I am already viewed with suspicion. With Coronavirus, my anxieties about being a casual worker and Asian in Australia are heightened.
Stephen Pham

10 Mar 2020 - 12:07 PM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2020 - 9:27 AM


Last week, Australians posted photos of supermarkets with bare shelves, long lines at the registers with shopping trolleys full of emergency supplies, and fights in the aisles over the last eight-pack of Quilton 3-ply.

It may be easy enough to sneer at the absurdity of people panic buying and stocking up on toilet paper. But I think one of the reasons people are turning to doomsday-like prepping and misinformation on the Internet is Australians’ distrust of authority in handling public health issues.

It’s one that I am sympathetic to. As someone with an autoimmune system that functions relatively well, I know that my risks of dying from coronavirus itself are minimal, though my family members and friends are among some of the most vulnerable to the virus—elderly people, people living with disability, and people with autoimmune disorders.

Instead, my own anxieties around coronavirus stem from being a casual worker in the service industry and being Asian in Australia.

Fears around the spread of coronavirus only expose the gaps already present in Australia, whether in employers’ unwillingness to support ill employees, or as an outlet for latent racism and xenophobia through misinformation. 

The mass-casualisation of the hospitality sector is already disastrous for public health. Yesterday, Tasmania’s Public Health director  Mark Veitch announced that a hotel employee in Hobart had attended work, classes, and social events while waiting, and ultimately testing positive for, COVID-19. While it is easy to chalk this up to the employee’s individual failing, more urgent, I think, is the need to examine how casual, even permanent, employment discourages workers from staying home when they are sick.

Twenty percent of Australian workers are casual, with the largest number in hospitality, retail and healthcare.

I currently work in hospitality on a casual basis, where ‘fast-paced and dynamic’ means the store is perpetually understaffed and ‘flexible’ means no guaranteed hours. Before news of coronavirus, my colleagues, also casually employed, showed up to their shifts with the flu, coughing and blowing their noses out of customers’ and managers’ sights. I don’t blame them.

Though casual loading rates make up for the lack of sick leave in theory, in practice no minimum hours means that we cannot afford to save up for even the smallest emergencies. Workplace policy also dictates that even single, unpaid sick days must be accompanied by a medical certificate. The normalisation of casual employment pits survival against communal health.

My employer’s recently released COVID-19 policy shows permanent employees are expected to use their accrued sick leave, and if those are inadequate, are required to take leave without pay, as casual employees do. I don’t expect anyone to be particularly vigilant about this. A much more effective alternative, as Trades Hall commissioner Luke Hilakari proposes, would be to offer special sick leave for coronavirus quarantining, which would allow workers to take days off in the interest of public health.

But employers only nominally care about employees’ and public health. During the bushfires, Ubereats, Deliveroo, and Menulog delivery staff, among many other services, worked days where air quality was hazardous. In the case of Deliveroo, despite a warning to its ‘independent contractors’ not to work on dangerous days, it did not provide sick leave or protective equipment, instead offering “no consequences” should a worker refuse to work in an affected area.

Without access to other income, delivery workers braved days where the long-term health effects are still unknown. Tut-tutting employees for working in hazardous conditions, as with the past summer’s smog, or chastising sick workers for being too greedy to stay home, as with the current fears of a COVID-19 spreading, shifts the blame from employers to employees (or “independent contractors” in the case of delivery workers) who cannot afford to take days off.

How this public health crisis will impact the most vulnerable expands beyond casual workers – to Asian Australians, other minorities and people on Newstart.

Newstart recipients, should they be required to self-quarantine, will continue to receive payments for 14 days, after which they are expected to produce a medical certificate for further payments. This doesn’t consider the fact that, in a serious case of COVID-19, a patient would be unable to obtain a medical certificate without breaking quarantine. Providing public health warnings without adequate and realistic planning is counterproductive.

Reportedly, the Government was looking to expand powers to forcibly detain people under the Biosecurity Act. This follows proposed South Australian laws that would expand police powers to detain people suspected of exposure to COVID-19.Though this approach makes sense in theory, in practice, expanding police powers only increases their ability to target the most vulnerable members of society, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, homeless people, and people with a disability, among many others.

The Biosecurity Act also allows members of the public to report their neighbours if they suspect that they’ve failed to self-isolate, who may then be subject to a control order.

Truthfully, this is what I fear most. I am already viewed with suspicion.

The day after a man had collapsed and died in Chinatown after onlookers refused to give him CPR, I was catching the train home from the city. I drank some water, which went down the wrong pipe. I began choking. I noticed those in front of me throw glances back. I held down the coughing, face burning, chest swelling, eyes watering, and got off at the next station.

Perhaps if the dob-in system were in effect, I would have been placed into mandatory quarantine, and all my worst fears about financial insecurity and feeling like a second class citizen would have come to light.

Stephen Pham is currently working on his first book Vietnamatta, a collection of autobiographical fiction and criticism that explores life in and around post-gangland Cabramatta, in south-west Sydney.

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