Across Australia, more than 650 people have died with COVID in the last two weeks. Not one of those deaths occurred in Western Australia. Nearly 5,000 people are currently hospitalised. In Western Australia, the number is zero. The country is averaging around 70,000 new cases per day. In the west, we’ve thus far been lucky to keep it to around a dozen per day.
So when state Premier Mark McGowan announced that the Western Australian border will remain shut to the rest of the country for the time being—at least until more people receive booster shots (and giving children the chance to get fully vaccinated)—there was a collective sigh across the west.
The head of the nurses’ union said that he was inundated with phone calls from grateful nurses in tears. One Indigenous man interviewed on the news said he felt like his community in Broome had received a “stay of execution”. In another vox pop, a young woman with a disability said she felt like she has been given a “chance to live”. Welfare organisations are similarly relieved.
You wouldn’t know it reading most of the papers or listening to the radio, though—particularly in the eastern states.
It was wall-to-wall “this virus must be unleashed across Western Australia as soon as possible”. Not that those words were used. It was all about the horrors of our “ongoing isolation”, our need to “reconnect with the world”. But make no mistake, the content of the attacks on McGowan are little more than demands for Western Australians to get sick and die like everyone else.
It is gobsmacking. The death toll in the eastern states yesterday was more than 90. Can you imagine if these had been drink driving fatalities and the media were all banging on like, “Well it’s ridiculous that Western Australia continues to avoid this, when are they just going to let people get on the beers and drive into crowds. Just let them get on with life. It’s frankly an international embarrassment that people over there aren’t dying in their hundreds.”
In the real world—not the affluent, jet-setting world of the talking heads from the political and media class—working-class sentiment is strongly in favour of McGowan’s border policies. Polls reveal that the more working class the suburb, the more support there is for a hard border.
For a period, the mining capitalists over here were strongly in favour of closed borders as well. Riding high on the Chinese appetite for iron ore, the economy surged and the state recorded a budget surplus of more than $5 billion. But as New South Wales and Victoria succumbed to Delta and the rest of the ruling class across the eastern seaboard adopted a hardline crash or crash through approach, a new consensus developed: health restrictions were an unacceptable hindrance.
Western Australian capital was part of this consensus. Since then, the pressure to open the state has been immense. From late last year, various peak business groups, including WA tourism and the Minerals Council, were pushing hard for it. For months, the media subjected us to the whining of hospitality bosses or farmers who couldn’t get enough cheap labour in the form of backpackers or migrant workers. God forbid that these bosses actually offer decent wages and improved conditions as incentive to get people into work.
The media also ran daily stories of families torn apart. But let’s be clear: the media barons and big business don’t care about working-class people’s wellbeing or happiness. They say we have to learn to live with the virus, but care nothing for the elderly, the immunocompromised, people with disabilities or kids that are too young to get vaccinated. Their only metric is what is best for that creature with the insatiable appetite for exploitation: “the economy.”
As the effects of the Omicron wave started to become clearer in the eastern states, however, opinion over here started to shift. While most working-class people supported the border closure, some had been won to the argument that we would just have to let the virus in—and sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, as the disaster unfolded in New South Wales and Victoria, a majority were increasingly unhappy with the proposed reopening on 5 February.
Polls indicate that more than 70 percent of nurses are against the border reopening. Some mining companies, including Gina Rinehart’s, and some small business representatives, worried about the probable disruption to the economy, also expressed concern. Perhaps the best thing for their bottom line was not, as it turned out, hundreds of thousands of Western Australia workers getting sick and having to isolate.
In this context, McGowan has, for now, flipped the script on the national consensus.
In the press conference announcing that the border reopening will be delayed, he declared that opening the state would be “reckless and dangerous” and that we should not accommodate ourselves to the prospect of people dying when we can prevent it. In doing so, he marked himself out from the Orwellian denial of reality coming from Perrotett and Morrison—and the state Labor leaders as well.
Morrison blasted McGowan for “doing more harm than good”. Flight Centre is talking about resurrecting its legal challenge to the border closure. Stokes media has been dominated by hostile opinion pieces. Fairfax press has featured aggressive diatribes from opinion makers who deride McGowan for his “duplicity”. The ABC has run nonstop interviews with bridesmaids unable to participate in weddings, sports stars who can’t get back to train with their team, representatives of dive schools or hospitality bosses who are upset that holidaymakers can no longer frequent their businesses, or social media influencers who “miss travel”.
There has also been an avalanche of stories about families unable to be reunited. I am one of those people who hasn’t been able to see my father in almost two years. He missed out on seeing my daughter say her first words and take her first steps. It’s painful. But should the pain of missing him override the inevitable pain that hundreds of others will feel when their loved ones are struck down by this virus if we just let it in now, instead of holding out as long as possible—for people to get vaccinated and for scientists to come up with more and better treatments, possibly even a cure?
I prefer this pain to the prospect of a thousands of people getting long COVID. I prefer the missing to seeing my partner, who is a nurse, experience the kind of trauma and exhaustion that nurses in Victorian and New South Wales hospitals are experiencing.
We are facing the most serious health crisis in Australian history. Difficult, awful decisions need to be made. But our personal desires should not trump a sense of social solidarity, of compassion, of care for the vulnerable. I would rather fight to live in a society that isn’t ruled by a eugenicist mentality—where the weak are discarded, are treated as daily death statistics with barely a word of protest. Health measures, even difficult ones, are necessary in such a world.
So McGowan’s stand on the border must be unequivocally defended.
But there are criticisms to make of the premier. The state branch of the Australian Medical Association has rightly pointed out that the last two years of nearly zero covid should have been put to better use. The hospital system is one of the worst in the country, ambulance ramping is at an all-time high and COVID plans are only now being seriously implemented. These things should have been dealt with earlier. For too long, the ALP has run health care like a business rather than a social service: privatisation, outsourcing, funding cuts and “streamlining” have been the order of the day.
The state government is also hinging too much of its strategy on vaccinations. But we know that there is not yet a vaccine that can stop the virus in its tracks—particularly the new Omicron variant. We need a vaccine-plus strategy. We need to be prepared to shut nightclubs, restaurants, gyms, to work from home. We should be increasing welfare payments so that people can take leave from work if they are sick. All buildings should immediately be overhauled and provided with proper ventilation.
PCR testing should be upgraded and expanded; a centre in every suburb, attached to a medical centre would be a good start. Vaccination hubs should be established in every school. Education and training for essential workers should be made free. We should be offering healthcare workers danger pay. The bulk of that massive budget surplus should be used to improve social welfare and health care for everyone.
These sorts of decisions would upend the capitalist consensus which puts profit-making before human life. So while McGowan stands above the parapet at the moment on the question of the border, He can’t continue to use it as an excuse not to do the other things needed to protect the health and safety of people across the state.