As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, a dangerous crisis is looming within Australia’s healthcare system. There are far too few hospital beds, inadequate staff and facilities, and a shortage of personal protective equipment.
A vaccine for this coronavirus is still more than a year away. The lack of an effective treatment means the best that can be done in the immediate term is to ‘flatten the curve’, preventing hospitals and intensive care units from being overloaded with cases.
While social distancing is important to lower the rate of infections, how well this pandemic can be managed is relative to the capacity of the healthcare system in each country.
The federal and state governments have tended to overemphasise social distancing measures rather than acting to bolster the healthcare system. Despite the warnings from earlier epidemics like SARS and Ebola, both Liberal and Labor governments have presided over decades of healthcare cuts and privatisations.
The number of hospital beds relative to population is woefully low in Australia. Supposedly a developed country, there are just 3.8 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. In China they have 4.3 per 1000, and have a much larger population.
The number of intensive care units per 100,000 people in Australia is also bad news. Australia has 8.9 units per 100,000, while in places like Italy they have 12.5. Even this amount saw Italy overwhelmed by the influx of COVID-19 cases.
Hospital capacity has proved crucial in keeping death rates down in countries like Japan and South Korea. Each have around triple the number of hospital beds compared to Australia, China and Italy.
But it’s not just the low numbers of beds. The situation with equipment and facilities in Australian hospitals is also dire. Many healthcare workers have spoken out about the lack of adequate personal protective equipment. They are often being forced to choose between their own safety and caring for their patients.
Ventilators, which are crucial machines to help critical respiratory patients breathe, are also in short supply in Australia. Health authorities in New South Wales have said there needs to more than triple the number of ventilators if they are to be properly prepared for a surge in cases.
While the government has pledged at least $130 billion to employers for wage subsidies, the boost for healthcare is a tiny proportion of that, $2.4 billion. Even if you add what the states have contributed it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the corporate handouts that have been announced in recent weeks.
This shows where the real interests of the state and federal governments lie.
If the money is made available, equipment and facilities can be expanded relatively quickly. But without skilled workers the system will not be able to run. Tens of thousands of intensive care nurses are needed, along with thousands more doctors and support staff.
Measures need to be taken to fast-track education and training for these professions, including new accelerated courses approved by the trade unions, and the waiving of all course costs.
At the heart of the failure to prepare the healthcare system for this crisis is the profit-driven system of capitalism. Long before this pandemic, public health has been treated as a burden. The areas that couldn’t be cut back were handed over to the private sector.
Private healthcare and insurance have reaped enormous profits and benefited from government funds at the expense of the public system. With the public system now bursting at the seams, we need to look at ways to utilise private healthcare resources.
Private hospitals should not be allowed to continue profiting from people’s health woes. At the end of March, private healthcare operators essentially held the country to ransom, shedding nursing jobs and beds and demanding a bailout. They could only do this because they maintain private ownership of parts of healthcare.
Instead of a bailout, all private healthcare facilities should be brought into public hands and run in a planned and democratic way so that all resources can be utilised to combat the pandemic.
Given the private sector has made big profits and received government handouts over the years they should not be compensated. The days of making money from injury and illness must come to an end.
Bringing the private sector under public ownership, and significantly boosting the healthcare budget, must be a priority if we are to save lives and reduce the impacts of COVID-19 on society.
By Triet Tran