The return of Summernats to Canberra reminds us that the Prime Minister promised Australia would be going into 2022 "looking through the front windscreen, not the rear-vision mirror". In reality, the national cabinet seems to be doing the policy equivalent of a burnout (or a doughnut, as I called them growing up), spinning its wheels furiously while ultimately not getting anywhere.
As the Omicron wave acts as a kind of threat multiplier, new problems are emerging almost as fast as new COVID cases, and there seems to be no clear plan for government to solve them. At least, no plan that is clear to the public. It is a political problem for the federal government in an election year but, more importantly, it's damaging public health and the economy.
Cases are going through the roof, and hospitalisations are rising fast. Sick, symptomatic people are being forced to wait in queues for hours for PCR tests, and results take a week to return. Right when Australians need rapid antigen tests the most, they are either impossible to find or prohibitively expensive. Restaurants are closing not because of lockdowns, but because so many staff are either sick with COVID or isolating as close contacts. Supermarket shelves are again emptying, and limits have been imposed on buying certain products like meat. Most alarmingly, there are reports that COVID-positive nurses are being recalled to work in hospitals across NSW as the system buckles under the pressure of the Omicron wave.
Can it be just a month ago that the Prime Minister was urging a new "culture of responsibility", placing the onus on individuals to manage the pandemic? Omicron has exposed this approach as absurdity. These are collective, nationwide problems that can only be solved by government. Unfortunately, as with the aged care outbreaks, vaccine strollout and quarantine failures, the federal government is not doing its job effectively.
The debacle of rapid antigen tests is a perfect example. Just as the Prime Minister and Health Minister failed to pick up the phone to Pfizer to secure vaccines, The Canberra Times reported back in September that "no engagement or correspondence has occurred between either the Department of Health, or the Health Minister's office, and local tech companies already selling testing kits in the US, UK and the European Union". Australians have been left scrambling to find RATs as case numbers soar.
Securing adequate supplies of rapid antigen tests is a matter of government procurement, not individuals in the market economy. The ACCC consumer watchdog is already stepping in to address the market failures of hoarding and price-gouging. The national cabinet's decision not to make the tests free is going to be costly, shifting what should be a public health expense to individuals, but also ensuring that the scarce tests available go to those who can afford to pay, not to those who need them the most. Scott Morrison said he was not willing to undercut business by making the tests free, effectively choosing to undercut public health instead. Lastly, there is currently no nationwide mechanism for reporting or recording positive RAT results, meaning the actual number of positive COVID cases is invisible and variants harder to track. The Prime Minister does not see this as a problem, saying "the most important call to make is to your doctor. Case numbers are less the issue - connecting to care is the issue." But it could have impacts on people's long-term healthcare, as well as totally overwhelming GPs. Will private health insurance cover the medical costs of long-COVID care on the basis of a positive RAT test that was not recorded anywhere?
This incompetence and short-term thinking stretches all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic, when the Prime Minister established a National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to "solve problems". Instead, the handpicked commission recommended massive public subsidies for new methane gas pipelines and a "gas-fired recovery". It almost seems like a joke now. Aside from being a disaster for the climate, Australia Institute research suggests the gas industry has effectively made no contribution to the economic recovery. Yet in the course of just over a week around budget time, the Morrison government spent a staggering $2.9 billion on subsidies to the methane gas (and refinery) industry.
So the Morrison government will provide billions in public money to the gas industry, while penny-pinching on rapid antigen tests, forcing the public to bear the cost. For two years Australia managed the virus more effectively than most countries, with travel restrictions, lockdowns in some states, public health measures like social distancing and masking, and an effective test, trace, isolate and quarantine system. Tens of thousands of citizens were trapped overseas for more than a year. And for what? Before Christmas, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard warned that NSW could reach 25,000 cases a day by the end of January. This was dismissed by many as scaremongering. Turns out he low-balled it, with NSW reaching 35,000 daily cases just five days into the new year. The head of the Doherty Institute, Professor Sharon Lewis, agreed that unless we change our policy settings Australia could be headed towards 200,000 cases a day. Omicron may be less severe in terms of its impacts. But, as Stalin is reputed to have said, quantity has a quality all of its own: with 200,000 new cases a day, even if only a fraction of those require hospitalisation the numbers will quickly overwhelm the health system. They have already overwhelmed our TTIQ system. The very thing we have been trying to avoid for the past two years now suddenly seems to be the national plan.
The Prime Minister was hoping COVID would be in the rear-vision mirror as Australians head to the polls, but that now seems highly unlikely. Instead, as they navigate Omicron on their own, Australians may be wondering if it's time to switch to a driver who knows where they're going.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director of the Australia Institute and a regular columnist. Twitter: @ebony_bennett