The awareness gap between some Australians and others in the current economic and social crisis was never more evident than on ABC television’s The Drum, presented by Ellen Fanning, on Wednesday.
Early in the program, discussion turned on whether, at a time of pandemic, Australian parliaments should be sitting.
Panellist Elaine Pearson was of the view that, in accordance with social-distance requirements, she had no problem with parliament being suspended. Pearson added: “We’re all working from home; we’re all able to find ways in which we can adapt our work.”
Neither Fanning nor panel members intervened in the discussion at this stage. But Pearson’s comment was grossly inaccurate. We are not all working from home. Sure, Pearson is. She is the Australian director of Human Rights Watch and an adjunct lecturer in law at the University of NSW. Oh yes, and Pearson also lives in affluent inner-city Sydney.
It’s easy for well-educated professionals who are computer savvy to work from home. Moreover, because of COVID-19 and all that, it makes sense for them to do so if this is compatible with their work requirements. But many people at home lost their jobs because of the shutdowns that followed the national cabinet’s decisions with respect to quarantine and forced closures of businesses. Some of these individuals are computer literate; others are not.
Then there are the Australian citizens and residents who cannot work from home. Obviously, they include medical and emergency services personnel. But not only them. Pearson overlooked the work of cleaners, retail workers, delivery drivers and many more who can’t work from home.
This oversight has relevance to views about the current requirements, strictly enforced by some state and territory governments, that all Australians stay at home, unless they are shopping for essentials, are in certain areas of employment, are caring for someone else, exercising or seeking medical attention, and a few other matters.
Once again, there is a different burden of sacrifice here. Some Australians live in very comfortable houses or apartments that may include a garden or an outside area within their property.
These individuals are more likely to be able to contact relatives and friends by Skype, Zoom and the like. Their lockdown lives, while constrained, are comfortable enough.
Then there are those among us who live in small homes, sometimes with dependants, including children. This is all the more difficult. Their lives are currently more arduous than those of their wealthier or better-educated or healthier peers. And their plight is intensified when children, some of them with disabilities, cannot go to school.
So far, Australia has handled COVID-19 well when compared with comparable Western nations. This is partly due to good policy outcomes by the Scott Morrison-led Coalition in Canberra.
Australia declared a pandemic two weeks before the World Health Organisation, and the Morrison government closed Australia’s border with China, the centre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, on February 1 against the WHO’s (then) wishes.
Despite the calls (heard most prominently on the ABC) for a total lockdown, the Coalition has kept as much of the Australian economy open as it deems possible. Now the Prime Minister wants schools to return. This makes sense and is in accordance with the advice provided to the national cabinet by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. There is opposition to this proposal, especially from some teachers unions. It is understandable why some teachers do not want to undertake full duties due to health concerns.
However, a similar position would be held by many in the medical, health, retail and emergency service industries who go off to work each day — along with those who remain in non-prohibited employment doing important work and paying their taxes.
Here again the problem of equity prevails. It is the well-off who can afford one or more computers to educate children at home. It is the well-educated who can manage to home-school children and teenagers — and even here this is not an easy task. Moreover, as a general rule, the smaller the home, the more difficult it is to manage the young.
In short, there is a strong equity case, along with a general and mental health need, to lessen the current personal restrictions and open up, gradually, as much of the economy as possible. The fact is, the most dire predictions about the impact of COVID-19 in Australia were not made by infectious disease specialists but by some commentators and journalists. So far, they have proved to be wrong.
The Morrison government has acted as would be expected of the national government at a time of national crisis. This is not understood by some journalists.
On April 5, the ABC’s Insiders host David Speers opened the panel discussion about the Coalition’s response to the economic crisis by stating: “Spending this extraordinary sum of money goes against the conservatives’ political brand … Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg set ideology to one side and put national interest first.”
Speers’s superficial comment exhibits a lack of historical knowledge. Take World War II, for example.
On September 3, 1939, prime minister Robert Menzies, leading a conservative government, declared that Australia was at war with Germany. In the lead-up to, and after the declaration of war, the political conservatives quickly moved the nation to a war economy footing.
There was additional spending on defence, the introduction of strict manpower regulations, a focus on upscaling the munitions industry and a reduction in democratic freedoms. It was much the same in Britain at the time, which was also led by a conservative government. Conservatives act against what Speers calls their “political brand” in response to national emergencies. It’s called democratic politics.
The point is what will happen after this crisis has passed. All the indications are that the likes of Morrison and Frydenberg will attempt to restore the pre-bellum economy as soon as possible. They will do so knowing that the less well-off in Australia are currently suffering the most — not playing with computers at home or watching movies via Foxtel, Netflix or cooking fancy meals, but despairing for their futures.