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Torrid tales of Covid-19

In March this year Australian authorities were ridiculed on world news bulletins for allowing all 2,700 passengers on a coronavirus-infected cruise liner to disembark at Sydney’s Circular Quay and disappear into the crowds. More than 100 had told the ship’s management they were unwell. A total of 914 later tested positive. Twenty-two died.

The vessel, the Ruby Princess, was to become notorious. It was in the top ten ‘nations’ afflicted by Covid-19, at a point in time faring worse than the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany.

The finger was pointed at immigration officials at Border Control for letting infected people slip through their fingers.  Were they not aware of the order of the Commonwealth government that anyone with Covid19 symptoms should quarantine for 14-days, with those living outside New South Wales ordered to check in to a hotel?

Others played the political card. I received an irritable call from a lady who insisted it was all the fault of Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, though she has no control over immigration. Many chose to heap abuse on Carnival, the Florida company that owns Princess as well as P&O, Cunard, and others cruise liners, referring to Carnival’s liners as floating coffins.

It has taken Brett Walker SC just over four months to disprove most of these theories. Hard on the heels of acting for Cardinal George Pell in his successful appeal against his conviction and jail sentence for child abuse, Walker’s forensic examination of the facts surrounding the cruise by Ruby Princess in March led him to conclude it was all a bit of a cock-up. 

He did not use these words, of course. ‘Systemic failure’ would perhaps be a better description. Significantly, he clears the Border Force, politicians, the police, the Ruby Princess captain and crew, of any material blame. Such criticism as there was of the management of Ruby Princess was for not telling all passengers that the Covid19 virus was on board, allowing passengers with symptoms to go ashore and for not having enough swabs for testing.

Approbation is mostly reserved for the NSW Health service, notably for its failure to communicate adequately with the Ruby Princess while it cruised across the Tasman to Auckland and back, and for mixed messaging. Walker states, however, that imperfections in the state’s health work should “not be taken as damning of the individual public servants involved. Everyone makes mistakes, and when we judge one another, we should bear that in mind”.

There was also confusion about who is actually responsible for decisions like whether to allow passengers to disembark. It was by no means straightforward, Walker says, adding the delightful if enigmatic phrase, “The legislative drafting is, unfortunately, touched with the puzzle-making flair that is a part of our national legal genius.”

So where does this leave things?  First, and regardless of the rights and wrongs of the detail of the case of the Ruby Princess, the cruise industry has been dealt a severe blow by the coronavirus. Carnival has been spruiking to the Australian media that it was largely cleared by the Walker investigation, but cruise operators generally, including all those that are frequent visitors to our ports, have much to do to regain the confidence of customers. 

Most domestic and overseas travel agents have offered those who have bookings for the rest of this year to defer them for up to 12 months. But will they want to go at a later date, and will the operator be able to provide the same deal? Carnival, for instance, is being forced to sell or retire some of its largest ships.

Apart from these obvious imponderables, vessels need to be made safe. Whereas the most modern aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 and A380, and Boeing’s Dreamliner have high-tech air conditioning which filter the air and prevent germs cycling through the cabins, air conditioning in most cruise liners falls well below this standard. A huge investment is required to upgrade systems and prevent the virus spreading from cabin to cabin. Imposing adequate social distancing on passengers is an easier option, and most operators have implemented these measures.

Another ongoing blow to the cruise industry serving Australia will be the absence of overseas passengers because of the diminishing air links to our cities, and to New Zealand. For those from Asia, Europe and North America, the most popular way of cruising the South Pacific is to fly in and out of Australasia, and for the foreseeable future this is not going to be possible without going into quarantine, or even at all.

Although the Walker inquiry led to a number of changes in the way both the federal and state governments handle cruise liners, there is still scope for better coordination. Despite being exonerated by Walker, the Border Force must be fully integrated  into arrivals and departures. The health of the nation is a matter of national concern. While the administration of day-to-day health matters correctly belongs to the states, the federal government and the health minister need to apply more energy and purpose to coordination and oversight. In this respect the Morrison government have been found wanting.

Meanwhile in Victoria …

We should all be indebted to a whistle-blower, an anonymous NSW nurse, for tipping off The Guardian about her horrifying discovery when she went interstate to help at a Covid-19-blighted care home in Melbourne. The story is a shocking indictment of the impotence and incompetence of both the Andrews government in Victoria and the federal health shambles. Seriously ill elderly patients at Kalyna Care in the north-west of the city were virtually left to rot.  When the nurse walked in, she found a 96-year-old woman in anguish as ants crawled from a wound on her leg. You can read The Guardian story here.

I will spare you the more gruesome details, but the point is that as the home’s staff, management and board realised that the home was overcome by the virus, they appealed repeatedly to the state and federal governments for help, pleas that were ignored.

Halja Bryndzia, chairman of the board, said that on one day there was just one nurse and a personal care assistant left to look after 68 residents. When the virus first struck, it was immediately reported to Victoria’s health authorities. As more patients became infected, the home pleaded for them to be taken to hospital, but no action was taken. Only when more than 20 staff and 15 residents had tested positive, and more were self-isolating, did the state act.  At this point Morrison said he was “deeply sorry for failures in the aged care system”.   The inevitable official inquiry is now underway.

We know Australia is not alone in having problems with coronavirus in care homes. In Britain the number of deaths in the care sector is largely responsible for the UK having the worst record in Europe. But Australia prides itself on the high standards it sets in public health, and many will feel the time has come for a complete review of its strategy. 

American business pledges jobs for displaced New Yorkers: an idea worth copying

The federal government seems to have run out of ideas for dealing with the economic damage to the economy caused by Covid 19. This is not surprising, and we, the taxpayers, should not expect all the heavy lifting to be carried out by government.

An idea planned for New York is worth trying in Australia. Google, Amazon and several other big companies, including Goldman Sachs, Mastercard and Microsoft, are working together on a joint effort to recruit 100,000 workers from the city’s low income, minority communities by 2030.

So far 27 CEOs have joined the group, saying they intend to work with the mayor and city officials, not-for-profits, education institutions and communities to address racial and economic inequities created by Covid-19.

It’s a bold initiative by business. Although Australian cities have not suffered from the coronavirus to the extent of New York, we do have significant pockets of poverty. It would not hurt a score or more of those corporations who have seen their share prices surge in recent times to allocate a modest percentage of their profits to funding, say, 20,000 new jobs to support well thought out community projects. Time to give something back. 

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