The rapid spread of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 in Australia has fractured the country’s esteemed system of free health care, with experts saying the failure to provide free rapid antigen tests goes against “one of the best things about our society.”
Calls for free tests have come from politicians, those within the nation’s social services departments and health care professionals.
The tests, of which there is extreme demand and low availability, cost roughly $10 to $20 per single swab.
Emma King and Libby Buckingham — the CEO and director of Thriving Communities at the Victorian Council of Social Service, respectively — say allowing these medical essentials to be stockpiled, and their prices gauged, will have flow on effects for rates of inequality and health across the country.
"As the lines for the state testing centers snake back for kilometers, rapid antigen tests are snapped up from the shelves within seconds,” King and Buckingham wrote in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald. “Those with low incomes have no chance of purchasing them in the first place.”
They continue: “Being asked to pay for a rapid antigen test flies in the face of everything that Medicare stands for.”
We must make sure that everyone, regardless of income or postcode, can afford to access safety and good health. It's not just right, but in our shared interest. No-one is safe, if communities are left behind.— Dr Sandro Demaio (@SandroDemaio) January 4, 2022
Medicare, Australia’s publicly funded universal health care system, provides medical care and essentials for free.
The system was introduced in 1984.
"Universal health coverage should be based on strong, people-centered primary health care. Good health systems are rooted in the communities they serve,” the World Health Organisation states. “They focus not only on preventing and treating disease and illness, but also on helping to improve well-being and quality of life.”
One hundred million people are pushed into extreme poverty each year because of out-of-pocket spending on health.
The COVID-19 pandemic, specifically, pushed more than half a billion people into extreme poverty around the world in 2020 as individuals were forced to pay their health costs. In Australia, the economic impact of pandemic-related job losses and lockdowns disproportionately affected low-income and disadvantaged people.
King and Buckingham say those living on, or near, Australia’s relative poverty line — and who rely on government financial aid — are too often forced to go without food, electricity or necessary heating and cooling because they cannot afford it after paying rent.
"Providing free rapid antigen tests is not giving out Christmas presents or free hugs,” they wrote, before explaining that many are now being forced to choose between purchasing food for their families or buying tests to ensure they don’t infect their communities. “It is providing a medical essential that will slow the spread of the disease and keep people safe.”