Why the pandemic bill is needed in Victoria

Why the pandemic bill is needed in Victoria

November 15, 2021

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Residents of London’s Soho were probably pretty annoyed in September 1854 when they saw authorities had taken the handle off their water pump, to stem a cholera outbreak.

I don’t know how they reacted but tension between public health and personal freedom is nothing new, and the growing demonstrations against Victoria’s Pandemic Management bill are just the latest example.

Protesters against Victoria’s proposed new pandemic laws gather outside Parliament.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The tension arises when medical science shows us ways of preventing disease that also curtail our rights and freedoms. And after two winters of lockdowns with incalculable impact on jobs, education, relationships and personal distress, it’s no wonder that people are marching in Melbourne’s streets.

They’ve had a lot more to complain about than a water pump.

Forcing the people of Soho to trek elsewhere for water ended an outbreak that killed 616 of them, surely worth the effort. And disabling the water pump was the idea of John Snow, a doctor who saw a pattern after he plotted cholera cases on a map, and took it to the local authorities.

Among the many voices raised against the pandemic bill, we’re not hearing the voices of the health scientists who know how disease is spread and what threats we may face in the future.

As the only doctor in Victoria’s parliament, I argued for this legislation because I believe our state needs powers to stop people moving and mixing when we face a pandemic.

As a Greens MP, I joined Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, along with crossbench MPs Fiona Patten and Andy Meddick in negotiations with the government to improve transparency, accountability and oversight in the bill.

Right now, Victorians live under state of emergency powers which expire in a month, ending the power to order such things as quarantine or a third vaccine dose for aged-care workers.

This gives Parliament three choices, to pass the pandemic bill – with or without amendments; to extend the state of emergency; or to do neither. Since the pandemic bill grants similar public health powers to the current state of emergency, but with add-ons that improve transparency and protect the vulnerable, I prefer it to the state of emergency powers.

And it’s certainly better than having no public health powers at all, when we still have hospital wards full of COVID-19 patients, and we’ve buried more than 400 in the latest wave.

Only a few weeks ago our hospitals and ambulance service were under extraordinary pressure.

Whether the next threat will be a new coronavirus variant that beats the vaccine or an entirely new organism, our governments need powers to control pandemics when they strike.

Ideally, the new laws will help governments balance protecting population health and preserving human rights. That’s the task for the independent expert committee of health and human rights experts, whose advice will now be tabled in Parliament along with that of the Chief Health Officer, under the new laws.

The current debate also ignores the rights of the most vulnerable. People with disabilities or with weakened immune systems need to be protected by the sort of collective action that Victorians displayed during this pandemic, by staying home, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

Medical staff walk into the Flemington public housing flats, which were put into lockdown in July last year.Credit:Getty

Another neglected voice is that of the disadvantaged. Residents of our poorest postcodes were fined more heavily than others last winter, and I’m sure that the heavy-handed lockdown of our public housing towers would have been handled differently in a luxury apartment block.

The most thoughtful criticism of the bill, comes from community legal centres and groups like the Human Rights Law Centre, who have been sticking up for disadvantaged groups for years and who know that human rights sometimes compete and need to be balanced.

Among their concerns are the rights of detained people and the excessive maximum fines for non-compliance with health orders. The Greens agree.

But passing almost unnoticed in this bill is a revolutionary criminal justice reform; a lower rate of fines for people on benefits.

For the first time in Victoria, rich and poor will not all be paying the same sized fine, something which never made sense to me.

Critics of the bill are right to complain that it was rushed through the lower house and there are some flaws. But the independent committee, lower fines for the disadvantaged, and preventing QR code and contact tracing records from being used to prosecute people, are significant achievements that the Greens in particular argued for, giving us more robust checks and balances than equivalent legislation in any other state

The Greens want the transparency measures and the independent committee strengthened, and we hope to see this and other issues raised by legal and human rights groups addressed in amendments.

The noisiest opponents of the bill have different concerns and motivations. Anti-science billionaire Clive Palmer, lover of hydroxychloroquine, is exploiting a growing number of people already weary of lockdowns, suspicious of government, and informed by Facebook.

The Liberals, the Liberal Democrats and other inhabitants of Victoria’s upper house, recoil from the notion of collective sacrifice for the public good and are joining the crowd.

The irony is that after the bill has passed many will be using the transparency measures in the bill to examine the newly published health advice, while their health is protected by the disease control measures that the bill enables.

It’s a whole lot more complicated than taking the handle off a water pump, but let’s hope it has the same effect.

Tim Read is a doctor and medical researcher. He is the state member for Brunswick and the Victorian Greens spokesman for health and justice.

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