A Quick Glimpse at the Current State of the Pandemic in Oceania

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world, infecting tens of millions, killing over a million so far and leaving many survivors with recurring or permanent health conditions.(1) The region of Oceania has had tens of thousands of virus cases and around a thousand deaths. However, it has been hit even harder in the form of other pandemic related factors, such as border closures, unemployment, and a rise in mental health issues and domestic violence. At the time of writing, the total number of COVID-19 cases across Australia so far stands at 27, 835 and the death toll at 907. At the same time, the death toll in the United States had surpassed 250,000 people as cases continue to rise significantly both there and in other parts of the world such as India, Russia, Mexico, Ukraine, Poland, Brazil, and France.

In Oceania, Papua New Guinea has a population of over 8 million and have only reported 600 cases and 10 deaths. Fiji have had 35 cases in total and on 4 November they reached 200 days of no transmissions. Countries and regions such as Micronesia, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati have not yet been infected with the virus. Other countries such as Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands have only started reporting a few isolated cases recently. Even in these (virtually) uninfected areas, capitalist normality continues in the form of daily wage-labour and otherwise trying to survive. In these countries, tourism accounts for 20-70% of GDP. The pandemic has left many workers without jobs due to the closure of borders.(2) Traditional knowledge has proven to be life-saving in these trying times, working class families have been relying solely on fishing and growing their own food to feed themselves. Medical workers, from New Zealand, are now unable to provide life-changing treatment to workers in Fiji due to border closures.(3)

New Zealand itself has only had just over 2,000 cases, something that has benefitted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.(4) The hype surrounding Ardern’s apparent competence, in comparison to most of the world’s leaders, rests on how she has handled a terrorist attack, natural disaster, and the pandemic. These have been the perfect distractions from her failure to tackle child poverty, homelessness, climate change, and mental health, as promised – despite 3 years in office. Her excuse that she was hampered by being in a coalition will no longer hold as she was re-elected by a landslide in October 2020. Ardern has described child poverty and homelessness as the “blatant failure” of capitalism yet still peddles the idea that reforming it will solve the housing crisis, abolish poverty, halt climate change, and improve mental health. In fact, the global economic capitalist crisis is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. The only real way to solve these problems and prevent this decadent system driving us to extinction is to abolish the entire profits system.

At 12:01am on 19 November, South Australia entered the strictest lockdown that Australia has seen so far. Although only around 20 cases had been confirmed, those in charge claimed that they are acting quickly and have always followed the advice of health professionals, apparently for the sake of the general public. The government called it a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, intended to last for 6 days. A return to panic buying set in again shortly before the lockdown was even announced, with many supermarkets now reintroducing 1 or 2 item limits on many categories (namely, toilet paper and pantry items such as pasta).

Exercise outside the home was completely banned. Housing inspections and auctions, funerals, weddings, and FIFO work were all cancelled entirely. All takeaway food services stopped. All schools were closed to everyone except for the children of essential workers. Universities, gyms, restaurants, cafes, pubs, construction sites, and non-essential factories were also closed.(5) With so many workers sent home, some now have no job to return to while others face increasing uncertainty.

The state had gone seven months with no community transmissions and cases only existing within hotel quarantine. The virus then spread outside of these hotels. At first, the claim was that a new highly infectious super-strain, with a shorter incubation period, had hit the state. Quickly labelled as the Parafield Cluster, clinical work soon discovered that the source of this outbreak traced back to a quarantine medi-hotel named Peppers. A cleaner at the hotel caught the virus from an infected surface. She then unknowingly passed it on to her husband, his elderly parents, and about a dozen family members while hosting a gathering. Members of the infected family then visited various locations across the northern and western suburbs of Adelaide. There were over 40 locations on the list, leaving the state in a frenzy and around 20,000 people being tested over 48 hours. No new cases had been discovered over the night leading into the lockdown, the state total of active cases stood at 35. By the second morning, only one new case had been found.

The virus also spread through a security guard who works at Peppers. Like many trying to survive under capitalism, this worker has more than one job – another being part-time at the Woodville Pizza Bar. Unknowingly unwell, he soon infected a couple of his co-workers. One of them has now been revealed as being a Spanish worker here on a Visa, who also works in the kitchen at the Stamford Plaza medi-hotel, and initially claimed to have been a customer. There have been government claims that the virus spread through contact with pizza boxes and this triggered the lockdown, but health officials have countered that they were advising the lockdown regardless. Although cases keep arising where the source of infection is believed to have been a contaminated surface, the belief now is that there is no super-strain and the lockdown ended at 11:59 pm on 21 November.(6)

Of course, the questions from the media and outrage from South Australian Premier Steven Marshall have revolved around the workers. Why, they ask, was one of these men allowed to work at both the hotel and pizza bar and why the other lied about being a customer at the pizza bar when he actually worked there. People don’t work at more than one job just for the fun of it.(7) But it is easier to blame the individual workers when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 and any other illnesses, and not the system we live under. A system which forces us into working (often in multiple jobs), even if that be while sick, heavily pregnant, or injured.

With over 20,000 cases and 900 dead, Victoria has been the state hardest hit by COVID-19 in Australia. After coming out of 15 weeks of strict lockdowns and having hit a 20 day streak of no new cases or deaths, on 19 November, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews announced a 48 hour hard closure of their borders to South Australia.(8) As of 24 November, Victoria has no active cases of the virus. Mental health professionals have warned that the pandemic has especially taken its toll on young people in Victoria. There has been a sharp rise in the number of teenagers seeking emergency care during the stage 4 restrictions. It is reported that there has been a 72% increase, in comparison to the same time last year, in the amount of serious suicidal-ideation and self-harm cases at emergency departments during the final 6 weeks of the Victorian lockdown. Eating disorder cases have skyrocketed. It is said that calls to lifeline, from people of all ages, have also spiked each time new lockdown restrictions have been announced.(9)

A handful of workers’ strikes have popped up around Australia throughout the pandemic. Although confined to the influence and suffocation of the unions, we believe this is still a positive sign when it comes to workers being willing to struggle, and hopefully breaking outside of the confines of capital. In August, hundreds of Woolworths liquor distribution centre workers walked off the job upon a co-worker testing positive for the virus.(10) Over the past week, in Adelaide, West End Brewery workers voted in favour of taking indefinite industrial action against brewery owner Kirin in the fight for higher redundancy payouts when the brewery closes next year.(11) In Bendigo, dairy workers just won a 6.47% pay rise.(12) Around the country, Qantas workers have recently been protesting against the outsourcing of their jobs.(13) In Sydney, around 350 Coles distribution warehouse workers are currently striking for better pay and conditions. As an apparent means to avoid disruption and know now what they are dealing with, Coles have temporarily closed one of its major warehouses for several months in the lead up to the “festive season”.(14) In Canberra, garbage truck drivers are in the midst of a six-month long pay dispute and have been striking for weeks demanding a 4% pay rise.(15)

The Northern Territory has thankfully seen zero deaths throughout this entire pandemic. The outbreak in Victoria (which spiraled out of control) and the current cluster in Adelaide both were traced back to quarantine hotels. As a result, workers at these hotels in Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia will now have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing or lose their jobs. New South Wales has seen no new cases in over two weeks and there has been talk of restrictions loosening further in time for New Year celebrations. In a bid to “boost the economy”, many people in New South Wales have received $50 worth of restaurant vouchers and $50 worth of entertainment vouchers.

Western Australia boasts of having so few cases of the virus, all the while they put zero effort into getting rough sleeping workers off of the streets and safely into hotels as harder hit states surprisingly did.(16) Many are still living in dangerous tent cities under bridges and in other inadequate dwellings. There are also still tens of thousands of workers and their families around Australia who are living in inadequate living spaces, being told they will be waiting for another 10-50 years before they may receive a somewhat affordable social housing property.

The Australian unemployment rate has now hit 7% and the Federal Government intends to plunge hundreds of thousands more, well below the poverty line when COVID-19 benefits end in the coming months.(17) The gradual scaling back of these benefits has increased financial stress and this is a contributing factor to domestic and family violence rates. These rates were already high in Australia and around the world before the pandemic hit, now they have climbed even higher and worsened conditions for anyone having to spend lockdown with a violent or toxic aggressor.(18) The pandemic has shed light on the extent of workers struggles and the fact that for us there was no recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

If anything is clear to us, it is that capitalism is incapable of truly catering to even our most basic needs. The authorities use working individuals, who are just trying to survive, as a scapegoat, rather than acknowledge the flaws of the system that they directly uphold. If we ever wish to see our mental and physical health reach its full potential, while ensuring that everyone is still guaranteed survival, we need to completely rid ourselves of the current system. We need to bring in a new mode of production – one that is based around human needs rather than the majority of people struggling, exploited and enslaved in order to satiate the few.

Internationalist Communists Oceania

24 November 2020

(1) COVID health issues, sciencedaily.com

(2) Pacific Islands COVID, theconversation.com

(3) Fiji Covid and NZ medical staff, rnz.co.nz

(4) Jacinda Ardern failures, theconversation.com

(5) SA “circuit-breaker” lockdown, covid-19.sa.gov.au

(6) More infection from surfaces, abc.net.au

(7) COVID Pizza Bar Spread, news.com.au

(8) Victoria closes borders to SA, heraldsun.com.au

(9) Youth bear the brunt of lockdown in VIC, theage.com.au

(10) Woolies walk off, theage.com.au

(11) West End Brewery, indaily.com.au

(12) Bendigo Dairy Strike, bendigoadvertiser.com.au

(13) Qantas Workers, australianaviation.com.au

(14) Coles Workers, abc.net.au

(15) Garbage truck drivers, canberratimes.com.au

(16) WA homeless during COVID, abc.net.au

(17) COVID welfare cuts, theguardian.com

(18) COVID DV, thebigsmoke.com.au

Tuesday, November 24, 2020