The calm and cheerful disembodied voice of the Spirit of Tasmania woke me up at 4.45am on Thursday morning. She apologised for not being able to provide the usual breakfast service on the overnight ferry from Devonport to Port Melbourne.
"Like the rest of Australia, our outlets are closed."
She is not wrong. Our politicians, in their unseemly haste to reopen the economy, completely forgot to think clearly about the link between human health and business health. Businesses can't operate without people to work in them. Businesses can't make profit without people to buy from them. It was only five minutes ago that Qantas CEO fly fighter Alan Joyce urged Scott Morrison to open the borders, urged premiers to open the borders, and begged politicians to make it possible for Australians to travel willy-nilly. Now the willy-willy of Omicron has hit hard, and Qantas and Virgin have had to slash flights because there is no demand. You can't fly planes when the pilots and cabin crew have COVID, and when the passengers either have COVID or are frightened of getting it.
I asked RMIT's Leonora Risse, the chair of the Women in Economics Network in Australia, whether the health of a country's inhabitants and the health of that country's economy are linked.
"People are the heartbeat of the economy. There is no trade-off," she said.
She is 100 per cent right on this. The Spirit of Tasmania's voice was not the only one to tell me business was struggling. All throughout that gorgeous tiny island, restaurants and bars are closed because workers were sick. Pretty sure that was the Museum of Old and New Art's owner David Walsh clearing dirty glasses off tables at one of the small concerts in the venue a week ago; and there were plenty of reminders to be kind to MONA bar staff because of shortages. At that haven of delicious dining in Hobart, Templo, the waiter says the menu is different because some products just aren't available. I knew that from a visit to a local supermarket and then a visit to a local pharmacy.
People are missing. Products are missing. There is a shift away from people not being confident enough to spend money, to people not being able to spend money because there is nothing to buy. It's not just the RATs missing from the sinking shop, it's cars, batteries, beetroot (!), my favourite breakfast spread (not telling because people are viciously partisan about their breakfast spreads. Hint, though - it ends in "mite").
As Coles' chief operations officer Matthew Swindells told Seven's Sunrise last week when explaining the need to put buying caps on certain items: "We've done that because the meat supply chain is particularly under pressure, not just within our distribution centres, but within the production facilities where the surge in Omicron has led to really high absenteeism." Woolworths too: director of stores Jeanette Fenske said: "We're seeing upward of 20 per cent absenteeism in our distribution centres and over 10 per cent absenteeism in our stores ... our suppliers are also hugely challenged by the rise in community transmissions."
Absenteeism is an utterly inaccurate choice of word. People are not taking time off for no good reason. They are sick, often infectious, and should not be working. And if someone could give the folks at Teys Australia (meat producers whose main customer is Woolworths) a serious talking to, that would be good, too. Last Sunday, as Omicron spiralled, Teys's general manager of operations at Naracoorte, Sage Murray, wrote to workers to tell them should come to work even if they had tested positive to COVID: "You are required to present for work tomorrow (Monday) as normal unless you are feeling unwell. This applies even if you have tested positive to COVID-19 ... and also if you are currently isolating because you are a close contact."
This is a really good example of what researchers Ariadne Vromen, Rae Cooper, Meraiah Foley, Briony Lipton and Serrin Rutledge-Prior found when investigating the impact COVID had on retail. The focus on supply just looks at "the impact on consumers and so depersonalises actual workers who are at risk of illness and precarity". That's precisely what Teys is doing.
We are talking about a breakdown in the economy when we insist on putting workers at risk to support the supply chain. And we are talking about a breakdown in the economy's capacity to supply the products and the services we are looking for because both government and business decision-making has been woeful. As Risse says, this is not a consumption issue - that happy moment when you buy something for the sheer hell of it. We are missing stuff we need - the best example being the rapid antigen tests, but also other medications and food necessary for our health.
We cut our holiday in the glorious south short because my beloved developed a sore throat. We criss-crossed Victoria looking for RATs. The lovely folks at Euroa Pharmacy said they hadn't had any for a month. We tried a dozen pharmacies and called others. Eventually we drove a couple of hours out of our way to beg for one. Just one.
The federal government has consistently made announcements and then not followed through with supply, says Risse.
"Good economic management is not whether you can balance the budget; good economic management is about managing demand and supply together in a way that looks after the population's wellbeing. That is the essence of good economic management."
Not this endless announcement of improvements in aged care and childcare, of provision of personal protective equipment, of rapid antigen tests, where nothing ever happens. Hell is a place where nothing ever happens and where governments have no plans and no purpose.
As it turns out, you can't have an open economy without open shops. And you can't have open shops unless you have healthy workers to run them, not to mention healthy workers to make the goods and services we all want to buy. The federal government has done an excellent job of failing in its duty to care for Australians while pretending to be good at supporting the economy.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.