Suffer the vulnerable
Governments are warning people to get jabbed or suffer the consequences, but how much do they care about those left behind?
The federal and NSW governments are today on a vaccine messaging unity ticket, delivering warnings to the unvaccinated against being “left behind” when the nation reopens. Scott Morrison’s caution to the unvaccinated has been faithfully disseminated on the front page of today’s Australian Financial Review (“Get jabbed or get left behind, says PM”), while on RN Breakfast, deputy PM Barnaby Joyce warned that the nation won’t stop for those who don’t get the shot. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was back with an unexpected press conference on her first day of no longer doing daily pressers (surely nothing to do with the fact that Opposition Leader Chris Minns called his own for the newly vacated 11am timeslot), and she came with the same message: it’s your call to not get vaccinated, but don’t expect the same freedoms as those who are. The mayor of Australia’s anti-vaxxer capital, Byron Bay, does not like this, arguing that the plan to exclude the unvaccinated from certain freedoms is akin to “bullying”; but he appears to be in the minority. Governments are urging the hesitant not to be willingly left behind here, implying that it is on individuals to make the right choice. But vulnerable people across the nation are being left behind – on issues such as access to disaster payments, getting vaccinated and more – through little to no fault of their own. As usual, it appears that the less fortunate are bearing the brunt. So what are these governments doing, beyond issuing warnings, to actively ensure no Australian is left behind?
The federal government has previously been somewhat wary of vaccine passports, and of mandating vaccines at a policy level. Over the past few weeks, the Commonwealth has seemed more confident in applying a carrot–stick hybrid, with an open warning that not getting vaccinated will have repercussions. In today’s surprise NSW press conference, it was as difficult as ever to get a straight answer out of Berejiklian, especially regarding an ABC investigation showing her government delayed locking down for two days after the West Hoxton super-spreader event. But there was one message she was keen to get out, repeatedly stressing that the unvaccinated won’t be getting back all the freedoms that the vaccinated will, even when the population reaches 80 per cent double dosed. While government plans are not yet finalised, the premier suggested a combination of government policy and private business decisions would mean unvaccinated people would continue to miss out on a lot of freedoms, with no timeline in place for how long this might go on. The best thing to do was simply to get vaccinated, the premier said.
But while the state and federal governments are focused on coaxing the hesitant to get the jab by using the threat of being left behind, experts are worried about the groups whose vaccination rates are lagging for structural reasons – and those who are unlikely to be moved by an AFR front-page warning. Social services groups have issued their own warning today, arguing that NSW’s 70 per cent vaccinated target could mask inequity in low-income communities, amid concerns the poorest citizens won’t reach safe vaccination levels when the whole state does overall. There is currently no public data breaking down vaccination rates by income bracket, only by suburb, despite requests from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), while the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released analysis showing that those on lower incomes have died of COVID-19 at four times the rate of those on higher incomes. In a letter to the premier on Saturday, ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie sought more data, asking “which groups are being left behind”, and saying she could not support a road map that does not include assurances for vulnerable groups. But it’s not clear whether the data is being gathered at all, either at the state or federal level.
It would hardly be the only time disadvantaged groups have been overlooked in the vaccine rollout, or in the rush to reopen the nation. Aboriginal elders in Wilcannia – where more than one in six residents have now been infected with COVID-19 – have today told an inquiry that they warned authorities a year ago that overcrowded housing would make an outbreak even more disastrous if the virus reached the region, but they were tragically ignored. In greater Sydney, meanwhile, NSW Health’s decision to no longer contact-trace “low risk” exposures means essential workers who are potentially exposed are no longer eligible for Commonwealth disaster payments, even if they are required to isolate at their employer’s discretion, meaning that many will have to survive off the $320 “test and isolate” payment. And of course, today being picnic day is just the first instance of how residents in Sydney’s “LGAs of concern” will be left behind in the reopening.
With international evidence showing that an 80 per cent vaccination rate doesn’t actually stop infections surging, it’s clear that those who aren’t part of the vaccinated majority are going to suffer in more ways than simply not being able to go to the pub when Australia reopens. A stubborn minority will choose to remain unvaccinated, but others may find themselves vulnerable due to their circumstances. Perhaps the NSW and Commonwealth governments could spend a little less time warning people against being left behind in the race, and a little more time caring for those who are.
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The federal and NSW governments are today on a vaccine messaging unity ticket, delivering warnings to the unvaccinated against being “left behind” when the nation reopens. Scott Morrison’s caution to the unvaccinated has been faithfully disseminated on the front page of today’s Australian Financial Review (“Get jabbed or get left behind, says PM”), while on RN Breakfast, deputy PM Barnaby Joyce warned that the nation won’t stop for those who don’t get the shot. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was back with an unexpected press conference on her first day of...
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