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St Basil’s Covid Catastrophe and Corporatised Religion

Written by: John G. on 20 April 2021


Revelations about huge payments from aged care homes run by the Greek Orthodox Church to the Archdiocese shocked many in the light of how hard Covid hit the residents of the church-run St Basil’s Home for the Aged in the Melbourne suburb of Fawkner.

45 of St Basil’s 150 residents died in the middle of 2020 as the Covid outbreak swept through Melbourne, and another 38 aged care residents at private sector Epping Gardens home also died. These two homes death toll comprised 10% of the Victorian total of 820 deaths in the outbreak. 

Families have been distressed by how the church authorities and the home’s administration failed to act in a decisive way with urgent empathy for the aged, infirm and, in large numbers, ill-fated residents as the disaster overwhelmed them and the staff. The same thing occurred in Sydney aged care homes, the Dorothy Henderson Lodge run by BaptistCare, and Newmarch House run by Anglicare.

The St Basil’s and the other experiences raised questions about how much religious institutions have been drawn into capitalism and are running as businesses. 

The reality of these incidents, and the operations of the care enterprises in which they took place, stand out in contradiction to the conception, promoted by religious leaders, of religions being pastoral and charitable institutions whose leaders are dedicated to lives of service and sacrifice to nurture their congregations and help the poor and needy, sworn to lives of poverty, seem so far from the realities here. 
The ABC programs, 4Corners and Background Briefing, revealed business dealings of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on April 12, including that $22 million was paid in rent and fees by St Basil’s to the Archdiocese over a period of 8 years. A real estate estimate suggested that this was double commercial rates for the premises. In the same period, government provided $73 million in support. 

This largess came from an enterprise, St Basil’s reporting turnover of just $12, 155, 203 in the 2019-20 financial year. Donations and bequests comprised just $131, 781 or 1% of the income of the home. Government provided $11,813,784 or 97% of St Basil’s income in grants and other revenue. The rest was revenue from investments. The financial realities are that St Basil’s is fundamentally (97%) a corporation producing and selling aged care services to government. The residents and their families are the consumers of the services produced, not the purchasers. 

The System of production and sale of Care Services

The system by which the service production is secured is telling.  While it seems to go without saying, care services production at St Basil’s was undertaken by St Basil’s purchasing labour power and setting it to work, that transaction is important to understanding the nature of this Church enterprise. 

Some further detail on this point. St Basil’s workforce at the time that the Covid disaster was raging through the home’s residents in June-July 2020, comprised 2 full-time, 103 part-time, and 3 casual employees as well as 2 volunteers working the equivalent of 64 Full-time employee hours as reported to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission.

This church enterprise purchased the labour power of 108 wage workers for a total cost of $7,882,834 and utilised that wage labour to produce the commodity they sold to the Government, aged care services. St Basil’s operations fitted fully in with capitalist production modes generally. The enterprise is operating as a capitalist in its purchase of labour power and mode of production and sale of care services.   

The governance of St Basil’s as with other Greek Orthodox service agencies or commercial enterprises is in the hands of the Archbishop. He is the sole stakeholder who appoints the board of St Basil’s as is the case with other Church enterprises. This led on to other issues.

The ABC reported the Church had bought Archbishop Makarios a luxuriously appointed $6 million high-rise apartment in Sydney with extensive views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera house as well as broad harbour vistas. The ABC noted that they had multiple reports of another $3 million spent in renovations to upgrade this church provided home of Archbishop Makarios. 

They also noted the Archbishop (above) has multiple ceremonial robes valued at up to $30,000 each with their rich gold embroidery and other adornment.  

A question arises as to whether the governance and system of operations of the Greek Orthodox Church enterprises led to leaders living lives of luxury at the expense of quality and safe service provision in church-run homes?

It is not as though working class families and friends can generally purchase these services from individual carers themselves. Long gone are the days of individuals needing aged care services buying individual carers’ labour other than among the quite wealthy. Some remnants of that individual system remain, but even there the service provision to those other than the very wealthy is now more likely to be purchased through agencies rather than by purchasing an individual service provider’s labour directly. 

Making authorities accountable and steps to never experience this again 

This examination cannot speak for the families who lost loved ones in church-run homes. They are more than capable of doing that themselves as Spiros Vasilakis, whose mother died in the epidemic, continues to illustrate, as the matters are aired publicly. This article cannot provide definitive answers or exposure of church leaders in this matter. It cannot make the relevant authorities accountable. 

What it suggests is there are wider issues of how much religious institutions today have been drawn into capitalist production, and whether those institutions have been drawn into acting as capitalists, driving the tendencies towards compromises on the quality and safety of care service delivery.  

The ABC and the further information above opens the door to revealing something of the corporate side of the Greek Orthodox Church. The wider issue of whether it is an aberration, a bad apple, or the tip of the iceberg of systemic failure goes to the whole system of aged and disability care, church run schools, and social service provision operating in Australia. 

That will be the focus of another article - Corporatised Religion – looking into other religious organisations and their operations. 


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