A Deadly Pandemic Demands a Health Before Profits Response: A Reply to Ben Harms

Ben Harms writes in his denunciation of the ‘Health Before Profits’ motion passed at SRC 6 that it doesn’t achieve “anything” (in italics, no less). According to Ben, it is a “distraction” to criticise the Liberals’ deadly slogan that we have to learn to “live with the virus”. You might think from his article that he doesn’t want ANUSA to be political, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! ANUSA should be political so long as its activism is solely directed “to represent and improve the lives of ANU students.” 

A student union should campaign both for the rights of its members as well as the interests of workers and the oppressed beyond its own ranks. It would be parochial and embarrassing if ANUSA heeded Ben’s call to limit activism to local demands at ANU simply because these demands seem easier to achieve. It is admittedly more difficult to influence change at a national level than a campus level, but that is no reason not to try. Championing ambitious change is the essence of why activism exists. It was right for student unions to support marriage equality, a left-wing campaign that affected students as well as broader layers of society. It was right for ANUSA to endorse the climate strikes, which were led by students but raised political demands on government to halt fossil fuel extraction. Students should fight against state and national policy that impacts us, as COVID-19 policy does: the case at Wright Hall is a clear demonstration of that.  Ben is right to point out that the situation has changed since the ‘Health before Profits’ motion was moved at SRC: since then ACT Labor has given up on elimination and announced its COVID-19 Pathway Forward, which saw will see restrictions eased on October 15th and will again on the 29th. 

That doesn’t mean we should junk the approach of health before profits; it means we should apply it to the new situation at ANU even if it currently seems overly ‘idealistic’ to Harms. As the ACT Roadmap is implemented, Canberra will undoubtedly be at increased risk to COVID-19. This means that ANU will also be at increased risk. In press conferences Chief Minister Andrew Barr has indicated that we could see up to hundreds of cases a day as a result of the lockdown lifting. The question is, how can our student union advocate for health before profits in this context? 

ANU must take every reasonable step to ensure our campus is as safe as possible, as soon as possible. A key measure in ensuring our safety is to mandate vaccination. Rates of hospitalisation and fatalities are dramatically decreased by having a double dose of one of the TGA approved vaccines. After backlash from the ACT Australian Medical Association for refusing to implement mandates, the ACT government now requires early childhood educators and some healthcare workers to get the jab. Barr ought to extend vaccine mandates to Canberran universities. ANU has indicated that it will only implement a mandate on campus if compelled by the territory or federal government. However, if either the territory or federal government refuses to implement a mandate then ANU University Council should step up and implement its own one. There are precedents for vaccine mandates at Melbourne University and La Trobe University, and a survey conducted by La Trobe found that 85.6 percent of staff and 76.6 percent of students feel safer returning knowing that others on campus are vaccinated. Staff and students at ANU should be confident as they return to campus that their health is not being jeopardised by people who selfishly choose not to get vaccinated.

Despite the furore generated by the far right in Melbourne, we should be confident in arguing in favour of vaccine mandates. Vaccine hesitancy in Australia is low and falling according to recent polls by the Melbourne Institute: from 20.3 percent  on 20 August to 15 percent on 23 September. Not only do most Australians support vaccination, but mandates have been shown to work: they help to push those who are unmotivated, but not opposed, to getting vaccinated. United Airlines in the US, after introducing a mandate, has reported that over 99 percent of its employees have received the jab. In a clear repudiation of the vocal minority of anti-vaxxers, 99.9 percent of healthcare workers in NSW have been vaccinated in line with their sector’s requirements. Anti-vaxxers crow endlessly about the violation of their rights, but we have to be clear that the right of the public to be safe from a disease that has killed millions worldwide must take precedence over the right of individuals to deny an overwhelmingly safe medical procedure.

The ANU has indicated that, except for some essential activities, remote work and study will continue until the end of the year. However, a ventilation audit and installation of new filters cannot be rolled out overnight so it’s important that it happens as soon as possible. By next year international travel is likely to have resumed, making it all the more critical that as many protections against COVID transmission are in place. Similarly, we need to fight for vaccine mandates right now. The vaccines are most effective when herd immunity is achieved, which for measles is 95 percent. Barr has commented that he has “absolute confidence” that ACT will get close to 100% vaccination to explain his reluctance to impose mandates, but without a mandate the government would be leaving it up to chance. With the widespread availability of the AstraZeneca vaccine, it is unnecessary to risk having even one unvaccinated person in classrooms. We should reject the neoliberal dogma pushed by politicians during the pandemic that fighting COVID is primarily an individual responsibility. It is the responsibility of governments to supply greater welfare, impose restrictions on businesses, and pressure the unmotivated to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Vaccinations are a key weapon in our arsenal, but alone they are not sufficient. The next measure in our basic line of defence is ventilation. ANU should commission an independent audit of all the ventilation systems on campus, and install High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in any room that currently does not have one. HEPA filters are capable of capturing particles as small as 10 nanometers in diameter, which is sufficient to capture the 125 nanometer wide COVID-19 virus particle. Filtration is important because of what we know about how COVID is transmitted. Research by the US Centre for Disease Control notes that while previously it was thought that COVID was spread only from person-to-person, we now know that the virus can be spread by exposure to small droplets and particles that can stay in the air for up to hours. Think of the musty, dank tutorial rooms you discovered at the end of a dimly lit corridor. It would be reassuring if that tutorial room had a portable CO2 monitor that told you how fresh the air is. 

We should never forget that when students in residential halls entered lockdown, the masks ANU had provided them with were not intended for use as formal PPE. Upon a request for comment from Woroni, ANU management stated that the masks were produced as giveaways to instil in us the importance of wearing a mask. Rather than “educating” us about the virtues of masks, ANU should make N95 masks readily available on campus, or if these cannot be attained then KN95 or KF94 masks. Brian Schmidt, who is a member of OzSAGE, should know this: OzSAGE recommends using respirators such as N95 and KF94, and notes that there are no global shortages of the latter. If Schmidt is at all serious about his participation in OzSAGE then he should adopt all of these measures and implement them at the ANU. 

Campaigning for ANU to expand its current health measures is a clear cut question of workplace health and safety. It would be unthinkable to ask a construction worker to enter a site without a hard hat. It would be unthinkable to expect healthcare workers to operate without PPE. Over the coming months, staff and students on university campuses across Australia will be asked to return to working and studying on campus. We are entitled to say that this should happen in as safe a way as possible, even if it comes at considerable cost to the university. Our lives are worth more than the university’s bottom line. 

Ben claims that by advocating for changes to the COVID-19 response strategy at a State and Federal level, ANUSA is indulging in delusions of grandeur. He would be right to say that ANUSA is “vastly overstating its own power” if anyone thought ANUSA alone had the power to dictate ACT Government policy. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that a student led campaign impacted national legislation. In 2014, a mass student campaign defeated Tony Abbott’s plans for fee deregulation, which would have seen the introduction of $100,000 degrees. Ben’s strategy is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if students never try to fight those in power, we will never win. We should be sober about the prospects of success in any campaign. We won’t win every battle. But for a life or death issue like COVID-19, we should fight like hell to save as many lives as we can.

 

Nick Carlton is a member of the Socialist Alternative.