Another young, unvaccinated Australian has died of COVID-19: a 27-year-old man died at his home in south-west Sydney yesterday, bringing the current outbreak’s death toll to 17. Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant announced the death (along with 233 new cases) in today’s press conference, explaining that the man had deteriorated suddenly on day 13 of his home isolation period. Every avoidable COVID death is a travesty. But there is something especially gut-wrenching about the deaths of younger people – and not only because they have more years ahead of them, as early “let it rip” advocates had previously argued. The young man, like the 38-year-old woman before him, is in the age group that is still not eligible for Pfizer, has borne the brunt of the changing health advice and mixed messages around AstraZeneca, and has only recently become eligible to be vaccinated at all. But while the government’s newly adopted modelling shows the rollout should now be focusing on young people, that’s not happening yet. When the head of the Vaccine Taskforce, Lieutenant General John Frewen, was asked whether, in light of the young man’s death and the apparent changed focus, Pfizer should now be made available to under-40s, he said they could already get AstraZeneca, noting that Pfizer might open to the 30–39 age bracket towards the end of the month. But if young people are now a priority, why are they not able to access the vaccines older groups can, when they’ve been told that AstraZeneca, while incredibly safe, is marginally riskier for them? If jabs are to be “fast-tracked” to the young, as The Australian reports, why not the one recommended for them? Young Australians have been patient in this rollout. The slowness has forced us into more lockdowns, which disproportionately affect the young, as even Morrison himself likes to remind us when he’s in one of his anti-lockdown moods. The lack of urgency is now killing them.
The young man’s tragic death came up early in today’s rancorous, pointless Question Time – and it was the prime minister who brought it up, seemingly to deflect from the problems in aged care. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese had opened the session with a question about the issues with the aged-care workforce rollout, asking if the PM took any responsibility for the fact that workers still weren’t fully vaccinated. Morrison bleated at length about how well protected elderly Australians now were (not the group he was being asked about), unlike in the Victorian wave, noting that the current deaths were often in young people, including the young man announced today – a staggering deflection. Tragically, Albanese’s question had more to do with the man than Morrison may have realised, with reports he caught the virus from his wife, who works in aged care. The rest of Question Time was an insult to the man’s memory, with MPs squabbling and mocking each other during a discussion over why the PM wouldn’t make the heavily indulged anti-masker George Christensen wear a mask in the chamber (“in this country people have a right to free speech,” Morrison said, while pretending Labor’s candidate for Higgins was equivalent to his lockdown-protesting MP), Barnaby Joyce ranting about a time he went to the movies, and a range of dixers that felt even more nauseating than usual.
Should younger Australians be offered access to Pfizer immediately, if they are the priority? It’s something UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws has been suggesting for some time now, calling for millennials to be prioritised ahead of Gen Xers. But Frewen was not willing to agree in his media rounds today (in which he also talked up his plan to have 70 per cent of eligible Australians vaccinated by end of this year, and appeared to soften on Labor’s cash incentive proposal, which the government has so vehemently opposed). “The main reason for not opening up all cohorts to mRNA is expectation,” he said in a press conference, which he held without any politicians, noting that he didn’t want to overload booking systems and leave people unable to actually access them. It’s true to say there isn’t enough Pfizer in the country yet for everyone – far from it. But with two thirds of all cases in New South Wales aged under 40, what with so many essential workers being in that age range, why not actively prioritise them?
It’s not clear if this is something the rollout is agile enough to handle, with the process having already become something of a free-for-all. But young Australians – who are now seeing members of their age group die from a more savage strain of the virus, despite only recently becoming eligible for vaccination, amid a bevy of conflicting messages – don’t need a front page headline declaring that the needle is “swinging to under 40s”, when it really isn’t. And they really don’t need politicians acting like children in Question Time, trying to score political points, when they are responsible for the fact that young Australians are at the back of a seriously delayed queue. What they need is a competent rollout, proper support to allow them to stay home from Sydney’s negligence-induced outbreak, and some respect for the fact that their peers are dying while they wait.