Vaccine resistance
Despite historically high vaccination rates, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a global pandemic

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“They’re supposed to be standing up for workers’ rights,” one woman told me recently. She doesn’t want to be identified, so I’ll call her Vicki. Her tone is righteous, angry. She’s talking about her union, and she’s not at all satisfied by its response to her demand that it mobilise against national cabinet’s requirement that all aged-care workers receive at least a first vaccine dose by September 17. “I’m completely confused and disappointed. All they say is that I should to talk to my GP about getting vaccinated. But I don’t want to get vaccinated. What’s the point of being a member? If they’re not going to stand up for workers’ rights, I’m resigning my membership.”

Vicki works in a nursing home. If she wants to keep her job after the middle of next month, she’ll probably need to have had at least her first jab of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. I say “probably” because the legal instruments necessary to enforce that decision – including public health orders – have not yet been created. Those orders might place obligations on Vicki’s employer, or they might simply ban Vicki from entering an aged-care facility without proof she’s received her first dose and fine her if she does.

Even without specific government orders, however, employers in aged care, disability care and hospitals are already likely to be under state legislative obligations to ensure that their staff who work with people at high risk of succumbing to COVID-19 – including the elderly and people with compromised immune systems – are vaccinated as soon as possible. All employers in South Australia, for instance, are obliged under SA’s Work Health and Safety Act to ensure that “workers and other persons … be given the highest level of protection against harm to their health … from hazards and risks arising from work … as is reasonably practicable”. Other states and territories have similar laws. SA Health – which employs doctors, nurses, cleaners and admin staff at the Royal Adelaide and Women’s & Children’s hospitals – considers itself obliged under this law to take reasonable action to prevent the spread of “vaccine-preventable diseases” (VPD). And it says “reasonable action” includes requiring its staff to be vaccinated against diseases like influenza, hepatitis A and B, and now COVID-19.

If there’s a workers’ rights case here, it’s not one Vicki would win. Individual rights in our kind of society – liberal democracy – are always balanced against the rights of other individuals and the public interest. Three recent decisions of the Fair Work Commission make it clear that the public interest in requiring individual employees to be vaccinated if they work in places where VPD risks are high will, in most cases, outweigh any person’s private “right” to refuse vaccination – especially in the context of a global pandemic.

But Vicki, who has been vaccinated against everything else, is adamant she won’t be vaccinated against COVID-19. The United Workers Union is but one of the many targets of her anger, which she also directs at the state and federal governments, chief health and medical officers, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (which has approved both vaccines for use in Australia) and most of the media.

“I have a right to not be vaccinated if I choose,” says “Annette”. She’s also an aged-care worker. I ask her whether she can accept there might need to be reasonable limitations on her choices in the middle of a global pandemic that’s killed more than four million people so far. “Absolutely not,” she says. “This is about fundamental human rights. It comes from the Magna Carta. And Nuremberg.”

“Sharon”, another aged-care worker, is even more adamant. “I will not be dragged into a tent and held down while they jab a needle into me,” she tells me. She’s absolutely right: she won’t be. If national cabinet’s requirement feels compulsory to her, that’s only because she wants to keep working in aged care beyond mid September. But nobody’s forcing her to.

Where has this trenchant obstinacy come from? I’d prefer to believe that those working in nursing homes and hospitals are among Australia’s most committed to the scientific consensus and to public health goals. Many no doubt are. But almost a third of aged-care nurses in Western Australia, even according to its union, say they’ll resign rather than be vaccinated. This parallels the proportion of the broader population that says it won’t be vaccinated, according to some polls. Between August 2020 and January 2021, the number of Australians who reported hesitancy and outright resistance nearly doubled.

We might ask why Scott Morrison, so fond of invoking the Anzac “spirit of sacrifice” in furtherance of martial nationalism, hasn’t used similar “Your Country Needs You” rhetoric to promote vaccination. But Australia’s vaccine hesitancy goes beyond mere selfish free-riding. A free rider is a person who avoids the risks of being vaccinated while still hoping to benefit from others taking on those risks. But to be anti-vax on COVID-19 is to irrationally sacrifice oneself in nobody’s cause for no reason, on the say-so of loud people who lack any qualifications in anything remotely relevant. Vaccines have been implicated in the deaths of six people in Australia. More than 11.2 million doses have been given. That’s a fatality rate of 0.00005 per cent (or just over 1 in every 1.9 million doses). But COVID-19 has killed 927 people in Australia so far: that’s 2.64 per cent of all confirmed cases. Put another way: for every 38 Australians who have caught COVID-19, one has died. Delaying vaccination means extending lockdowns and exposing yourself and others to a very deadly disease. Anyone who bets on COVID-19 given these numbers is suffering from a math deficiency so fundamental as to suggest impaired cognition.

I ask “Frank”, who works for a public hospital and has been told he’ll need to have received his first COVID-19 vaccination by next week, why he’s so dead against the idea. “Because the vaccines don’t work,” he says. I ask him how he knows this, given that the most recent information suggests that while the vaccines appear to lose at least some of their inoculation powers over time, they do seem to be very effective at preventing death and hospitalisation, which is surely the point. “The politicians are pulling the wool over our eyes,” Frank says. “The people aren’t getting the correct information.”

Frank is curiously reluctant to tell me where to source the “correct information”, though I can probably take a stab in some not-so-dark places online and hit some of it. Facebook and YouTube are well-documented vehicles for the sharing of the kind of “news” that rarely makes it into the ABC, Guardian Australia or the Nine newspapers. Sky News Australia – which has had its content shared online vastly more than those outlets – has provided platforms and endorsement for some of Australia’s highest-profile anti-vaxxers, including Pauline Hanson and Craig Kelly.

Kelly – Australia’s most widely shared politician online – is frequently called a conspiracy theorist, but it’s probably more accurate to describe him as a science contrarian: he seems determined to set himself against a scientific consensus wherever one exists. As well as opposing vaccinations, Kelly has frequently endorsed hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as COVID-19 cures, and denied climate change. It’s no surprise Kelly has found something of a home on Sky, which is full of contrarians (they call themselves “conservative”, though Michael Oakeshott would find little of his disposition among them). When News Corp took over Sky in December 2016 it was a little-watched pay-TV station. Its new owners have converted it into a kind of local Fox News while also expanding into regional free-to-air broadcasting (via WIN) and pursuing a contrarian-content strategy for online sharing.

On his Sky show, Alan Jones has been a particularly strong Kelly booster. “The evidence says that you are right,” Jones told Kelly on May 10. “We’re lucky to have you,” he said on May 27. “A man of deep and significant courage” (June 7). “Thank you for your courage and thank you for your scholarship” (June 29). “This bloke’s courageous and he is correct” (July 1). “This is not Alan Jones or Craig Kelly [speaking], there are the facts” (July 12). ABC’s Media Watch has been pursuing Sky for some time for its endorsement of Kelly during a global pandemic – the above list comes from its most recent episode.

Kelly’s views – and those who share them – clearly must be countered in the public interest. But Australians have woken up in the middle of a global pandemic to find that we’ve long since given up any means governments might have once had to do so. For decades now, parliaments and governments have allowed more and more of our public discourse to be overrun by Rupert Murdoch’s corporate shock-jockery. COVID-19 has joined Australia’s colonial history, contemporary racism and bigotry, and of course climate change among the many conversations derailed by a Murdochian assault on truth and evidence, aggravated by the use of a weapon his warriors disingenuously call “free speech”.

Absurdly, we’re now reliant on major global media corporations to do the right thing. Belatedly, some of them are, including – surprisingly – News Corp itself. Its tabloid newspapers are now urging mass vaccination. Sky forced Alan Jones to apologise on-air for dangerously – and misleadingly – endorsing Kelly’s claim that vaccination increases your risk of being killed by the Delta variant. The Daily Telegraph last week dropped Alan Jones as a regular columnist. The following day, Google-owned YouTube suspended Sky from uploading any new videos for a week. Facebook and Twitter have at least suspended, and occasionally deleted, some high-profile accounts.

For the millions presently locked down in Sydney and Brisbane, and especially for the 17 people who have died in New South Wales since mid June, these responses are too little and far too late. Somehow, despite historically high rates of vaccination against almost every other disease from mumps to polio, Australia has developed a significant anti-vax movement in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. It’s a movement even more nonsensical than climate change denialism, because opposing vaccination is in nobody’s interests. Morrison isn’t invoking the Anzac tradition on the one occasion it might actually have a public interest benefit. Yet millions of us are apparently prepared to follow Craig Kelly and Alan Jones off a cliff, just like lemmings.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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