- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1971
The delta strain of COVID-19 had spread to all states on the eastern seaboard and to South Australia and border closures are in place at the time of writing. There is growing anger and frustration over the shambolic and botched roll-out of vaccines. Constantly changing, and at times unclear, government messaging is causing considerable confusion.
The reality is that lockdowns and border closures will continue until as close as possible to full vaccination is achieved. At present, that is not possible. Australia has one of if not the lowest rate of vaccination of any comparable country. Britain and the Netherlands, with far higher rates of vaccination, lifted restrictions with deadly consequences. The virus took off, cases rising alarmingly, so much so that days later the Netherlands reinstated the closure of nightclubs to curb the exponential growth in cases.
In the race we are not having, Australia has vaccinated the smallest percentage of its population of any OECD country.
The federal government botched the ordering of vaccines, resulting in a shortage of Pfizer and an oversupply of the cheaper AstraZeneca and Moderna on the horizon. AstraZeneca is not recommended by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) for anyone under sixty years of age.
Despite repeated appeals by the Prime Minister to ATAGI, it still refuses to change its position. The science remains unchanged, and ATAGI maintains its independence and integrity.
Morrison, as always, refuses to accept responsibility for the dangerously slow roll-out. He has attempted to deflect blame on states for the roll-out. He has pointed the finger at medical experts, including ATAGI. He didn’t support the hard lockdowns of Victoria and closure of Western Australia’s borders by Labor Premiers. Instead, he played politics with them and did an about-turn when Coalition Premier Gladys Berejiklian imposed a lockdown.
As a direct result of the government’s failure to communicate clearly and consistently, and with some help from anti-vaxxers, there is a strong resistance to AstraZeneca among sections of the population. This is particularly the case in the southwest of Sydney, where a GP practising in the area told the Guardian they want Pfizer but cannot get it.
TOO SLOW TO RESPOND
When the Delta strain of COVID-19 first emerged in the Sydney suburb of Bondi, the NSW Coalition government failed to impose swift, hard restrictions to curb its spread. It lost eight critical days before introducing a soft lockdown. It was an ill-thought-out, weak reaction to a fast-spreading virus that is far more virulent than other strains that have hit Australia.
The number of cases continued to rise before plateauing around the one hundred-mark, before stronger measures were introduced from 17th July. These included a harder lockdown of greater Sydney and the singling out of the local government areas (LGAs) of Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, and Liverpool in Sydney for tighter restrictions. A ring of steel was put around these predominantly ethnic and working-class areas, preventing all but healthcare and emergency workers going to work outside of the ring.
As the Guardian reported (the 19th of July, 2021), workers in Western Sydney were disproportionately targeted for police harassment, hefty fines, and intimidation. Before that, when most cases were in the wealthier suburb of Bondi, there was no similar presence.
When announcing the 17th July lockdown, the NSW Coalition government belatedly defined what essential work is. This resulted in many non-essential retail outlets closing. It also banned all workers except health care and emergency workers inside the ring of steel to work in other parts of Sydney.
However, the lockdown provisions failed to recognise the largely working-class composition of the three LGAs, or that greater Sydney relies on them for many essential services that keep Sydney working. They drive taxis, clean hospitals and public transport, work in supermarkets, deliver for Australia Post and supermarkets, drive buses and trains, etc.
When, over the weekend the light dawned, the Berejiklian government expanded the categories of workers who could work outside of those LGAs to ensure such basic services could continue. However, any worker leaving the steel ring for work must queue up for hours to get tested every three days.
At the time of writing, the lockdown is set to be lifted on the 30th of July. There is a time lag of five days or more from its introduction before the effectiveness of this lockdown can be assessed. At the time of writing, the number of people in the community, while infectious, remains worryingly high.
Berejiklian, known as the developers’ friend, shocked construction companies, tradies, and unions by locking down all non-urgent construction work and non-urgent maintenance. This had never been done before in any previous lockdown.
The federal government is now importing one million doses of Pfizer a week. The Doctors’ Reform Society is calling for more vaccines for Sydney’s locked down suburbs. There are approximately 600,000 people in the steel ring. Just one week’s supply of Pfizer would be enough to vaccinate them all, with a substantial quantity left over for other states.
NO END IN SIGHT
Modelling by the University of Sydney forecasts that with full compliance, it would be mid-August before the number of cases could be reduced to less than five, the NSW Premier’s stated aim. Modelling by the Burnett Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne suggests that it would take a month of tight Stage 4 restrictions with full compliance.
A model developed by the Populations Intervention Unit at the University of Melbourne, based on the current Stage 4 Sydney lockdown settings, found that the threshold would be reached on the 4th of September.
Morrison promised fifty-one million doses of vaccine to the Pacific but has only delivered 620,000 doses. The situation in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste is critical. Indonesia is facing an emergency, with 40,000-50,000 new cases every day. Instead of attacking China for reaching out to Pacific nations with its vaccine, Morrison should honour his commitments.
He should also support the proposal at the World Trade Organisation to introduce a temporary waiver on vaccine patents and related knowledge and ingredients. Australia should stop refusing and lobby the US and other rich countries to agree. Big Pharma is driving the agenda. That must end. Lives are more important than profits.
There is a race to get vaccinated, not just in Australia. The longer the virus continues to spread, the greater the odds of vaccine-resistant strains emerging. It is extremely short-sighted of the wealthy nations to hoard vaccines in quantities up to ten times their population. We are really “all in this together” and can only get out of it together.