It was a real boiling frog moment – when some public commentary began openly to weigh the value of the lives of the elderly against the economic and social pain of lockdowns. How did we get here? And so quickly?
It turns out we didn’t protect our most vulnerable elderly people very well at all.
Until recently the federal government was displaying “a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris” in how well it had controlled the virus in Australia, according to Peter Rozen QC, counsel assisting the royal commission into aged care. This hubris was unjustified in aged care: Australia now has one of the worst rates of aged care deaths caused by COVID-19 globally.
“Based on the evidence you’ve heard, the sector is not properly prepared now,” Rozen told the royal commission on Thursday, a remarkable statement when you consider we have been fighting COVID for almost six months.
The government rejects the assertion it didn’t have a plan. Rozen’s statement stands in direct contradiction to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s assurance in July that “aged care around the country has been immensely prepared”. At the same press conference, Hunt was explicitly asked: “Do you think loved ones should have confidence that their family members will be safe in these facilities?” “Yes,” came the emphatic answer.
The royal commission has heard otherwise. It has heard that the de-skilling of the aged care labour force was a longstanding problem that bit hard when the pandemic struck. The sector was blind-sided and initially treated the virus like a flu.
COVID-afflicted residents at aged care facilities in NSW were not moved to hospitals, despite medical advice they should be. But aged care facilities were not able to provide hospital-level care. NSW Health wrote to aged care provider Anglicare to seek assurances that it was not using personal protective equipment too widely. It should be kept for use for confirmed and suspected COVID cases only, the authority said.
Loved ones were unable to get information about whether their relatives were dead or alive. Months later, the same problems that had occurred in NSW, happened in Victoria.
Expert witness Professor Joseph Ibrahim said there was a “failure to provide the same health response to residential aged care that was delivered to the rest of Australia”.
On Friday Scott Morrison apologised for the “days the system falls short”. On Monday he had spoken of his outrage at the idea that “somehow our elderly should in some way have been offered up in relation to the virus”. It was an “absolutely amoral, hideous thought”, he said, one he wouldn’t countenance.
Another boiling frog moment – when the Prime Minister feels the need to specifically reject the idea that elderly people are somehow expendable in our disaster response.
Thank the gods for the royal commission, though, because despite Morrison’s moral outrage, there would have been no other mechanism to discover the poor preparedness and conditions of the sector, for which his government has responsibility.
This week we were reminded of the Morrison government’s great pre-pandemic problem with transparency when the Prime Minister dodged questions about why two Border Force officials have refused to appear before the inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle, which led to over 20 deaths.
On March 15, Morrison said cruise ships would be put “directly under the command of the Australian Border Force”. Four days later, the Ruby Princess docked. We now know (because of reporting by the ABC’s Andrew Probyn) that Virgin Australia called the ABF and asked it for a list of the ship’s passengers booked to take a Virgin flight – the airline wanted to avoid spreading COVID throughout the country.
The ABF refused the request, citing privacy concerns. On Friday Morrison defended the decision on privacy grounds – which seems odd, given how many other civil liberties the government has abandoned in the course of the COVID response, most notably our freedom of movement.
The report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess released on Friday said the ABF “do not bear any responsibility for the Ruby Princess mishap”.
It is a peculiar irony of the pandemic that just as public trust in government reached all-time lows, we have been forced to depend upon it more heavily than ever before. Ditto, our politicians.
We are heavily reliant on the government for our livelihoods – about 3.5 million of us are depending on it to prop up our jobs through JobKeeper, and another 1.6 million of us are claiming JobSeeker. The tourism industry depends utterly on the decisions of a handful of state premiers, some of whom will soon face elections. But we are also reliant on the government in so many other ways now, besides the financial.
We need the information it provides, in order to protect our health and plan our lives. We need government to give us clear messages on everything from mask-wearing to whether or not it is safe to send our kids to school.
This state of hyper-dependency is unavoidable, but it is nonetheless worrying, and if it carries on, it could have insidious consequences for democratic accountability.
The federal government is asking a lot of its citizens right now – in many instances, it asks nothing short of obedience. The least it can give us in return is radical transparency when it comes to its decision-making and its mistakes.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards