By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) – As a serious second wave of COVID-19 with higher daily rates of infections than in March has infected Australia, where some five million people in Melbourne are under lockdown, the Premier of the worst affected Victoria State, Daniel Andrews, has blamed the situation on insecure jobs.
Andrews told a daily media briefing on July 22 that a large proportion of people leaving their homes while sick were in insecure work and had been forced to choose between self-isolation or being paid. Out of the 3,810 cases recorded in the state between July 7 and July 21, 3,400 people felt ill but continued to go to work before undergoing testing.
“They’ll look at their bank balance, they’ll look at the fact that if they don’t work the shift, they won’t get paid for the shift, they don’t have sick leave,” he said, adding that “this is a commentary on insecure work. This is a commentary on this as a feature of the Victorian economy and our national economy.”
The state of Victoria recorded 484 COVID-19 cases on July 22, the highest rate of infections anywhere in Australia since the start of the pandemic in February. At the beginning of June, the number of infections in the state was almost nil and the second wave started after security guards at quarantine hotels for overseas returnees contracted the virus and spread it into the community. The Victorian government was forced to request Australian Defence Force assistance after it was revealed that the security guards were untrained part-time workers.
“If we can drive down the number of people who are going to work with symptoms, then we will drive down the number of infections. It is as simple as that. It is one of the biggest contributing factors,” argued Andrews, who revealed that last week 53 percent of people waiting for a coronavirus test result had not self-isolated, with many continuing to go to work or shops.
The Saturday Paper reported this week that the new strain of the virus spreading through Victoria and into neighbouring New South Wales state has come from Europe and America, slipping through the hotel quarantine. According to a researcher at the University of Melbourne, the original line of virus (from China) died down in Australia, only to be replaced by a new strain that became dominant in Europe as the pandemic unfolded and was “likely brought back to Australia by travellers.”
On June 13, Victoria’s Chief Health Offer Brett Sutton had boasted about the state’s low transmission rates that had allowed it to ease some restrictions. But within days a new family cluster of infections was recorded in a Melbourne suburb that was later traced to a security guard at Stanford Plaza – a quarantine hotel – who was tested positive to COVID-19. This infection has also spread to patients and healthcare workers at a community health facility in the city. It is also currently spreading rapidly in care centres for the elderly in both Melbourne and Sydney.
On July 3 more than 300,000 residents across 10 postcodes in Melbourne were put under lockdown. This included 10 tower blocks where new migrants such as from Africa and the Middle East who have come as refugees were living in low-cost government housing. There were complaints by residents of rough lockdown measures imposed by Australian security forces, as well as claims by some media outlets that allowing in migrants with no English language skills is a security threat. According to newspaper reports, some 500 police officers were sent to guard every floor before the lockdown announcement was made.
“Increasingly, the story of coronavirus in Victoria, and across Australia, is one of a cataclysmic global event that has exploited existing failures in policy and governing institutions. It has been a stress test,” wrote Saturday Paper senior reporter Rick Morton. “Weaknesses – in the hospital system, in the use of private contractors to perform crucial work, in aged-care funding and staffing, and in the apparent inability of authorities to speak to migrant communities and the marginalised in ways that engage them – have been exposed.”
The second wave of COVID-19 transmissions has also triggered a debate about the Australian government’s definition of elimination and suppression of the virus. So far, the government has focused on a virus suppression or “flattening of the curve” strategy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that the government’s strategy is “no community transmission” of coronavirus. Premier Andrews told reporters recently that to achieve elimination of the virus it will require more than a six weeks lockdown. “However, as a result of the suppression strategy you can achieve zero cases for a long period of time and have a degree of confidence that you have beaten the thing, then that is a fantastic outcome,” he noted.
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth suggested in a commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month that authorities had dubbed the success achieved in other parts of Australia as “aggressive suppression” not elimination. He described this as a strategy where you reduce the number of infections in Australia to zero and target deliberate public health interventions to prevent re-establishing community transmission.
“We have termed this ‘aggressive suppression’, where we take whatever measures are necessary, including the difficult decisions to reintroduce restrictions and close borders, to shut down community transmission where it occurs,” he explained, adding that “true elimination” was only a realistic strategy if there was a vaccine available, which was not yet the case for COVID-19. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 July 2020]
Photo source: Nature.com. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Gettys
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