So, there’s a life-threatening virus spreading throughout the community at a rapid pace, and Scott Morrison is doing the best that he can in implementing COVID-19 precautionary measures. However, it seems that in his haste, the prime minister has misread some of the instructions.
Following a special meeting of the National Cabinet on Sunday evening, the PM announced new emergency restrictions, including the closure of bars, indoor sporting facilities, entertainment venues, and places of worship, while restaurants and cafes are now take away only.
These are all measures that were very publicly recommended by around 2,500 doctors in an open letter addressed to health minister Greg Hunt the weekend prior. Although, the very first recommendation put forth – school closures – was left off Morrison’s list.
Indeed, besides recalcitrant Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, all other state premiers and chief ministers agreed to keep these virus incubators open. And the PM cited concerns over missing an entire year of schooling as the main reason for keeping kids grouped together during a “plague”.
Then to top things off, on Monday, Morrison closed down federal parliament after an economic stimulus package had been rushed through, indicating that what’s good for teachers and school students, certainly isn’t good for the prime minister and his Canberra cronies.
The parliamentary shutdown
This week was to be the last sitting week of federal parliament prior to the May budget, but following yesterday’s meeting of the chambers, federal politicians are no longer set to convene again until 11 August.
And while postponing the federal budget until October due to the uncertainty of the financial system now that tens of thousands of Australians lost their jobs overnight and are lining outside Centrelink offices, abandoning the centre of government in a time of crisis seems rather suspect.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese made clear that he wanted the now cancelled five weeks of sitting to go ahead. He told reporters that it’s important for parliament to function even in a restricted manner, as the running of the nation shouldn’t be left solely to the executive.
And Greens leader Adam Bandt pointed to the unknown impacts that the coronavirus is likely to have over the coming weeks, which could lead the government to have to take as yet unclarified major actions, requiring “capacity to work out whether more changes will need to be made”.
However, while closing down federal parliament, which is comprised of around 220 politicians may be a sound safety measure for the onset COVID, it does seem to confound the assertion that sending millions of kids to school to practice their own social distancing is the safest option.
Lambs to the…
According to UNESCO, over 100 hundred countries have implemented nationwide COVID-related school closures, while most others have got localised closures in place. Looking at the map the agency has provided, it’s noted that Australia stands out in stark contrast to most other nations.
The main reason government has given for leaving schools open is that parents who work in essential services – such as healthcare – need to send their children somewhere. However, critics point out that measures could be set in place for these kids without continuing school for all.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Monday that her state will be keeping schools open. And while she indicated that it’s a “safe” option, she also encouraged parents to keep their children at home. And this puts keeping kids at a safe distance from others down to economic factors.
“Many are not in a position to just keep kids at home,” Working Organising in Resistance in the Pandemic spokesperson Kath Larkin said. “The government must shut down the schools and ensure all parents are given paid time off to care for their children.”
“Alternative special arrangements are needed for the care of the children of health and essential service workers,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. And she added that now governments are partially acknowledging that schools are unsafe, it’s hypocritical to send teachers off to work.
Larkin maintains that what’s behind schools staying open is economics. If all children were sent home then not only would the economy slow, but there would be the question around where parents who were forced to stay home to supervise their kids would source adequate income from.
It was them, not me
The BBC has reported on the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle that occurred in Sydney last Thursday, when close to 2,700 passengers were released back into the community, despite there being a COVID-19 outbreak on the vessel. One hundred and thirty three passengers have since tested positive.
There were obviously sick passengers during the cruise, with 158 cases of illness being logged onboard. However, passengers weren’t made aware of social distancing practices, as they’d departed from Sydney on 8 March.
The company that operates the Ruby, Princess Cruises is the same one that runs the Diamond Princess, which was the vessel quarantined for a month in Japan. On that ship, many passengers had been infected with COVID, and cases multiplied as the passengers waited in isolation.
So, it’s not like the potential of a cruise ship outbreak was unknown. And while Canberra had enacted a ban on ships arriving in Australia, the Ruby and three others were exempt. And following this potentially fatal mistake, the prime minister has placed the blame on state officials.
A taste of things to come
Mr Morrison framed the imposition of stricter COVID measures around the fact that many people were seen to turn up to the beach over the weekend and weren’t displaying any signs of practicing social distancing.
“What happened at Bondi Beach yesterday was not okay, and served as a message to federal and state leaders that too many Australians are not taking these issues seriously enough,” the PM told reporters on Sunday afternoon.
“The measures that we’ll be considering tonight, means that state premiers and chief ministers may have to take far more draconian measures to enforce social distancing, particularly in areas of outbreaks.”
But, while Morrison did announce new measures that evening, there are far more drastic laws on the books that may come into play as things progress. So, this might be a taster of things to come.
Meanwhile, down in Victoria, premier Andrews has established a police taskforce of 500 officers charged with enforcing social distancing rules.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.