for pressure on the hospital system, with ICU admissions not predicted to peak until then. State leaders have continued to insist that the system had the boosted capacity to cope with the surge, with Health Minister Brad Hazzard dismissing suggestions that field hospitals might be required, and ignoring the fact that healthcare personnel are already stretched to their limits. Of course, while a large number of people remain unvaccinated, there is good reason to continue taking note of overall case numbers, which will obviously affect just how bad things get come October – especially in light of today’s tragic reminder of the dangerously low vaccination rates across vulnerable communities.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of hospital capacity featured heavily in federal parliament as well, after Labor leader Anthony Albanese spent the morning on ABC’s RN Breakfast calling for the national plan to be adjusted to allow the system more time to prepare. Shadow health minister Mark Butler used Question Time to remind the government that it once said having no COVID patients in intensive care was a measure of its success, asking how many COVID patients were in there today. Despite his government’s painfully slow efforts, Morrison used the opportunity to boast about the vaccination rate of aged-care residents (and how this was keeping overall figures down), and promised, like his NSW counterparts, that the system was prepared for the inevitable surge to come, with further work having been tasked ahead of the next national cabinet. Also unsurprising was the Opposition’s focus on a Nine weekend report claiming the NSW premier regards Morrison as a “bully” who engages in “evil” behaviour, something Labor MP Stephen Jones suggested didn’t seem to gel with Morrison’s claim that he supported all the premiers in their work. The prime minister insisted the report was untrue, adding that Berejiklian had messaged him to say so: “The New South Wales Premier has made it very clear to me in her message she has never used such words.” That clears that up, then.

Despite growing concerns about the healthcare system’s COVID capacity, Morrison was eager to go on spruiking the national plan in Question Time today, repeating how safe the transition would be. It’s clear that Barr, the chief minister of the territory in which the PM is currently locked down, doesn’t agree – despite ACT residents being the most vaccinated cohort in the nation. Seventy per cent, Barr said, is “not safe”, and he is instead asking that we start focusing on 80 – by which time he hopes the ACT will be at 90 to 95 per cent vaccinated. “Commentary from people that haven’t read the national plan is incredibly unhelpful,” he added. Also unhelpful is having a prime minister deliberately mislead those who haven’t.

“I will strongly consider changing my vote.”

Fifth-generation Queensland grazier Kyle Beale, whose family has long voted for the “bluecoats” (the Coalition), says climate change would likely see him vote Labor for the first time at the next election. A new poll shows the majority of participants in all seats believe further climate action is needed.

“Australians are currently being coerced, manipulated, and/or bullied into taking a preventive medical intervention (the Covid vaccines).”

Craig Kelly, now the leader of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, introduces an anti-vax bill to parliament. Kelly has so far refused to apologise for sending anti-lockdown spam messages to voters.

How Australia is holding back vaccine supply
As wealthy countries such as Australia race to vaccinate their populations, many nations in our region are falling behind due to the high cost of vaccines: a cost set by big pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer. As a result, South-East Asia is now the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The average additional super men retire with, compared with that accrued by women. Older women are among the fastest-growing homeless cohort in Australia.

“This year we have seen a number of examples of misleading and deceptive advertising including from Members of Parliament and political parties without current representation in the Australian Parliament.”

Independent MP Zali Steggall plans to introduce a new private members’ bill aimed at preventing “misleading or deceptive political advertising” ahead of the next election.

The list

“[T]he US ended up taking just about the worst course imaginable, and it is here that some hard lessons for Australia begin to appear. Instead of confronting the rot at the heart of its policy that resulted from Pakistan’s double game, the US opted instead for the pretence that Pakistan could be a good-faith partner in inducting the Taliban into good-faith negotiations over Afghanistan’s future. This ‘peace process’ culminated in the February 29, 2020 signing by the Trump administration and the Taliban of a massively defective agreement that gave the Taliban a place at the high table, a promise of the release by the Afghan government (which was not even a party to the discussions) of up to 5000 Taliban ‘combat and political prisoners’, and a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces. It contained no commitment from the Taliban to a ceasefire, to a democratic system, or to respect any of the rights that had been hard won by vulnerable groups such as Afghan women.”

“In the bittersweet comedy series Hacks (Stan), being funny is everything: a source of pride, a means of support and the first line of defence. What’s in doubt for the two comedians the series charts – veteran stand-up star and Las Vegas fixture Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and upstart young comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) – is whether comedy allows for intimacy. Thrown together by the former’s desire to prove she can keep her casino show fresh and the latter’s desire to get a gig after being run out of Los Angeles, the two women are employer and employee, first and foremost, but what binds them is not merely a budding friendship but rather the ability to recognise and accept what divides them.”

“On Friday, Scott Morrison’s national cabinet met with state and territory leaders to discuss a new paper that details emerging and significant pressure on the country’s healthcare workforce. It is understood the report covers staff surging arrangements, intensive care capacity and the possibility of shifting resources between states.” 

Contributor to The Monthly and author of the memoir Car Crash Lech Blaine is back next month with his Quarterly Essay deep dive into Australia’s “larrikin myth”. Readers of The Monthly Today can pre-order and save.

Pre-order Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power for just $21.99 (save $3). 

Offer valid until 11.59pm on Sunday, September 5. 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



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