COVID-19 triggered multimillion-dollar commitments by state governments to tackle homelessness. Our research for the Australian Homelessness Monitor 2020, released today, reveals at least 33,000 rough sleepers and other homeless people have been booked into hotels and other temporary accommodation during the crisis.
These are commendable actions in a long-neglected policy area, even if largely inspired by public health anxieties rather than concern for the welfare of people without a home.
Still, our research also shows the burst of activity over the past six months builds on several years of stepped-up state government action to tackle street homelessness across Australia.
Three factors seem to have contributed:
around 2016, rising inner-city rough sleeping apparently crossed a threshold of political embarrassment
people experiencing homelessness challenged official complacency with direct action, including protest camps in Sydney’s Martin Place and outside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station during the 2017 Australian Open tennis tournament
a new level of activism, often inspired by developments overseas, led to initiatives such as the Everybody’s Home campaign, the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, the Constellation Project and Adelaide Zero.
In response, several state governments boosted efforts to reduce street homelessness. Measures included expanded outreach services and offers of housing assistance, increased spending on rental subsidies and personal support for former rough sleepers, and leasing of private rental properties as temporary social housing.
Some states even set specific targets to reduce homelessness. New South Wales, for example, pledged to cut rough sleeping on Sydney’s streets by a quarter between 2017 and 2020. Statewide, the aim is to halve street homelessness between 2019 and 2025.
Such targets are a welcome sign of ambition. They could even spur other states and territories to make similar commitments.
As our report explains, though, these aspirations raise tricky issues of definition and measurement. And they focus narrowly on rough sleeping. Though highly visible, it’s just one of the forms of homelessness.
This approach risks airbrushing the wider, and much larger, homelessness problem. Of the 116,000 homeless people counted by the 2016 Census some 8,000 were rough sleepers. Homelessness also includes experiences such as as couch surfing and living in badly overcrowded dwellings and short-term, unsafe accommodation like rooming houses.
Crucially, homelessness cannot be overcome purely through better management and co-ordination of existing services. Nor can it be seriously tackled by state/territory governments without federal support.
The most immediate concern now is an imminent surge in homelessness. This is likely in coming months as a result of JobKeeper payments and JobSeeker Coronavirus Supplements being scaled back and bans on evictions lifted.
These protections staved off a new, recession-induced, homelessness crisis through the winter months. But, since mid-year, rough sleeper numbers have been on the rise once again in cities including Adelaide and Sydney. This is almost certainly a problem deferred, rather than a problem avoided.
We know, for example, that many tenants who lost incomes and sought reduced rent have only been granted deferrals. They are building up big arrears.
For their part, many landlords have lost rental income – by negotiation or otherwise. They represent about one-third of the more than 400,000 mortgage accounts on which banks have agreed to defer payments.
The extent of any surge in homelessness will depend on the public health situation, the timing and vitality of post-pandemic economic recovery, and on how quickly eviction bans and income-support measures are withdrawn. However, if unemployment hits 10% as predicted, homelessness could rise by 21% according to one projection for NSW.
For state governments, housing the mid-2020 rough-sleeper cohort has been enough of a challenge on its own. Even with stepped-up assistance programs, the states lack the capacity to cope with a surge of households newly evicted from private rental housing.
The main problem is a lack of homes at rents that low-income tenants can afford. A large part of the reason is decades of official inaction that effectively halved Australia’s supply of social housing since the 1990s. On top of that, the shortfall of private rental properties affordable for low-income tenants grew by 54% in the decade to 2016, as detailed in our report.
Lessons from Australia’s success in tackling street homelessness during the pandemic must be integrated with ongoing services. We have to reduce reliance on band-aid interventions that are costly and, at best, only lessen the harm. Homelessness is bad for health and for our society at all times, not just during pandemics.
Governments at all levels must recognise that the growing homelessness problem of the past two decades calls for a comprehensive housing policy rethink.
Yes, governments have partnered with community organisations to get people off the streets during the pandemic, which is something to celebrate. But these successes do not resolve the underlying structural problems.
The federal government has a critical role to play in both policy and funding. It must be far more active in owning and tackling the issue. Essential first steps are to permanently boost JobSeeker payments and the rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance. And the government should properly index these payments, as it does the Aged Pension.
Beyond this, the Commonwealth must use its greater budget capacity –
more than the combined resources of the states and territories – to invest in building new social housing at scale. For almost the entire period since 1996 we’ve been building only 2,000-3,000 social housing units per year. Just to keep pace with a growing population, that needs to be 15,000 a year. It’s essential not just as a stimulus for post-pandemic recovery as proposed, but as a routine national program long into the future.
Such action should be part of a comprehensive national housing strategy to design and phase-in the wide-ranging reforms of taxes and regulations needed to rebalance Australia’s housing system and tackle homelessness at its source.
The authors are very grateful to Peter Mares for his input into this article.
Hal Pawson, Professor of Housing Research and Policy, and Associate Director, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW and Cameron Parsell, Associate Professor, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland
Much of the focus of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech was around Labor’s proposal to expand childcare subsidies – a policy with some flaws but which moves in the right direction.
Labor’s plan to modernise the electricity grid by setting up a “Rewiring the Nation Corporation” with A$20 billion in government support was also met with general approval.
What got less attention was the third pillar of Labor’s budget strategy – a big push toward more local manufacturing jobs.
Albanese wasn’t shy about what he meant. He lamented the loss of Australia’s car-making industry:
Australians will never forget that it was this government that drove Holden, Ford and other car makers out of Australia, taking tens of thousands of jobs in auto manufacturing, servicing and the supply chain with them.
He then announced Labor would create a “National Rail Manufacturing Plan” to expand Australia’s boutique train-building industry:
We will provide leadership to the states and work with industry to identify and optimise the opportunities to build trains here in Australia – for freight and for public transport.
The economics of pillars 1 and 2 make sense. Pillar 3 involves trying to turn back the clock on the irrepressible, tectonic forces of globalisation and automation to pretend we should make things here we shouldn’t.
Countries benefit from trade rather than seeking to produce everything they need locally. This is due to the idea of “comparative advantage”, originated by David Ricardo in his 1817 book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.
One country (call it country A) might be more efficient than another (country B) in absolute terms at producing, for example, T-shirts and wine. It is tempting to think, then, that country A should produce both T-shirts and wine.
But what if country B is really inefficient at producing T-shirts but reasonable at producing wine? If country A specialises in producing T-shirts and country B specialises in producing wine, they can trade and both be better off.
Why? Because country A produces T-shirts much more efficiently than country B, and country B is only a little less efficient at producing wine. Overall, both economies get more efficient, raising living standards.
Does Australia have any comparative advantage at producing cars or trains?
With cars the evidence speaks for itself. Local manufacturing only survived for decades because of huge government subsidies. Without them Australian-made cars couldn’t compete.
Only part of that was to do with labour costs – and we should be rightly proud of our comparatively high wages and good working conditions. Germany – home of BMW, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen – also has high wages and conditions.
What about trains? Some trains are made in Australia – by Downer EDI and Canadian multinational Bombardier. That’s good for a few thousand jobs. But the market is domestic, with the customers being state governments who buy with an eye on local jobs.
There’s not a lot to suggest it can become an export industry, competing for example with Japan, which has been making bullet trains since the early 1960s. Or France, whose train builders have sold hydrogen trains to Germany and high-speed freight trains to Italy.
With these competitors having such an edge, and the well-known phenomenon of “learning-by-doing”, are we really going to catch up?
There are many other sectors in which Australian producers are internationally competitive, such as agriculture, services and areas of high-tech manufacturing.
Building on and expanding comparative advantage in these areas makes a lot more sense.
That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how fragile certain parts of our economy are. The same logic of comparative advantage that has done so much to improve living standards has also made us vulnerable in some areas.
Having little or no manufacturing capacity in personal protective equipment or pharmaceuticals like insulin, EpiPens and antibiotics is potentially very dangerous. Importing more than 90% of our pharmaceuticals puts us in a vulnerable position if a state actor that controls important parts of the global supply chain decides to cut supply. This is what economists call the “hold-up problem”.
So it makes sense for Australia to have more presence in strategic manufacturing like pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment, even if producing these goods locally is not as efficient as buying them from overseas.
The pandemic has taught us that we have, as a nation, moved a little too far towards the efficiencies of “just-in-time” supply chains. We need to move back somewhat, but certainly not completely, in the direction of “just-in-case” – to a little less efficiency but a little more insurance.
That should involve a push for strategic manufacturing. We should at all times be looking to build on and expand our comparative advantage.
But trying to go “Back to the Future” and build an Australian De Lorean makes no sense.
All my life I’ve been involved in music and molecular biology. At the crossroads between science and art, I see great scope for insight.
My latest research, published in the journal BMC Bioinformatics, reveals how music can be used to reveal functional properties of the coronavirus genome.
This project followed earlier work I had done generating audio from human DNA sequences; this time, I wanted to apply those techniques to the virus sweeping the world to see what might be revealed. In other words, this was the difficult second album!
Genes of the coronavirus are like biological book chapters; they hold all the words that describe the virus and how it might function. These “words” are made from strings of chemical letters scientists refer to as G, A, U and C.
This viral “book” is over 30,000 characters long. Some of these characters come together to form what scientists call a codon, which is a sequence of RNA that corresponds to a specific amino acid. But to stick with our analogy, let’s just say they come together to form “words”.
In my work, I assigned notes to these words to generate audio; I had wondered if this might helps us understand what the words mean.
I devised an online tool to hear the sound of coronavirus doing two things most genomes do: the first is called “translation”, which is where the virus makes new proteins. The second is called “transcription”, which is where the genome of the virus copies itself.
There are several things you can hear: the start and end of genes, the regions between genes and the parts of the genome that control how genes are expressed.
Other researchers have written about this extensively in the coronavirus scientific literature but this is the first time you can distinguish between these regions by listening.
So, what’s the point of all this?
As a research tool the audio helps supplement some of the many visual displays that exist to represent genomic information. In other words, it helps scientists understand even more about the virus and how it operates. Recently, UK-based composer and researcher Eduardo Miranda at the University of Plymouth used DNA sequence data for music composition and to better understand synthetic biology. Researcher Markus Buehler at MIT has been working with musical representations of proteins to enquire about novel protein structures.
I think an equally valid question is: does the audio sound musical? Now that I have finished the scientific research part of this project, I listen to the coronavirus genome with fresh ears, and from a musician’s perspective I been surprised as to how musical it sounds.
I don’t mean to trivialise the pandemic by thinking about the virus in musical terms.
As a molecular biologist at Western Sydney University, when I think about the virus I see RNA sequences, and it’s my job to see relationships between structure and function. I don’t see patients in the clinic and I’m not researching a cure — these things are not my domain.
As a musician, I have also taken the audio data into the recording studio, away from the research lab, to reveal other perspectives on the coronavirus.
The coronavirus audio is pulsating and incessant, but, working with other musicians, we have tried to tame the sequence; to make it subservient to our musical knowledge, ideas and human spirit.
I returned to the trusty drum kit that once drove my old band The Hummingbirds and this now beats the viral sequence into submission. With guitar by Mike Anderson, who is in Sydney-based instrumental surf twang band Los Monaros, we have reached an understanding of its jagged rhythms and syncopated pulses to create some music.
We mixed the computer-generated audio from the coronavirus genome with real guitars and drums played by real people. The result sounds more musical than I thought it would and it reminds me of the pulsing music of US composer Steve Reich. I still hear genes and other viral characteristics within the science data but music wins out in the rehearsal studio.
As a musician, this project has been rewarding but as a scientist, I hope sonifying the coronavirus genome helps people think about its function in new and helpful ways.
I was also challenged to create something almost beautiful out of something so awful. Let’s hope we will soon be able to return to work and live music more “normally”, to the parts of life that engage us intellectually and creatively.
Josh Frydenberg has told us his 2020 Budget is “all about jobs”.
What he hasn’t said is that it is actually aiming for a slower recovery from the recession, as far as unemployment goes, than from most recessions in Australia’s history.
That’s both the budget’s explicit forecast and the result of the measures in it.
You would be forgiven for expecting the recovery from this recession to be faster than the recoveries from previous recessions. Previous recessions haven’t involved the government requiring businesses close their doors.
In most recessions the government isn’t able to switch things back on.
Yet Australia’s recovery from this COVID recession is officially forecast to be on the sluggish side, as our graph of the recovery in the unemployment rate after each of the past eight recessions and slowdowns shows.
The budget expects the unemployment rate to peak at 8% in December this year, but then take three-and-a-half years to fall to 5.5% by mid-2024.
That’s an average decline of 0.71 percentage points per year in the unemployment rate.
In the 1990s recession – Australia’s most recent major recession – the unemployment rate peaked at 11.1% in late 1992, then fell to 8.3% by 1996.
That’s an average decline of 0.9 percentage points per year – a good deal faster than expected after this recession.
By the standards of past overseas recessions, our recovery is expected to be no more than typical.
We examined 150 past recessions in the countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and found that typically unemployment falls by 0.85 percentage points per year – about the same as what Australia expects this time.
This analysis uses all the labour force data kept by the OECD – which in Australia’s case goes back to 1966.
The initial phase of the Australian recovery is forecast to be quite brisk, as you’d expect given the nature of this recession and the budget assumption that a COVID-19 vaccine will be found soon.
After peaking at 8% in late 2020, unemployment is expected to fall to 7.25% by mid-next year. That decline – 0.75 percentage points in 6 months, a 1.5-percentage-point annualised fall – is on the fast side.
But from there on, the recovery is forecast to stall, particularly in 2022-23 and 2023-24 when only 0.5 percentage points per year is expected to be knocked off the unemployment rate.
The budget papers show that support to date has kept unemployment much lower than it would have been.
Treasury believes that without it the unemployment rate would have peaked at about 13% instead of the predicted 8%.
Which raises the question: why isn’t the government being more ambitious and aiming to bring unemployment down faster?
The rapid recovery in unemployment peters out from mid-2022 because, as this graph shows, the stimulus is set to be withdrawn quickly – the deficit is set to more or less halve next year, and then halve again over the following two years.
Policy decisions made this year actually subtract from the deficit by 2023-24.
And the stimulus is made up of measures not particularly likely to create jobs, such as income tax cuts (where much of the money is likely to be saved rather than spent) and transport infrastructure, which creates fewer jobs per dollar spent than services such as child care, health and aged care.
We shouldn’t be content with a recovery that putters along at a below-average pace.
We calculate that extra stimulus of about $50 billion over and above what was announced in the budget will be needed over the next two years to drive unemployment back down to 5%, a result that would kickstart wages growth nearly two years ahead of the government’s schedule.
Some may appear in upcoming state budgets, but there’s no doubt the Treasurer has more work left to do.
Every year that unemployment remains too high is another year that Australians can expect close to zero real wages growth, and another year that Australians young and old will continue to confront a dearth of job opportunities.
Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said last week he wanted to achieve more than just “progress towards” full employment.
For him and his board, addressing high unemployment was an “important national priority”.
It ought to also be an important government priority.
Last week the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on COVID-19, David Nabarro, said:
We in the World Health Organisation do not advocate lockdowns as the primary measure for the control of the virus.
This has created confusion and frustration, as many people have interpreted this as running counter to WHO’s previous advice on dealing with the pandemic. Haven’t most of us spent some or most of the past few months living in a world of lockdowns and severe restrictions, based on advice from the WHO?
Dig a little deeper, however, and these comments are not as contrary as they might seem. They merely make explicit the idea that lockdowns are just one of many different weapons we can deploy against the coronavirus.
Lockdowns are a good tactic in situations where transmission is spiralling out of control and there is a threat of the health system being overwhelmed. As Nabarro says, they can “buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources”.
But they should not be used as the main strategy against COVID-19 more broadly. And the decision to impose a lockdown should be considered carefully, with the benefits weighed against the often very significant consequences.
Lockdowns also have a disproportionate impact on the most disadvantaged people in society. This cost is greater still in poorer countries, where not going to work can mean literally having no food to eat.
So if lockdowns are best used as a short, sharp measure to stop the coronavirus running rampant, what other strategies should we be focusing on to control the spread of COVID-19 more generally? Here are four key tactics.
The key pillars in the public health response to this pandemic have always been testing, contract tracing, and isolating cases. This has been the clear message from the WHO from the beginning, and every jurisdiction that has enjoyed success in controlling the virus has excelled in these three interlinked tasks.
No one disputes the importance of being able to identify cases and make sure they don’t spread the virus. When we identify cases, we also need to work out where and by whom they were infected, so we can quarantine anyone who may also have been exposed. The goal here is to interrupt transmission of the virus by keeping the infected away from others.
Time is of the essence. People should be tested as soon as they develop symptoms, and should isolate immediately until they know they are in the clear. For positive cases, contact tracing should be done as quickly as possible. All of this helps limit the virus’s spread.
Responding to disease clusters in an effective, timely manner is also vitally important. We’ve all seen how certain environments, such as aged-care homes, can become breeding grounds for infections, and how hard it is to control these clusters once they gain momentum.
Bringing clusters under control requires decisive action, and countries that have been successful in combating the virus have used a range of strategies to do it. Vietnam, which has been lauded for its coronavirus response despite its large population and lack of resources, has worked hard to “box in the virus” when clusters were identified. This involved identifying and testing people up to three degrees of separation from a known case.
Another crucial element of a successful coronavirus response is giving the public clear advice on how to protect themselves. Public buy-in is vital, because ultimately it is the behaviour of individuals that has the biggest influence on the virus’s spread.
Everyone in the community should understand the importance of social distancing and good hygiene. This includes non-English speakers and other minority groups. Delivering this message to all members of the community requires money and effort from health authorities and community leaders.
After some confusion at the beginning of the pandemic, it is now almost universally accepted that public mask-wearing is a cheap and effective way to slow disease transmission, particularly in situations where social distancing is difficult.
As a result, masks — although unduly politicised in some quarters — have been rapidly accepted in many societies that weren’t previously used to wearing them.
Three of the world’s most populist leaders of modern times – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have handled the COVID crisis badly.
All three have caught it.
In the Financial Times, chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has asked whether this spells the end of the sort of right wing aggressive populism that has been so successful in recent times.
Part of his answer is that populism hasn’t lined up neatly against relative success in keeping populations safe.
In the Anglosphere, Trump and Johnson have indeed been much more chaotic in tackling COVID than Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
But other populist governments such as those in Hungary and Poland have done well.
“The really interesting question” he says, turns out to be “is a government actually interested in governing?”.
Trump and Bolsonaro are basically interested in politics as performance.
They don’t care about government but they don’t really understand what government is for and they’re indifferent to it. In some ways and in some cases, they’re actually trying to dismantle the state.
As Wolf says, it’s obvious if that’s what you want to do, you can’t manage a disease well.
But there are other autocratic and indeed populist politicians who understand that ultimately their claim on power depends on being reasonably effective in dealing with such things.
The populists who don’t care about government are likely to be disposed of.
But, what will replace them will not necessarily be a more effective democratic government, it could just as easily be a more effective dictator who understands the importance of delivering what people care about.
Wolf says that’s what Hungary and, in a different way, Poland has shown.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s concepts of “internal” and “external” goods offer some useful tools with which the think about these issues.
MacIntyre explains them with an example in which a child is taught to play chess and rewarded with candy if she wins.
The skills required for excellence in chess are “internal goods”. They include spatial vision, computational accuracy and competitive intensity. They are “internal” because they emerge organically from the activity.
Candy is an “external good” because it is provided from outside the game.
All of the practices that have acquired any significance in the world, from chess playing to accountancy, from business management to political statesmanship are all entanglements of internal and external goods mutually supporting each other.
The internal goods of a practice can’t prosper – can’t exist in the world as more than a hobby – without the external goods such as money (and sometimes candy), power and esteem.
Thought of economically, they enable the practice to bid resources (of people’s attention, time and money) away from other activities.
Medicine is a practice with its own internal goods, but there wouldn’t be much of it unless practitioners were paid.
The converse is also true. People are prepared to part with their scarce resources to fund medicine or some other practice only because they value what it produces. Equally medicine can’t function without internal goods – such as the skills taught at med school.
However, although they complement one another, internal and external goods are in tension.
The girl in pursuit of candy will be tempted to cheat, undermining her incentive to acquire the game’s internal goods. A doctor will be tempted to over-service to obtain more external goods at the cost of sacrificing internal goods.
MacIntyre says it is virtues that keep this from happening.
Without them, in particular, “without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions”.
As MacIntyre sees it, the skill of political performance is actually an internal good of politics. It’s an important skill that helps one excel at politics. But it’s a particular kind of internal good.
Many internal goods are unquestionably meritorious unless they’re deliberately used for some nefarious purpose. Such skills include an astronomer’s or a chess player’s accuracy in calculation or the sensitivity of a medical professional’s skills of observation and diagnosis.
On the other hand the business person’s focus on profit, the sportsperson’s competitive intensity and the politician’s capacity to perform are internal goods that are, in their respective areas, most closely associated with acquiring external goods.
This makes them more morally ambiguous than other internal goods.
This has been true since ancient Athens, but in my view what has changed is the fast foodification of our culture; the growing focus of our institutions on the external rewards of profit, power and prestige.
As fast food is to ordinary food, so porn is to sexuality, memes are to culture and to our capacity to concentrate, auto-tuned formulaic pop is to popular music, and linkbait and trolling are to journalism.
It was MacIntyre’s horror that this was increasingly the case in modern liberal capitalist democracies that motivated his thinking. As he put it
if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.
So how did we get here and what can we do about it?
It seems to have arisen from the way the markets or “theatres of action” have scaled.
A generation ago, party politics had deep roots into the community across the Western world with party membership of around 14% of population.
By the turn of this century average membership had fallen to just 5% of the population and active membership had fallen to a mere fraction of that.
Politicians doorknock less than they used to. After COVID they mighn’t do it much at all.
The mass scale of campaigning has forced politics to be conducted through media far more than it used to be, making the external goods of power and prestige much more dependent on performance in the media.
But the media has been driven by its own competitive imperatives to attract audiences, and so has concentrated on reporting the theatrics of political performance – intensifying the vicious cycle which hollows out political discourse as loss of members and local action has hollowed out party membership.
So much so that politicians do increasingly farcical things for the cameras – none more so than the famously irreligious (or perhaps “areligious’”) Trump photo-op, bible in hand, at a church outside the White House, having walked through public space that had been cleared of demonstrators with tear gas.
Because these phenomena have developed deep structural roots, I’d expect there to be strict limits to the extent that they can be addressed within the existing system – though measures within it to improve integrity such as fundraising limits on political parties might be helpful.
Wolf may also be right that the extraordinary incompetence of the worst of the populists will trigger a backlash against them.
But I fear we’re in the grip of something bigger.
This analysis points to the possible healing qualities of injecting into our system small-scale deliberation of the kind of I have argued for elsewhere through mechanisms that aren’t “scaled” via media performances such as citizen’s juries.
We are prepared to do it for court cases. We are prepared to appoint as our representatives a jury of twelve ordinary people chosen without reference to performance or external rewards.
That Western democracies used to deliver good outcomes is not a good argument for maintaining the status quo. If we care about our institutions we will try to improve them.
In Brazil, union officials allege one-fifth of the industry’s employees – about 100,000 meat plant workers – have been infected. In the US, meat-processing facilities have been linked to more than 38,500 cases and at least 180 deaths. Meat works made up almost half of US COVID-19 hotspots in May. They were also the major initial source of infections in Australia’s June “second wave” outbreak in the state of Victoria.
One reason for these transmissions is that meat processing takes place in confined refrigerated spaces. But the fact the industry has not been linked with large viral outbreaks in all countries and regions suggests other, controllable factors have also been instrumental.
The fundamental lesson from these outbreaks is that unhealthy working conditions and precarious work need to be addressed to stop the meat industry acting as an incubator of COVID-19.
Past studies have shown influenza and other coronaviruses (SARS and MERS) are more stable and therefore spread more easily in lower temperatures. Though lower temperatures have not yet been conclusively proven to increase COVID-19 transmissions, Australian researchers have identified an association with lower humidity.
This alone increases the risk to meat-processing workers, who perform strenuous manual labour on a production line in relatively close proximity to others. But that risk is compounded by other factors – particularly poor air quality contributing to respiratory illness, which makes any COVID-19 infection more severe.
As noted by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among the “many serious safety and health hazards” long associated with meat-processing work are “biological hazards associated with handling live animals or exposures to faeces and blood which can increase their risk for many diseases”.
A 2017 study found respiratory disorders such as coughing, breathlessness and wheezing three to four times more prevalent among slaughterhouse workers than office workers. Among poultry workers, a 2013 study found more than 40% had asthmatic symptoms (compared with about 10% of all adults). This was attributed to “poultry dust”, a biologically active combination of chicken residue, feathers and moulds.
Insufficient ventilation makes the spread of the coronavirus 20 times more likely, according to a report published by the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions in June.
That report lists other factors too, such as inadequate social distancing and a dearth of appropriate personal protective equipment. But ultimately, poor air-quality is symptomatic of the lack of a healthy and safe workplace for many meat-processing workers.
It is also pertinent to the rest of us. The American Society for Heating, Refrigeration, and Air‐Conditioning Engineers, for example, has recommended ventilation air intake in all buildings should now be three air changes an hour. That’s three to five times higher than the minimum standard for offices.
What this all comes down to is a critical need to improve health and safety standards in abattoirs and meat processing facilities across the board.
The other main lesson to be drawn from the meat-processing industry is the risk posed by “precarious work”, where workers lack the rights and protections of being an employee.
It is no coincidence, as the European Federation Union report argues, that the vast majority of meat workers testing positive in Europe have been migrant workers, hired through subcontractors, with few employment rights and often living in overcrowded accommodation.
An estimated 80% of meat workers in the Netherlands, for example, are from central and eastern Europe, employed through temporary agencies.
Workers are typically employed as casuals, or “daily hires” (meaning their jobs technically terminate at the end of every shift) or through subcontracting arrangements that deem them “self-employed”. As the report notes:
Employment conditions for many meat workers are extremely precarious. Moreover, the level of sick pay allowances can be very low. This may have determined the fact that in case of experiencing COVID-19 symptoms some workers have not reported the status of their health conditions for fear of losing their job or for not being able to afford a decent living with sick pay allowances.
Evidence from a number of countries shows these things can be fixed.
Denmark is the poster-child for the automation of meat processing and decent pay, allowing for social distancing within factories and thus low COVID-19 outbreaks.
In Spain, a collective agreement that guarantees subcontracted workers the same conditions as other employees has been credited with controlling COVID-19 transmissions.
In Germany, transmissions linked to meat processing slowed after abattoirs were banned from hiring temporary workers in May.
In Victoria, Australia, ensuring all workers have access to paid pandemic leave (along with other measures including the government mandating strict physical distancing and safety protocols in plants) appears to have proven successful.
But many of these responses are only temporary emergency responses. The global pandemic has brought global attention to the longer-term need for systemic reform to eliminate the dangers of unhealthy workplaces and disempowered workers, and ensure that workers can afford to stay home when they are sick.
In a sense we are all complicit in a system that has seen working conditions worsen over the last decade. We’ve accepted the rise of complex subcontracting and fake “phoenix” companies designed to strip workers of employee status, and supermarket and fast-food chains pushing cost pressures down supply chains, simply because we like cheap meat.
There are moves in Europe to address this lack of accountability through
extending legal liability throughout the whole subcontracting chain. Other countries would do well to learn from these examples.
One way or the other, our love of cheap prices shouldn’t see workers getting treated like meat.
Speculation China may be seeking to lower the temperature in its fractious dealings with Australia appears to be premature.
This follows confirmation that Chinese customers have been advised to defer orders of Australian thermal and metallurgical coal.
On top of this, Australian cotton exporters have been advised exports will be cut next year, a blow to a business worth about $2 billion annually.
Australian mining giant BHP has received “deferment requests” for its coal shipments, according to the company’s chairman, Ken MacKenzie.
On the face of it, this is the most damaging trade reprisal by Beijing against what it perceives to be Australia’s hostile attitudes to it in tandem with its security partner, the United States.
It seems more than coincidental that just days after Australia took part in a meeting in Tokyo of the Quad (previously known as the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue and involving Japan, Australia, India and the US), China took such action.
To put this in perspective, China has targeted Australia’s third-largest export commodity to the Chinese market behind natural gas and iron ore.
In 2018-19, Australia’s exports to China of thermal coal for power stations and metallurgical coal for steel-making reached A$14.1 billion.
The Quad session left no doubt about its purpose. It was squarely aimed at furthering a China containment strategy, and perhaps outlining an Asian NATO.
“Asian NATO” is the description Chinese propagandists apply to the Quad.
Australia finds itself in a grouping that includes a hawkish US Trump administration, a Japan that is understandably anxious about tensions in its own region, and an India that recently found itself in armed conflict with China on its Himalayan border.
In all of this big-power manoeuvring, Australia is the minnow. So it is more vulnerable to Chinese reprisals, trade and otherwise.
In a statement following the Quad, Foreign Minister Marise Payne avoided specific mention of China, but her message was clear. Australia was not hesitating to align itself with its Quad partners in confronting China. The statement said:
Ministers reiterated that states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This was aimed at China’s refusal to accept a mediation ruling under UNCLOS that contradicts its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
However, even if Australia wanted to detach itself from a hard-edged American position on China, it would be difficult given the sort of rhetoric emanating from Washington.
For example, in a statement issued by US Secretary Mike Pompeo after his meeting with Payne, he said they had discussed “China’s malign activity in the region”.
Australia’s circumspect foreign minister would not have said this publicly.
The Pompeo remarks play into a Chinese narrative that Canberra is Washington’s appendage. In the conduct of its regional diplomacy in close co-ordination with the US, Australia tends not to challenge this narrative.
In an interview with Nikkei Asia, Pompeo said the Quad would enable participants to “build out a true security framework”. This will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
Nor would his description of the Quad as a “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us”.
Payne would not have gone this far.
In the wake of the Quad meeting, China’s strident mouthpiece, the Global Times, accused Canberra of using the gathering to “promote its own global status”. It asked:
[…] how much strength does Australia own with its limited economy and population? Moreover, if Canberra is bent on infuriating China, Australia will only face dire consequences.
This sort of bombast can be dismissed as simply another case of Beijing letting off steam at the expense of a country that is more vulnerable to Chinese pressures than other Quad members.
On the other hand, Australia’s vulnerability to trade penalties invites the question. What will come next? Will it be Australian wine exports to China worth more than A$1 billion a year, or will gas be the next target?
China has been picking off Australian exports over the past year as relations have soured.
It has slapped tariffs on barley, making the Australian commodity uncompetitive in the Chinese market. It has used non-tariff measures to stifle beef imports from five abattoirs. It has told Chinese students to look elsewhere for education opportunities. It has also discouraged Chinese tourists from visiting Australia.
The latter is moot, since the COVID-19 pandemic means inbound tourism has been stopped.
However, a series of trade reprisals should be deeply concerning for the Australian government as it wrestles with an economy hit hard by recession.
The last thing Australia needs in this environment is for its trading relationship with China to fall off a cliff.
The trade numbers underscore Australia’s unhealthy dependence on China.
In 2018-19, more than one-third, or A$134.7 billion worth, of Australia’s total merchandise exports went to China. On top of that Australia’s services business with China, mainly education, totalled A$18.5 billion.
In the first six months of this year, Australia’s exports to China neared 50% of total exports, mainly due to increased iron ore prices.
This level of business may be advantageous to Australia from a short-term perspective, but in the longer term such heavy reliance on a single market is highly undesirable.
It gives China the option of penalising Australia if Canberra’s policies do not correspond with Beijing’s wishes.
This is precisely what is happening now.
In the circumstances, it is hard to reach any other conclusion than that Beijing is targeting Australia as a means of conveying its displeasure that a regional united front appears to be forming to contain China’s ambitions.
In this context it is worth noting that despite a sometimes acrimonious “trade war” between the US and China, Beijing has, for the most part, refrained from penalising American business.
Of course, China exports far more to the US than it imports.
In the lead-up to the US election on November 3, Australia should be hoping for a Biden victory on the grounds that a more normal diplomatic environment will enable a reset of our relations with Beijing.
The alternative is further nasty surprises weighing on a critical trading relationship.