The Coalition Attacks the Public Health by Cover of COVID Authoritarianism

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Coalition and COVID

When the NSW premier wants to remove COVID measures designed to preserve the public health, such as masks requirements, it’s all about “personal responsibility”.

But, when it comes to reporting results from non-existent rapid antigen tests, suddenly Dominic Perrottet doesn’t trust the constituency.

With the switch to RA testing from PCR, the NSW government, as others have, decided to require the public to alert the authorities if they received a positive rapid antigen test result via a basic online procedure, just like many others we’re all a party to in the digital age.

This would appear to be a simple and straightforward process, however Personal Responsibility Domicron detected an issue.

“Obviously, the government can’t trust the public to act responsibly, so how are we going to make sure people follow this rule?” the unelected Liberal Nationals premier presumably pondered.

“Eureka! I’ve got it. I will impose a draconian fine, which will also serve to anger the public to the point of despising another health measure.”

The government admits there’s no clear way of enforcing this faux fine. The idea that the majority will report results has been evidenced by lockdown compliance. And the guarantee that the fine will rile many, has been ensured by the heavy-handed policing of pandemic measures.

So, while Dom’s absurdist imposition of a draconian $1,000 fine seems to serve no on-the-ground purpose, it does heighten public outcry over health measures and, in turn, serves to tarnish ideas around public health and a community approach to it, in accordance with Mr Perrottet’s ideology.

Policing the public health away

Prior to Perrottet taking the reins, the Berejiklian government, and all others nationwide, turned to law enforcement to impose health measures in such a manner that it set up a false dichotomy, whereby preserving the public health was something the people were opposed to.

Right from the get-go, Gladys placed NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller in charge of the pandemic response, despite it being about the public health which the people have a vested interest in preserving, rather than needing the threat of brute force to spike their concern.

As Delta hit mid-2021, a second lockdown was imposed – as the PM hadn’t considered vaccine rollout a race – and by September, Fuller declared he was “treating the virus itself like a criminal”, officers were excused for overpolicing it, the army was deployed, and half the city was under curfew.

Of course, it wasn’t just the Liberal Nationals who saw authoritarian means as a way to “protect the public health”. Under the state Labor government, Victoria police raided homes, attacked people in the street, and pulled out its military-like arsenal, which it had been stockpiling since 2016.

By the time thousands got out on the streets to protest measures to preserve the public health, basic steps like distancing and masks were being questioned, and, while conspiracies are known to have led to their opposition, much of the resentment had been fuelled by their severe enforcement.

A matter of priorities

The Liberal Nationals ideology is one that posits the free market will cater for all public needs, while a small government should legislate to keep it afloat, hence ongoing attacks on transport, welfare, universities, public schools, and indeed, the public health system.

According to US political commentator Noam Chomsky, reduced government means reduced democracy, as there is less participation in a dwindling public sphere, while, in today’s world, this then equates to more freedoms and liberties for the largest private players: corporations.

A key example of how the Coalition is prioritising corporate gain over public health is Morrison’s refusal to make RA tests free. Instead, the PM invoked his “dole bludger” trope for the entire public, stating we are in a stage of the pandemic “where we just can’t go round and make everything free”.

However, a week later, defence minister Peter Dutton was able to pull enough out of the public purse to announce a $3.5 billion investment in over 120 tanks and other military vehicles, as he keeps his eye on the war on China prize, which is good for business and bad for the public health.

Admittedly, unlike his boss, who handed out JobKeeper to corporations, churches and golf courses to bolster profits during the pandemic, Perrottet has ordered 100 million RATs to help the state in dealing with Omicron after blindly letting it rip without any health measures in place.

A long-term erosion

On 1 July last year, by cover of COVID, Morrison slashed government subsidies applying to surgeries under the Medicare Benefits Schedule. This marked the biggest cut in the history of the scheme, of which the public pays a tax levy to fund.

The then PM announced a massive investment in nuclear-powered submarines, as part of AUKUS in September, yet he then rejected calls from the states and territories for more federal funding to be channelled into public hospitals despite a post-lockdown COVID surge expected.

But Morrison, as treasurer, was arguing for the opening up of the public health system to private interests and deregulation back in 2015. Based on the then just released Harper review, his position was opening up the public health system to competition, as it would improve the lot of patients.

The United States is notorious for its lack of public health provisions. Filmmaker Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko reveals the deplorable nature of its system, which sees sick patients without medical insurance turned away from hospitals, while others are ejected early from facilities.

“A conservative spring”

It’s against this backdrop that Trump-inspired Perrottet has imposed the failure to report rapid antigen test result fine. A sanction that serves no real purpose, except to inspire further community outrage towards public health measures, similar to the recent rage aimed at other such provisions.

As Centre for Future Work director Jim Stanford pointed out in the Conversation this week, the downturn sparked by letting it rip is “one of the worst public policy failures” in the nation’s history, as the Coalition forgot that the key factor for a healthy economy is healthy human beings.

The economic decline has been caused by sick staff, as well as people exercising their “personal responsibility” and staying at home.

But, when people decided to take their own initiative to protect themselves against the virus and not leave home, Perrottet then encouraged the public to “get out and about and enjoy the best that our state has to offer”, just prior to a further explosion in Omicron cases.

Corporations and neoliberal politicians have no personal interest in ensuring the public health, unless the user can afford to pay.

Yet, as COVID has succinctly displayed – regardless of wealth – viruses join us together as one, indiscriminately spreading between all.

The community pooling together resources to preserve the public health encourages wellbeing for every single citizen and resident, while enforcing it via threat of violence, destroys it.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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