COVID-19 has exposed the frailties of our society. It has followed the contours of inequality in our labour market and torn away at our social safety net.
Two and a half years into the pandemic COVID-19 is a leading cause of death and illness in Australia. Actuarial assessment estimates that excess mortality for the first half of this year stands at 14%, with over half of these deaths attributable to COVID-19.
Whilst the incidence of serious illness following infection of COVID-19 warrants further research, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of Australians have or are suffering the long-term effects of COVID-19. As a wealthy, advanced society we have a duty to both protect citizens from infection and provide comprehensive social and financial support to those that experience Long COVID.
It is critical that if Australia is going to minimise the impact of Long COVID that we implement strategies that will lower transmission and seek to actively control future waves of infection. The world of work has been central to the challenge of protecting people from infection. Work is the central place, outside of the home, where people congregate, a place where we spend as much as half of our waking lives. Whilst it is true that some working Australians were able to perform part, or all, of their work from home, the overwhelming majority of working people are required to attend work and risk infection with COVID-19 every day.
For the millions of Australian workers in insecure work COVID-19 presented a significant moral and financial dilemma. With each sniffle they face the horrible choice of staying home and isolating, without income, or attending work where they risk further spreading a potentially deadly illness. No workers should be forced to choose between making ends meet and the health and safety of their workmates.
Unions have continued to demand that workers be provided stronger protections and support at work. Our work health and safety framework, which has been largely sidelined throughout the pandemic, offers huge potential to control the risks of transmission. It is a framework that empowers workplace parties (employers and workers) to identify and control risks. It is a framework that has led to a significant reduction in work-related injury and death over the last 40 years and with modest changes can be unleashed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
The following submission outlines the key challenges facing working people in the context of COVID-19. It argues for modest improvements to our work health and safety framework and highlights the inadequacy of the current social and economic supports for those that experience Long COVID.
As we enter our fourth year of the pandemic we must confront the fact that COVID-19 will become a permanent threat to the health and welfare of Australians. We can make modest but highly effective improvements to protect human life and ensure that fewer people are exposed to the virus.
We thank the Committee for the opportunity to reflect on these matters and wish you well in your consideration of these important issues.