Emergency preparations must not be hostage to austerity measures or failure to observe warnings
Written by: Nick G. on 1 April 2020
By any measure, federal and state governments in Australia have failed to properly prepare for either the massive bushfire catastrophes of 2019-20 or the current Covid-19 pandemic.
In both cases there have been plenty of warnings, ranging from popular media to peer-reviewed academic and scientific papers.
The federal government established a National Medical Stockpile (NMS) about 15 years ago. It is “for use in the national response to a public health emergency which could arise from natural causes or terrorist activities. Items are stockpiled to increase Australia’s level of self-sufficiency during a time of potential high global and domestic demand and service delivery pressures.”
Warehouses are located at various sites around the country, but their location is a state secret “for reasons of national security”.
There is little transparency about the NMS. There are some references to it in the Auditor-General’s reports, but the NMS itself appears not to have to report to Parliament. We do know that in 2014 funding was provided to “improve the cost effectiveness of national stockpiling arrangements”, including “the outsourcing of the day-to-day management of the Stockpile”.
How have the principles of “cost effectiveness” and outsourced management positioned the NMS in relation to the current pandemic?
Shortage of medical supplies
On January 29, the ABC reported that “about $100 million worth of medical supplies — including 20 million masks, antibiotics, vaccines and equipment such as basic hand sanitisers — is sitting on huge pallets wrapped in plastic, ready to be deployed.”
On the basis of those figures, Health Minister Greg Hunt claimed that Australia was “well stocked” and that the priority was “protecting front line clinicians”. However, the same report quoted UNSW global biosecurity professor Raina MacIntyre who said Australia "will see an impact" in supplies of some medical equipment and drugs.
"We have just-in-time economies where we don't have huge stockpiles that'll keep us going for months and months," she said.
Medical staff told to reuse masks
Hunt was wrong and MacIntyre right. On the same day that Hunt spoke, the president of the Royal Australian College of GPs, Harry Nespolon, said GPs urgently needed more protective equipment — including goggles and protective suits.
This was also the same day that AMA WA President Dr Andrew Miller criticised the WA government for not supplying WA GPs with personal protective equipment (PPE). There was no sense of urgency, and instead a “business as usual” approach by chief medical officers.
An Australian Department of Health spokesperson refused to say how many surgical masks were in the government stockpile but did concede that none were manufactured in Australia.
The spokesperson admitted that no PPE was manufactured locally. All suppliers were dependent on overseas manufacturers.
By March 16, Queensland hospitals were running "very low" on personal protective equipment, with doctors and nurses being told to reuse some gear to protect dwindling stocks. By the end of the month, NSW doctors treating suspected coronavirus cases were also claiming they were told to re-use face masks. At the same time, to preserve the state’s supply of personal protective equipment, including surgical masks, the only surgical treatment that can now be performed in South Australia is emergency surgery and procedures that are required to prevent the loss of life, loss of limb or permanent disability.
Government suddenly sees the necessity for local manufacturing
Because the NMS cannot keep up with demand for PPE, and because global demand has meant that overseas manufacturers (the “global supply chain”) are proving unreliable, the same Liberal and Labor parties that have presided over the neo-liberal destruction of Australian manufacturing have now had to send out emergency appeals for what remains of our manufacturing sector to “tool up” and start producing face masks, ventilators and surgical gowns.
In its desperation to make up the shortfall in masks, the federal government assigned Australian soldiers to help boost production at Med-Con near Shepparton whose facilities could be used for masks. Med-Con revealed it had been tasked with making 30 million masks by November.
By the end of March, a South Australian company, the Detmold Group, had retooled for mask-making, and was contracted to produce 145 million masks, with 100 million to go to the National Medical Stockpile and 45 million to SA.
Government stops export of medical supplies
On April 1, the government placed a ban on the export from Australia of emergency medical supplies. This follows earlier reports of huge quantities of surgical masks and other PPE being bought locally by Chinese companies and sent to Wuhan.
If Australia has an excess capacity of medical equipment, it has an internationalist duty to make that excess available, whether it is to Wuhan, New York or New Guinea. Clearly, we did not have excess capacity for an anticipated outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic back in early February when privately-owned Chinese residential property developer Risland sent 90 tonnes of PPE to Wuhan. In late February, Chinese global property giant Greenland sent a further 82 tonnes. Both were before the federal government’s Emergency Response Plan for Covid-19, which was released on March 18. However, Greenland Australia is partially owned by the Chinese government and would have needed Treasurer Frydenberg's permission to export the supplies.
Where did Risland and Greenland get these supplies though? They could not have bought masks, gloves and gowns in these quantities from the corner chemist shop. Were supplies made available by the outsourced management of the NMS? It is a question that needs to be answered.
On every level, the imperialist-controlled Australian government has failed the test of responding to the pandemic, just as it failed the test of responding to the bushfire crisis.
Hospitals and the entire health service, including pathologist and allied health workers, have been privatised or otherwise had austerity measures imposed on them. Doctors and nurses are in short supply and working under terrible conditions. From preschools to nursing homes and every age level in between, people are insecure and anxious.
This is just not good enough.
In the short-term we need a completely revamped approach to preparedness for pandemics, floods, bushfires and other consequences of global warming.
There should be a single National Emergency Storage (NESt) facility, completely owned and operated by the government and publicly accountable through an annual report to parliament; its directors should answer questions by committees of the parliament. It should not only have emergency medical supplies to pandemic levels of requirement, but bushfire chemical fire retardants, firefighting PPE, oxygen bottles, flood pumps and other requirements for dealing with unprecedentedly critical natural climate catastrophes.
In the near to mid-term, we must accept the inevitability of a return of epidemics and pandemics. The 21st century opened with the SARS epidemic, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and now Covid-19. We must expect outbreaks, from time to time, of other zoonotic viruses (viruses originating in animals). Global warming will produce more extreme weather events, fires and floods.
In the longer term, we must obviously abandon the social system that neglects the people and allows a handful to get rich from the labour power and intelligence of the vast majority.
Those vultures who sit on the backs of the people, who advocate that even further austerity measures be imposed on the people, are the same ones who suddenly become “socialists” when they need to be saved by the public purse because they are “too big” or “too important” to fail.
Well, if it’s OK for them to be “socialists” in the midst of a crisis, let us move to socialism and avoid crises.
Let’s take back the direction of our economy and revive Australian manufacturing.
We renew our demand: Fight for anti-imperialist independence and socialism!
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