Action Beyond Crisis: Six Demands for a Better Society
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a prevalent danger to humanity. The pandemic has disrupted health, households, lives and livelihoods, with those already experiencing disadvantage disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the aged, migrants and refugees, people experiencing homelessness, women, and workers’ in casual and insecure employment. COVID-19 has irreversibly changed the dynamic of our daily interactions and disrupted supply chains and business around the globe, calling into question the ability of capitalism to meet needs for goods and services. There is no return to how things were.
The Australian government has scrambled to manage the overwhelming need to protect health and longer term labour supply in the pandemic. When business as usual could result in even more illness, deaths and civil unrest, leading to even longer term disruption to business, the government priority has been business rescue and preservation as best it can, to ensure conditions for future profitability. But to do so, it has had to shift to measures that Ministers had previously called ‘communist’, and that social democrats call Keynesian. Free child-care, guaranteed incomes for a majority of people, and nationalisation of the hospital system. Scott Morrison justified this as “no longer about entitlement, it is about need.” This has exposed the many levers and powers that the government can exercise in order to address a crisis; it must now exercise these levers and powers with the clear mandate of creating a more caring, equitable and ecologically sustainable society.
The Prime Minister also said “There are no more unions or bosses now, there are just Australians.” We can’t afford to be taken in by this claim of class peace, not only because there are rights and needs to defend now, from employers, landlords, banks and governments, but because any gains made in terms of social services or welfare for the most vulnerable are not part of any long-term egalitarian vision; rather the government intends not only to roll back these benefits once the crisis subsides, but to introduce a new austerity to make us repay.
A Response Based on Human Needs, not Profits
To prevent infections and deaths, we can only rely on the collective and considered advice of health experts, free from pressure to approve unsafe measures, such as premature returning to work, study, gatherings and travel. Our action on COVID-19 must be to forge sustainable pathways for workers and communities to self-organise and assert collective rights to support communities long-term.
If we begin from the basis of need, without profitability, action against COVID-19 could present better opportunities for people and the planet, long term, beyond the pandemic. Unions, workers, communities and social movements are at their best when they organise around standing up for what people need, without being hostage to the demands of businesses.
Employers, finance and investors control most of the material resources and wealth that are best used to get us all through the pandemic with minimal suffering. Governments limit their call on private wealth (particularly on savings held by banks) and allocate just enough spending to maintain the population’s consent and welfare, while using legal force to control us, particularly to limit the right to organise, and expand the scope for employers to reduce their labour costs. This is an anti-democratic set of relationships. We need public ownership, with democratic management by workers and consumers of the production of major essential goods and services. Cutbacks in civil liberties and union rights are dangerous; we fully support efforts to organise and to assert these rights.
Our Six Demands
1. Protect Homes
For health protection, everyone needs a safe home. We support rent and mortgage strike campaigns demanding governments freeze rents and mortgages and outlaw the accumulation of debts during the freeze. Renters fear eviction for being unable to pay the rent. They not only need an immediate prohibition on evictions, but also a waiver of rents during the crisis, so that they do not have debts to landlords, that lead to evictions when the crisis eases.
Households with mortgages can apply to their banks for a suspension of payments. This suspension should be without accrual of interest. Where banks refuse this, the government should act in the public interest and take such banks into public ownership.
Hotels, empty of tourists, have been requisitioned for quarantine accommodation. Hotels should also be made available to women’s refuges and organisations for the homeless, so that no one has to sleep rough, or stay in danger. Domestic violence services need much more funding. Asylum seekers in detention, and people held in prisons who are not a clear threat to the safety of others, also need safe accommodation. Offshore detention is expensive, punitive and exposes detainees to higher risks of contracting/spreading COVID-19. It should end.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing standards must be improved as a priority. Urgent home repairs and maintenance programs are vital to minimise health risks and must be implemented in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, to enable them to safely “stay on country, care for family”.
2. Secure Livelihoods
Everyone needs a secure livelihood, with the means to meet their needs at a commonly accepted level of decency, and with respect. The government’s measures to support livelihoods in the pandemic may be surprising, but for the unemployed they are long overdue. For both employed and unemployed, there are too many people excluded from access, and too many delays.
The doubling of Newstart for the new JobSeeker benefit to $1100 a fortnight, and the lifting of mutual obligation requirements are welcome but temporary improvements, which need to be extended permanently and to those unfairly excluded particularly to people on Disability Support Pension, Carers Payment, international students and asylum seekers. Expand eligibility for the JobSeeker allowance to all in need of income support and create a Livable Income Guarantee.
Australian Unions advocated for a wage subsidy in the pandemic, and they support the JobKeeper payment of $1500 a fortnight flat rate. There are several problems with JobKeeper, including the exclusion of casuals with less than 12 months employment and visa holders, delays in businesses applying and making payments, employers rorting the system, and new powers to employers to change working conditions. We support unions and workers standing up for inclusion of all workers, for jobs, incomes and conditions.
Utilities at a reasonable level of consumption per household, should be made free, electricity, gas, water and internet. With children studying online and adults working from home, access to reliable internet is essential. Whole communities in NSW and other states and territories are disadvantaged by a lack of physical resources and reliable broadband connectivity.
Government bail-outs to businesses will not necessarily support livelihoods, and in many cases businesses will rationalise after taking a handout, and drive down labour costs. We support public ownership of essential industries, and shortening the standard working week with no loss of pay, to share around the hours of work fairly, as an answer to unemployment.
3. Democracy and Rights not Repression
In this emergency, we have to rely on health experts, epidemiologists and scientists for guidance. The advice on which decisions are made must be public. Advice regarding pandemic risk which has been ignored in the past, must also be made public.
There is a public-health case for restricting movement and assemblies, but there is too much scope for police to harass and punish people on the streets, especially non-white people and others in less well-off suburbs, rather than providing social support to enable people find safe places to isolate. For many communities of colour, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, police overreach is not new. It is imperative that the COVID-19 pandemic is not used to justify this overreach or to extend police powers in the long-term.
Union rights and the right to organise are essential to us being able to assert our needs, and to stop governments, employers, landlords and finance from making us suffer unnecessarily in and beyond this crisis.
The shut-down of state and national parliaments is an unacceptable escape from public scrutiny and transparency. Restrictions on movement and the need for isolation orders should be reviewed every four weeks by parliament. We call for extra-parliamentary oversight by unions, First Nations representatives and health professionals, of limits on free movement and association.
4. Prioritise Public Health
There are signs that transmission is coming under control in Australia, with improved supplies of medical equipment, such as ventilators, sanitisers and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and an expanded testing regime. Prices have been inflated by profiteering. We need public ownership of the production of these supplies. Hospital beds, especially ICU beds have almost doubled by the take-over of private hospitals for the emergency. Private hospitals should remain public, and health facilities for rural and indigenous communities should be expanded.
Aged care facilities have inadequate PPE, and over a third of COVID-19 cases have resulted in deaths, compared to around 1% in the broader population. The aged care system run on subsidies to private operators is neither transparent nor accountable, and should be taken into public operation facilities run democratically by patients and their relatives, in conjunction with staff.
Funding for research around the world into vaccinations against coronaviruses has been cut because of its unprofitability. This is a recurring problem, shown with the research into the two recent coronavirus outbreaks prior to COVD-19 (MERS and SARS). Medical research funding must be expanded so that the impetus behind finding a vaccine is to protect people and their health rather than gain profit.
5. Support COVID-19 Front Line Workers
Healthcare and other frontline workers are incredibly tenacious people. They have every right to feel concerned for their lives in view of deaths among health workers overseas. There are other roles too, that put some people at a higher level of risk. The sectors in which these people work include, but are not limited to: early childhood, aged and disability care, public transport, health care support staff, cleaning, retail, deliveries, food production, schools, social welfare and utilities.
The needs of children and the centrality of their care to all areas of the economy have been highlighted by political leaders’ efforts to keep schools operating despite the health concerns of parents, carers and teachers. Teachers struggle to include all students via distance education. Parents, especially mothers, have struggled with home-schooling. Vulnerable children have been placed at greater risk.
COVID-19 front line workers are a large, diverse and distributed group, often working irregular hours, and hectic schedules. If they have not had their pay cut or reduced hours by their employer, many front line workers currently experience the fatigue of over work. These people are considered "essential services" and put themselves at high risk of infection because of the social nature of their work. Unpaid workers and casual employees are not entitled to sick leave, when they need to stay away from work.
In our time of need, we must engage with COVID-19 frontline workers, listen to them and support their rights to:
publicly expose and refuse to work in unsafe conditions, if management does not provide PPE and other protections,
paid family and medical leave without limits during the pandemic,
full-pay for any workers who lose hours during the pandemic.
6. Show International Solidarity
As the COVID-19 health and economic crises worsen, it is low income countries that will be hit the hardest and infections are already rising rapidly across the Global South. Experts estimate that the COVID-19 crises could push half a billion people around the world into poverty, with women, refugees and migrants, and those in precarious employment amongst those most at risk. Health systems across the Global South are critically underfunded, lack medical equipment and PPE and many cannot pay the escalating prices. Resources are urgently needed to fund testing, tracing and treatment and for social protection measures.
We need global solidarity to beat this pandemic. Wealthy countries must step up by increasing aid and providing debt relief. Targeted support is required for refugees and other at risk populations. International coordination is also vital to ensure that medical equipment and PPE is available to those in need, COVID-19 research and information is transparent and technologies and medication, including vaccines, are distributed based on need not profit. Workers in medical factories, and other factories capable of being repurposed in Australia should be supported to take control of production in order to produce supplies for other countries in need. Where big pharma does not share its intellectual property, it should be requisitioned. (i.e. taken under emergency public ownership and control).
We oppose the nationalism of populist and authoritarian political leaders and commentators, who scape-goat particular nationalities for the pandemic and frame the pandemic in terms of China vs the US. Those governments are not the people, and the people who live under those governments suffer most from the crimes of their own governments.
After the Pandemic
The government emphasises that these are temporary measures, that will have to be paid back for years to come. We don’t accept that they must be paid back by cuts to benefits and public services, or by higher taxes on people on low to medium incomes. The pandemic measures that we need to defend include:
free child care, without an employment test
keep the higher rate of JobSeeker allowance, free from mutual obligation, for all in need of income support, and index it to a realistic cost of living.
public operation of all hospitals and expanded health funding
A Green New Deal type program of sustainable green public sector jobs, with public ownership of finance and major industries, could solve any problems of unemployment post-pandemic, and avoid a post-pandemic resurgence of carbon emissions. This response to the COVID-19 crisis is based on the CJC’s commitments to the principles of democratisation, decommodification and decarbonisation. Our society needs to care for everyone.
A Crisis of Industry and Ecology
COVID-19 is an ecological crisis, spurred on by a stunning neglect of public health care and warnings from health experts. A combination of factory farming and disrupted natural habitats leads to dangerous new epidemics.
Firstly, gigantic agribusiness factory farms and monocultures create potent breeding grounds for virulent diseases (e.g. SARS). Secondly, human expansion into natural habitats drives us into ever closer contact with sick and dying ecosystems. Today these ecosystems lack the biodiversity needed to buffer and contain naturally occuring diseases. Ebola is the deadliest example of how this can play out.
Finally, our eroded public healthcare system is quickly overrun when faced with industrially “produced” epidemics. There are striking similarities between the pandemic and climate change. Capital gambles with nature. The public suffers. Meanwhile, politicians do not address the problems until a crisis places profitability at risk. In current circumstances, this risk is inevitable.
COVID-19 Changes Everything. No "Snap Back"
Public services and social welfare are fundamental societal needs, COVID-19 has made this clearer than ever. Extensions to them aren’t measures that can be rolled out just long enough to keep businesses from collapsing. This pandemic is a colossal tragedy, and it is the symptom of an even bigger ecological crisis. Let’s build a movement to stand up for lasting, radical care for people and the planet. This changes everything.