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The aged are politically expendable

February 6, 2022

Opinion by Greg Ray

Imagine you were prime minister of Australia or premier of NSW. You had decided, for one reason or another, that you wanted to “let Covid rip” in your communities, presumably believing that the death toll and health consequences of that policy would not be as damaging as the economic cost of lockdowns and safety measures.

I suggest that, equipped with the knowledge you had gained in your own country and overseas, you would have thought carefully about those of your citizens most vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus. I want to believe that you are a kind and thoughtful person, and that you would have made sure – before you “let it rip” – that the elderly were protected as well as they could be.

You would have made sure, for example, that all residents of aged care facilities across the nation and state were fully vaccinated and boosted. You would have made sure that people who worked in these facilities were similarly protected. You would have consulted with the facilities and helped them recruit extra staff, and required that those staff were not to work across multiple facilities. You would have laid in extra stocks of high-quality masks and protective equipment, provided heaps of rapid antigen tests and made provision for extra medical supervision.

Only when you had done all that (and acted with similar care toward other vulnerable sectors) would you have “let it rip”. And I bet you would have done it steadily. I bet you would have kept urging people to distance, to wear masks, to sign in when entering busy places and all the rest of the easy to do stuff.

Let’s face it: any decent leader would have thought about all this stuff.

The fact that our actual leaders do not appear to have done so must tell us something. The fact that Covid has been allowed to rip through aged care facilities the way it has is surely a very important clue to something. Clearly, the leaders cannot say they didn’t know this might happen. Everybody knew it would happen and everybody told them it would happen.

Everybody knew it would happen

Sorry, but my conclusion is that they didn’t care. And I think they still don’t care, except to the extent that it might affect some votes. They don’t care about the elderly, is my firmly held conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a newspaper editor I once knew who told me a story about working on London’s Fleet Street in the heyday of Britain’s schlock tabloids. This editor told me (I don’t know if it’s true) that they had a lawyer and an accountant in every news conference to weigh up the pros and cons of running defamatory stories. If they thought a particularly nasty story might sell well they would ask the accountant for an estimate of extra sales and profit. Then they would ask the lawyer the likely cost of the inevitable out-of-court settlement to the person they were about to defame. If the equation worked in their favour financially they would publish and be damned.

I believe our politicians have done similar calculations in relation to Covid and the elderly. I think they have weighed up the cost of acting decently. Then they might have figured to themselves that some their friends in the aged care industry will do OK financially out of the accelerated throughput of “clients”, and that some younger voters might also do OK by inheriting stuff from the dear departed. So I think that they have concluded the political downside is limited. The voting impact isn’t big enough to matter and maybe a fair few younger folk might even be secretly pleased at the way it pans out. So it isn’t worth spending the money on safeguards.

Surely the prime minister’s latest photo-opportunity in a hair salon fleshes out the picture. He knows there is a crisis in our aged care system. He knew there was a crisis even before Covid, for goodness sake. Now it’s a worse crisis, thanks to “letting it rip”. He wants to be photographed doing something helpful for the community, but he doesn’t go to an aged care home and ask if there is any way he can help. No, he blunders into a hair salon and – creepily in my opinion – shampoos a customer. And seriously, don’t talk to me about the twin $400 bonuses promised for aged care workers. That is such a transparent electoral ploy. I’m sure the money will be welcome, but it’s just a one-off little sweetener that completely fails to address the real issues.

Useless and negligent

Perhaps most telling of all is that the prime minister is apparently fine with having in his cabinet a minister for aged care who is utterly useless and negligent. To quote Michael Bradley on the Crikey website in his article about minister Richard Colbeck:

The Senate later convened a committee to inquire into the government’s handling of COVID. On January 7 this year, it asked Colbeck to attend a hearing on January 14. He wrote back refusing, on the basis that “diverting time and resources” during the Omicron outbreak “would impact the urgent and critical work” of his department.

As it turned out, Colbeck was going to the cricket instead; he attended the Hobart Test as a guest for three days, from January 14 to 16. His position on that choice is that he is also the minister for sport, but that he didn’t put his sport portfolio above his aged care one, and he “wasn’t just at the cricket — I continued to work…”

Let’s face it. If the aged care minister, during both a pandemic and an undeclared election campaign, can’t be bothered doing the job he is sworn to do then you cannot conclude anything other than the government doesn’t care about the elderly. The minister doesn’t care, the prime minister doesn’t care and they are banking on an assumption that most voters don’t care.

People are dying, painfully, isolated from their families. With a bit of thought and planning, it didn’t have to be this way. This is a choice that was made. It’s disgusting.

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