A good friend, who I sometimes vehemently disagree with, but whose opinion I always value nonetheless, asked me where I thought the Australian government went wrong on the coronavirus vaccine roll-out.
This is an excellent question, but difficult to answer as there are so many ways and they are very inter-related. I expect many books and articles will be written on this topic, and not just with regard to Australia, although Australia is particularly interesting for a number of reasons, one being that it is a wealthy and well-educated country. Someone more adept than me with actor network theory could put together a really amazing chart. In the meantime, I have a few remarks. As I am in an at risk group, I started following the news of the vaccination in a casual way from December, when the first vaccinations came out in the US, and then my attention grew from January onwards becoming increasingly obsessive as it seemed that the Australian program was headed into an abyss.
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Looking back to the early part of 2021 from 1 April (April fools’ day), there currently seem to be three main factors:
- Making promises to the public without evidence of the ability to deliver (in contrast, when Biden promised 100 vaccinations in 100 days, it seems quite likely he knew this goal would be exceeded, making him look like a “winner”). This factor points to a lack of focus and leadership at the top. Even the best leaders are not knowledgeable on everything, but where leadership comes in is through focus and picking the right people to do the job. In my own estimation, this government should resign or stand-down in favor of someone who can stand up and prove they can do the job with laser-like focus.
- In terms of a vaccine, the government backed the wrong horse or vaccine. The government should have focused on several candidates. It is true that there are supply side issues, most notably originating in Europe, yet Europe is not the only sources of vaccines. The US currently has three factories producing Pfizer alone. Despite the expense of investing in multiple vaccines, the sclerotic rollout is costing untold billions. In my area alone, which is academic: new employees are prevented from coming to Australia, overseas field research by domestic academics is on hold, and the travel to Australia by new hires has been on hold now for quite some time. There is also a growing misery index caused by thousands of families kept separated. Personally, I would have gladly paid out of pocket for greater choices, and even donated towards others having access to this privilege.
- Planning, planning, planning. Throughout January, February, and even into March, there was an enormous marketing campaign on the part of the government, yet there was no plan and no consultation with the medical professionals who would be charged with carrying out the vaccine. Some of the highlights of the campaign included: it mentioned the approved vaccines and provided information about them, there was an eligibility checker to see what group you fitted into, a timeline of when you should be able to get the vaccine (we are so hopelessly behind on this, that the numerical goals had to be changed, further eroding trust in the government’s ability to deliver), an explanation of the storage requirements of the two vaccines (supposedly) on offer: hospitals with cold facilities to administer the Pfizer and other health care professionals to administer the Oxford/AstraZeneca, and a phone number to get further information, which was unable to provide the most important information regarding appointments.
Many problems emerged from these issues, which is appalling given Australia had much more time to prepare, bought through divisive lockdowns, travel bans, and the seasonal differences. Even manufacturing or acquiring something as simple as enough PPE, should have been within reach. Even the fact that pandemics interrupt supply chains and spread through transportation hubs contributing to shortages is well-known to those who study history. It is well documented in the Renaissance and likely contributed to the collapse of civilization as early as the 12th century BCE.
Many of these problems can be attributed to a lack of transparency, which further eroded public and professional trust in the government’s ability to successfully roll out the vaccine. One big problem was with the eligibility checker in that without a doctor’s consultation to provide one with a letter, the eligibility checker was essentially meaningless. This information was not provided until the end of March. Given I’m plagued with several health issues, none of my making (one doesn’t purposely get older or inherit respiratory issues), I started doing more and more of my own research (relying primarily on the Guardian, Fairfax Media, and the government department of health website). Three medical specialists I have routine appointments with, in January and February said they knew nothing about the roll-out. Initially I suspected this was some sort conspiratorial secret meant to prevent a public panic (which has ensued anyway). However, this is not the case. One anecdote taken from one of the many articles I’ve read mentioned that a medical center did an accelerated 10 day remodel that cost $25,000 and involved creating more patient spaces, installing refrigeration units, and hiring additional staff. They were set up to give 1000 vaccinations a day with a potential to give up to 2500 a day. However, the government gave them just 40 doses per week.
The government announced that they had acquired 10 million Pfizer doses (enough for 5 million people), had plenty of AstraZeneca – that I’m personally not to excited about, and said another 10 million Pfizer doses would be obtained at some unspecified time. Doing the math, I noticed that there were about ¾ million 1a vaccination candidates who would receive the Pfizer first, followed by the approximately 7 million people in the 1b category. I assumed that at least 4 million of the 1b group who got in early would get the Pfizer. I got a list of the nine Pfizer hubs in the Melbourne area and a letter from my doctor placing me in the 1b category. My reckoning was that if I waited about a month, I should be able to book an appointment in a Pfizer hub. I called three of them every week for three weeks and kept being told they were not offering Pfizer yet to the public as they were still vaccinating their own staff. I called the Health Department help line, that told me to call the Pfizer hub, that told me to call the Health Department helpline. How could this be? I read one account that it took an hour to deliver a vaccination. Meanwhile, the US was using retired medical personnel and even veterinarians to administer vaccinations. I acknowledge that the vaccination process can result in emergency medical side effects, yet a doctor can supervise this process while others deliver the vaccine. I also did quite a bit of internet searching to see if 10 million Pfizer doses had indeed arrived. The best estimate I can come up with was around 500,000. I have no way to know if this is true or not. Most of my friends and colleagues in my age group in the US have already received two vaccinations (either Pfizer or Moderna, the US is not using AstraZeneca).
To really get at the underlying issues of this story, I recommend reading the letters to the Age and Sydney Morning Herald and/or the Guardian. In January and February, the letters (that support vaccination) are mostly hopeful and looking forward to the upcoming rollout. By March, there is a distinct change. Not only are the letters anxious, angry, dismissive, and sometimes bordering on the hysterical, there is one horror story after another from people with elderly relatives in their 80s and 90s that are supposed to be in group 1a, but can’t get a Pfizer shot and are still waiting. Many others have called doctors on a list that can be downloaded from the Health Department website, with some not able to offer appointments to May or June, others that have no vaccine, and still others that are inundated with anxious phone calls that are draining staff time, damaging morale, and making it difficult to provide routine health care.
Louise Hitchcock is Professor of Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology in the Classics and Archaeology Program at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of ‘Minoan Architecture: A Contextual Analysis, Theory for Classics, and Aegean Art and Architecture’ (with Donald Preziosi), and is the co-editor of ‘DAIS: The Aegean Feast, Aegaeum 29’ as well as the author of over 80 articles dealing with Aegean archaeology, architecture, and theory. Her current research deals with Aegean, Cypriot, and Philistine connections. The Australian Research Council funded her excavations at the Philistine site of Tell es-Safi/Gath, where she was an area supervisor.