A people-led response to COVID-19

A people-led response to COVID-19 

If the Coronavirus has shown us one thing, it’s that we’re all in this together – and we will get through this together.

On March 23, Adam spoke in Parliament about the COVID-19 pandemic and called on the government to ensure that every single one of us has access to adequate care, financial support and the paid time off that we need to get through this – with no one left behind.

You can find out more information about COVID-19 and support that may be available to you here: adambandt.com/coronavirus  

We are living through a critical moment in our country's history and in the history of the world. We are facing an invisible enemy that requires every one of us to change how we live and what we do. It's turning our economy upside down and it threatens to supercharge the enormous structural inequalities and economic problems that we're already living with. It looks like many thousands of people are going to die. Our economy will go into recession and possibly a depression. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to join the unemployment line, and many have already. Our social fabric risks being torn apart.

Now, more than ever, this parliament, all political parties and our country's leaders must remember that the first duty of government—just like a doctor's—is to protect lives. If we're to pull through and protect as many lives as possible, it will be in large part thanks to our public health system; because we listened to experts and scientists; and because we put human life ahead of a budget surplus. But our world-class public health workforce is telling us they may soon be overwhelmed by the coronavirus, and nowhere is this clearer than in the state of our intensive care beds. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has flagged that Australia is facing, possibly, up to 150,000 deaths in the worse-case scenario, and some analysts suggest at present infection rates we may run out of intensive care beds just for the worse cases of coronavirus by early April—and this assumes no other demand from heart attacks or car crashes. If we end up on a trajectory like that of other nations, our intensive care facilities will not be able to cope.

Medical experts have warned that the number of intensive care beds needs to at least double if we're even to have a chance of managing this epidemic, and the Prime Minister must urgently detail a plan to at least double the number of ICUs, if not much more. As we've seen in Italy, access to an ICU will literally determine who lives and who dies. We also want to see an undertaking that beds and medical equipment in the private health system will be made available to everyone as part of the public health system so that the neediest get intensive care hospital beds, not just the wealthiest. We also need to hear more detail of the government's plan to secure the supply of ventilators and other medical equipment that's in short supply. If we're at the back of the global queue for acquiring ventilating medical equipment, then we must start manufacturing them right here ourselves. We need a plan to ensure that we do not let people die from the imminent danger of overloaded hospitals.

At this moment, we need to be able to trust our leaders and our institutions because lives depend on it. We are blessed to still have so many scientists and experts who will speak out fearlessly in the public interest on the basis of facts and evidence, and we are lucky that some leaders will listen to them. But it's at moments like this that we start to see the cost of what happens when politicians erode trust for their own narrow purposes. Every time science is described as a hoax or a minister forges a document or public services are attacked and privatised or a budget surplus is prioritised over looking after each other, we eat away the very foundation of trust that is needed to get through crises like these. As a result, our collective anxiety is turned up. And it's not helped by mixed messaging about whether you can shake hands or go to the football. Although there has been terrible behaviour, like the stockpiling of essentials which leaves too many people behind, people are generally doing their best to work out what they should do, sifting through inconsistent and late messages from political leaders. The Prime Minister has no right to criticise people who are just trying to do their best to decipher inconsistent and unclear messages.

People are often out ahead of the government. People understand we are facing a health crisis the likes of which they've never lived through, so many people are rising to face the crisis upon us. I want to particularly thank our incredible allied health workers for their service at the forefront of this crisis. I want to thank the teachers and childcare workers who are educating our kid. And I want to thank the thousands of supermarket workers who are keeping our shelves stocked and looking out for the most vulnerable. These supermarket workers have faced years of attacks on their rights and now they are at the frontline of the fight providing a truly essential service. I also thank everyday people across the country who are doing their bit to flatten the curve. Many are going above and beyond what the government is asking. On the weekend, I took my daughter to a birthday party online as another family shifted their five-year-old's party to what is going to be, I'm sure, one of the first of many online children's birthday parties. I want to thank the people who are leafletting their neighbours offering support and organising deliveries of care packages. It's truly heartening, and I thank you all. I call on our leaders to match the leadership of everyday Australians and provide more transparent and consistent advice in this time of crisis. Confusion breeds anxiety, but now is the time that we need clarity.

I said at the start our priority here must be to protect life. To protect life, we have to have a clear-eyed look at the multiple threats that we are facing. As we attempt to flatten out the curve of the coronavirus cases, we must remember that there are other exponential curves that threaten to overwhelm us, and the climate emergency is only one of them. We still have to flatten the emissions curve as well as the corona curve. Poverty, inequality and economic depression all kill too. Economic misery is also a destroyer of people's physical and mental health. The destruction of our biosphere is literally wrecking the fabric that underpins our life as a species.

With coronavirus we are all about to go through a kind of hell that we wouldn't wish on anyone, so it's incumbent on us to fight just as hard against any other threat to life that is around the corner and the threats that the coronavirus will multiply. We need government action to tackle this health and economic crisis in a way that will also set us on a path to dealing with these other crises as well. If we don't, we will be back here again and again and lives will be at threat. At this moment, all of us need to be able to look every person in this country in the eye, whoever they are, and say, 'We will not leave you behind.' This has to be a response not just to keep big corporations going but for everyone on a minimum wage or who doesn't have a job; not just for people with top-shelf private health insurance but for everyone in this country. Just last week, my office assisted two or three women who are pregnant, who are going to give birth in the next few months and who do not have homes. Imagine, at the best of times, giving birth while you're homeless, and then imagine doing it as the coronavirus crisis is beating down on us. There are people that we must reach out to and look after. It is the government's responsibility to make sure no-one is left behind.

Government priorities in the years leading up to this moment have been about budget savings from public services instead of advancing the wellbeing of people, but now the government have thrown out the economic rule book to deal with this crisis, and I applaud them for that. What we're finding out is that the things that will get us through this crisis are the very things that for 30 years we've been hearing are impossible—like a strong and expanded public health system, governments acting urgently by relying on scientific advice, and human life and wellbeing put ahead of a budget surplus. It will be public trust in our public institutions that will get us through this. We are all in this together. Everyone, from all walks of life, including the Prime Minister, has been saying this, and it is absolutely right. Let's make sure that our economic system reflects this reality so that we no longer put lives at risk and we don't leave anyone behind again—not people living with disabilities, not people living in housing stress, not First Nations people, no-one.

There is a need to stimulate the economy because we are heading towards, certainly, a recession and, potentially, a depression. The Greens want to do everything we possibly can to make sure that does not happen. It is our job today to pass a package of bills that will not only stimulate our economy but make sure no-one is left behind. This package of bills is a start, but right now I'm extremely concerned that it leaves behind students, people on the disability support pension and carers, who will be unable to access the additional COVID-19 stimulus payment. It is simply callous to exclude from this extra payment students and DSP recipients, many of whom have just lost the casual shifts they were relying on to make ends meet. And there is nothing in this package for people with disabilities who are reliant on a care workforce—which involves a great deal of trust—that needs protection. We have still not suspended the mutual obligation requirements fully and across the board, something that could increase the risk of this virus spreading.

We want to see more support for renters and those experiencing homelessness, with rent holidays and a ban on evictions. And we're concerned that some of the sectors hardest hit in this crisis—in particular, arts and culture, tourism and hospitality—still don't have the necessary package to ensure they can survive the coming months. We're worried that the changes to superannuation won't protect people in retirement and could further entrench the gender pay gap. We won't stand in the way of this package passing, but we're committed to filling in the gaps and making sure no-one is left behind.

We're pleased to see that the government have listened to our concerns, which we've raised directly with them over the past couple of weeks, about the inadequate rate of Newstart and the failure to extend the original stimulus package to the not-for-profit sector. I'm pleased the government have agreed to address both those matters that have been raised by the Greens. Just as they listened to our proposals on Newstart and extending the package to the not-for-profit sector, they should listen to the Greens and other people about the people and sectors that are being left behind by this package. Outside of those health workers dealing directly with COVID-19 infections, one group who are vulnerable right now are the 37 per cent of our workforce who have no paid leave. Casual and gig economy workers have been forgotten. They'll get support only when they sign up with Centrelink. They'll have to wait a long time for that payment, and, when it comes, it won't necessarily cover their losses. It's the same for those workers who were looking forward to gigs at festivals and events over the coming months, only to find themselves cut adrift.

But there is a bigger problem. The lion's share of this stimulus package is going to banks and businesses, and there is no requirement that the money find its way to the workers and people who need it. Taxpayer money should be used to bail out people, not just corporations. Seven hundred and fifteen million dollars has been gifted to the airlines to service their debt, for example; they say thanks and, in the next breath, stand down 20,000 staff. All this money for business needs to come with a guarantee that businesses will keep their staff on board while we are in lockdown. We need wage guarantees and job guarantees to be the strings attached to this. They've managed to do it in the UK. I don't find myself agreeing with Boris Johnson on many matters, but, if Boris Johnson can say, 'We can guarantee 80 per cent of wages to ensure people remain employed,' yet the government can find only 15 to 20 per cent, then I hope they consider scaling up the package over the coming weeks. If we can keep people employed now, that is one less job we are going to have to create when this crisis is over.

This morning the Prime Minister talked about the Great Depression. The original New Deal was a government-led program in the United States that supported people, created jobs where they were needed and encouraged businesses to help the government pull the country out of the crisis of the Great Depression. It was a spectacular success and led us to what is now seen as the golden age of equality with the lowest-ever rates of wealth disparity.

When I first became Leader of the Australian Greens, I talked about how we needed a Green New Deal to solve the three challenges of a jobs crisis, economic inequality and the climate emergency—a program of government action and investment at a time when it has never been cheaper for government to borrow to invest in a clean society and a caring economy. The reality of the coronavirus only reinforces the need for such action. Now we need it more than ever because the kinds of shortages that we are seeing now, the distress people are living through and the threats to life we are witnessing will be exacerbated if we don't get the other crises under control as well.

This time of restriction and anxiety that we are all living through will get worse, unless we fight the climate crises and the inequality crisis as well. I don't want my kids to have to live through this kind of fear and threat to life but, unless we respond to this terrible threat by getting all the terrible threats under control, that is what is going to happen to our children. That is why we need not just a new deal depression-era response as the Prime Minister was indicating but a Green New Deal to tackle the coronavirus crisis right now but also the other crises hammering our life in public health. I suspect this will be only the first of several rounds of economic stimulus that the government brings to parliament for approval.

The Greens call to the government is constructive and simple. You've already listened to us in implementing a couple of measures and now go the next step. Implement a Green New Deal. Help people, not just corporations. Fund public services, create jobs that society needs and that the market hasn't yet provided. Invest in the infrastructure that we need to avoid the rolling series of crises that we are on track for as we tackle the immediate priority of the deadly coronavirus. This is our opportunity to make sure no-one is left behind and that we tackle the immediate threats by creating a society that we can all be proud of.