News National Paul Bongiorno: Older Australians have every right to be very afraid
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Paul Bongiorno: Older Australians have every right to be very afraid

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Eleven years ago at the tender age of 64, Network Ten’s publicity department was preparing a profile blurb and the researcher asked me “If I had one wish, what would it be?”

I answered, almost without thinking, “to die with dignity”.

The answer, which surprised even me, came from the deep recesses of my psyche, which despite my druthers knew the end is closer than the beginning.

If it was true then, it is even more so now.

So like millions of other Australians, I have been following the COVID-19 death toll with growing trepidation, exacerbated by the sad fact most of the 421 pandemic victims have been older people in nursing homes.

Victoria reported a spike of 25 deaths on Monday, with epidemiologists warning that may yet be topped.

The elderly have suffered more than anyone during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AAP

It is one thing for the Prime Minister to blame “community transmission” for the appalling toll in aged-care facilities, it is another thing for him not to have had a plan in place that was more effective, even if it did exist.

Mr Morrison, his ministers and bureaucrats have spent the past week doing everything in their power to refute accusations at the Aged Care Royal Commission that “neither the Commonwealth Department of Health, nor the aged care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged-care sector”.

On Friday, the Prime Minister and the acting chief medical officer admitted they were “learning as they go in this process”.

There is compelling evidence they are a long way behind.

The Saturday Paper reported the Commonwealth was insisting on a crisis phone hook-up on June 10 that New South Wales, like all the states, was responsible for infection control under the Aged Care Act.

It also rebuffed demands that aged-care residents who were infected with the coronavirus be moved to hospitals.

Aged Care Minister Senator Richard Colbeck. Photo: AAP

Health Minister Greg Hunt told Sky News on Sunday that he had addressed this issue in the current Victorian emergency, and hospitals would be taking all infected aged patients.

Meanwhile, Labor’s Anthony Albanese is calling on the government to immediately implement the recommendation of  Commissioner Tony Pagone to establish “an aged-care specific national co-ordinating body”.

This body should ensure “there’s appropriate staff, there’s appropriate training” and importantly access to personal protective equipment,” the Opposition Leader says.

Seven months into the pandemic it is simply incredible that the Commonwealth’s “learnings” have been so slow.

Passive and tardy to react hardly captures reality.

Constraining the Coalition government up until the virus struck was the fetish of returning to surplus.

No one was more disappointed than Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who in opposition prepared an ambitious policy reform agenda of the sector for the incoming Abbott government.

Her work was largely ignored and Mr Abbott’s Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison knows that better than most.

We don’t have to wait for the Royal Commission to tell us that the current design of the largely privatised aged-care sector, at a cost of $20 billion a year to taxpayers, is not completely fit for purpose.

Unless that purpose is to prioritise profits ahead of care.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells helped prepare an aged-care reform package in 2018 that was largely ignored. Photo: AAP

Mr Morrison says when decisions are made for loved ones to go into aged care it is “very much at the stage of pre-palliative care”.

He says it’s a very different proposition from five, 10 or 20 years ago “and the system needs to be adjusted to be able to meet this at a clinical level”.

In the Budget this October, the Prime Minister has the chance to put these insightful words into meaningful action.

And sure, it will cost a lot of money.

But a key witness at the Royal Commission, geriatrician Professor Joseph Ibrahim fears there is a climate of discrimination against older people at a systemic level.

He reacted strongly against the federal Health Department’s claim in Commission evidence that “200 deaths is a sign of success”.

He says this gives you a sense of the level of discrimination and lack of care we have for older people.

Professor Ibrahim says the situation calls for an investigation by the Human Rights Commissioner.

Hopefully, things improve before I die.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics