Australian COVID outbreak set to become the country’s worst of the pandemic

An outbreak of the highly-infectious Delta variant of COVID that began in Sydney two months ago is continuing to spiral out of control. Cases are escalating throughout New South Wales (NSW) and clusters are growing in other states and territories.

The NSW Liberal-National Coalition government this morning announced the state’s largest daily infection toll since the pandemic began, with 633 new cases. This is just the second time during the COVID crisis that an Australian outbreak has resulted in more than 500 infections per day.

The other such emergency was during a surge in Victoria, mid-to-late last year. As in NSW, that dramatic rise in infections resulted from the Victorian Labor government’s resistance to the necessary lockdown measures, in line with the ruling elite’s prioritisation of profits above health and safety. Only as daily Victorian cases reached 725 last August was the state government compelled to institute a “stage four” lockdown, involving workplace closures, to prevent a collapse of the healthcare system.

With the same scenario clearly posed in NSW, the state government is refusing to impose greater restrictions. During a media conference this morning, Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared that the sole reason for the new record number of cases was that ordinary people were “breaking the rules.” This slander is being accompanied by a major police-military mobilisation, involving 800 Australian Defence Force soldiers, many patrolling the working-class areas of western and southwestern Sydney.

At the media conference, journalists asked about the obvious relationship between the deepening of the crisis and state government policies. One pointed out that construction had been resumed in NSW. Another noted that non-essential venues such as golf courses remained in operation. A third pointed to the vague and confusing character of restrictions on individual movement.

Berejiklian blithely declared that the government “has the right settings in place.” While predicting that infections would continue to rise, she did not outline a single measure to curb transmission.

Instead, the premier restated that some easing of the already inadequate restrictions could begin as early as the end of this month. This is based on vaccination targets that fall short of the full inoculation of 50 percent of the adult population, far lower than required to reduce the Delta spread.

This program, in line with the corporate elite’s drive for a full reopening and for the population to be compelled to “live with the virus,” has a homicidal character. It is based upon the subordination of the health and lives of working people to the profit-making activities of the largest corporations.

Several journalists asked NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant about recent reports that the government had defied her medical advice, including for greater restrictions. Chant gave no direct answer, instead speaking vaguely of her personal preference for a reduction in movement and stating: “I can’t express enough my level of concern at these rising numbers.”

The state’s contact-tracing, previously touted by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “gold standard,” has fallen apart. Over the past four days, there were more than 1,800 infections. The vast majority were “under investigation,” so the source of transmission was unknown, and the infected people had been in the community for all or part of their potentially-contagious period. Of today’s 633 cases, a record 475 were reported as being “unlinked” to a known cluster, while 539 had not been in isolation when infectious.

Some 450 of the cases were in western and southwestern Sydney. These areas, which contain the city’s largest working-class suburbs, have been maligned by government ministers, as well as being targeted by the police-military crackdown. In reality, the high rates of transmission are bound up with workplace infections, densely-populated housing and inadequate public health measures, including the lack of clear information in migrant languages.

While government ministers have conceded that workplaces are key centres of transmission, no data is publicly available. Yesterday, the government said it would stop listing all exposure sites in Sydney that were visited by infected people. This deprives people of essential information to evade the virus. The clear purpose is to cover up the extent of the crisis, as well as the shambolic state of contact-tracing.

The hospital system’s capacity to cope with the surge is also being left hazy. There are now 462 COVID patients in hospitals, 77 of them in intensive care and 25 requiring ventilation. At least 1,000 hospital staff are in isolation, after having been possibly exposed to the virus.

The number of cases at Nepean Hospital, a major facility in Sydney’s far west, has grown to at least 38, tripling late last week. The outbreak began in the hospital’s mental health ward, where staff members were compelled to continue working, even after being potentially exposed to the virus, and without adequate personal protective equipment.

Other hospitals in Sydney’s west and south are under stress. A Canterbury Hospital ward was closed yesterday for cleaning after infections were detected. At least 80 staff at St George Hospital were also forced into isolation after finding cases in its oncology unit. Nine patients have died from COVID at Liverpool Hospital in the past fortnight.

Paramedics are being forced to wait for hours outside hospitals in closely-confined spaces with COVID patients. “Elective” surgeries have been cancelled at a number of facilities. Some breast cancer screening clinics have been shut, as staff have redeployed to the hospitals to cover a mounting workforce shortage.

The virus is spreading in rural parts of NSW. A cluster that began last week in the central west, including towns such as Dubbo and Walgett, has exceeded 100 infections. The majority are among indigenous people, who are extremely vulnerable due to chronic health problems and low vaccination rates. Some 40 percent of the cases are reportedly among Aboriginal children and teenagers. Health authorities in the region have already stated that their resources are stretched.

Cases have also been detected in the state’s far west, including in Broken Hill and Wilcannia. The latter town, which has a predominantly Aboriginal population, is one of the poorest in the state with a raft of health and social problems, including household overcrowding, so transmission could be catastrophic.

Elsewhere in Australia, dozens of cases continue to be detected in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, and in the Australian Capital Territory, both of which are under lockdowns.

Amid the escalating crisis, the focus of the ruling elite, and all the governments, remains on pursuing a reopening plan adopted by the “national cabinet” of federal, state and territory administrations, most of them Labor-led.

An Australian Financial Review editorial this morning summed up the agenda. “The challenge for NSW is to continue to face up to the reality that the delta strain is forcing its hand on learning to live with the virus circulating,” it declared. The surge in cases “shows the near impossibility of suppressing, let alone eliminating, the more infectious variant, even with a prolonged lockdown.”

Vaccination is still being touted as a silver bullet, even as health experts insist that an inoculation campaign must be accompanied by the suppression of the virus through social distancing and lockdown measures. The corporate line is that the population must be compelled to accept death and illness on a mass scale, so that full business activities can resume.