opinion

Let's be clear, our government could pay for rapid antigen tests. They are choosing not to.

Let's put something into perspective. In 2017, the Australian government spent $122 million on a referendum to decide whether gay people should be allowed to marry the person they love. 

I share that example because it's ludicrous. But how about a more recent example? In 2021, our government spent $10 billion subsidising the coal industry. 

We also committed to spending more than $100 billion on nuclear-powered submarines that will be ready for use in the late 2030s.

We have spent millions keeping a single family — the Tamil 'Biloela' family — in immigration detention. 

And yet our government can't find the funds to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) — which our country is in desperate need of right now in the midst of year three of a global pandemic — free to all. 

Trying to find RATs on the shelves right now is like finding a needle in a haystack. Then there's the price. Image: Gemma Bath.  

That's despite the fact they are now playing a government-mandated role in our current strategy for sick and isolating Australians. 

And despite the fact that price gouging of said RATs is forcing Australians to fork out as much as $45 for a single test, if you can even find one on a shelf.

Following a meeting of national cabinet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced rapid antigen tests will be made free for all concession card holders. That equates to 6.6 million of our 25 million strong population; those with commonwealth seniors cards, healthcare cards, low-income cards, pension cards, and DVA gold and white cards. 

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Free tests will also be available for close contacts and symptomatic patients through state and territory clinics.

Watch: As our country moves towards using RATs as a diagnosis strategy, that also brings new challenges. Post continues after video. 


Video via Channel Seven.

But what about everyone else? It's simply unaffordable for most families trying to do the right thing by their community to fork out on a product that is a necessary part of universal healthcare in 2022. You know — that system in Australia that we pride ourselves on offering for free? 

In the aftermath of that Wednesday meeting Morrison let us know that, "Universal free access was not considered the right policy response by all of the states and territories in attendance today."

He previously told us during an interview with Sunrise, "We're at another stage of this pandemic now where we just can't go round and make everything free. We have to live with this virus. This isn't a medicine, it's a test. And so there's a difference between those two things."

In Singapore, you can access up to three rapid antigen test kits for free from one of 100 vending machines islandwide.

In the UK, anyone can access free rapid antigen tests from pharmacies, libraries, and even via home delivery. 

Similarly, the United States has committed to sending 500 million kits out to homes for free.

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As the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) said in a statement on Wednesday, "Free Rapid Antigen Tests for all is a matter of equity."

"Given the soaring case numbers which most likely represent just a fraction of actual infection rates, and the stretched capacity for PCR tests, we are running out of time to get widespread use of RATs in the community underway and support people to do the right thing," AMA President, Dr Omar Khorshid said.

"There’s no time for piecemeal measures, like targeted subsidies which might be difficult to implement. We need to harness the goodwill in the community to use RAT kits and free access for everybody."

Once again, Australians have been left high and dry. 

While it's important to remember that during a pandemic there is no playbook and world leaders and experts are riding each new challenge as it comes, for Australians who've already lived through the bungled vaccine rollout and months of crippling lockdowns, this is a hard reality to swallow. 

According to Ten News, part of the severe shortage problem is down to our government's failure to lock in manufacturers early enough. A familiar excuse we've been dealt during this pandemic.

Social commentator and journalist Jamila Rizvi put it perfectly when she tweeted, "Medicare has been Australia's universal health care system since the 1980s. RATs are a necessary part of healthcare in 2021. They play an essential and government mandated role for people who are sick or isolating. That they are not free, nationally, is offensive."

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It is offensive. 

The government asked us to get vaccinated — we did.

The government asked us to stay home — we did. 

The government asked us to give up funerals and weddings and reunions and our livelihoods — we did. 

Then they asked us to get back out there and travel and spend and revive the economy — we did. 

Astronomical case numbers are the result of that and yet the government's pockets are apparently empty for the one tool that will help us — the ones in the firing line — slow the spread. 

Health economist and think-tanker Dr Stephen Duckett has told the ABC the federal government could buy rapid antigen tests for a couple of dollars each, and pointed out that if it gave out 10,000 RATs for free and it prevented ONE hospitalisation, the government would still be ahead financially.

This is the worst public emergency in 100 years. An emergency that's been made worse by our government's continued ball dropping. This is just the latest episode. 

And the message we're being sent this time around is that it pays to be privileged. 

You can keep up to date with Gemma Bath's articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @gembath.

Feature Image: Getty/Gemma Bath/Mamamia.