Watching the current Sydney outbreak unfold I’ve had a strong sense of deja vu with what occurred in Melbourne during its second wave. Both outbreaks have had cases concentrated in working class suburbs, with large migrant populations. When workers can’t work from home because they work in essential but high-risk industries, who might be casuals without access to income support, and you add language barriers into the mix you have some enormous challenges to deal with. I can only feel compassion for the people of Sydney and wish them every success.
No worker should feel compelled to work when they should be isolating. Income support and a targeted communications campaign for all vulnerable, including migrant communities, must remain every government’s top priority. This must include an ethnic media campaign on the need to get vaccinated.
Victoria’s second wave happened before vaccines were available in Australia. Vaccines are now a game-changer. They could end the need for more lockdowns and enable Australia to carefully reopen to the world, just like other advanced economies are doing. We are a multicultural nation where families have been unable to visit their relatives for what is likely to well exceed two years.
Recently, the National Cabinet announced a four-stage plan for how Australia would reopen. It was light on detail with no set timelines, nor required vaccination targets. The lack of a detailed plan has itself resulted in some people putting off getting vaccinated. I’ve been asked by some, “why should I get vaccinated now when I can’t go overseas till 2022?” It’s because it might save your life tomorrow.
Now that vaccination rates are speeding up, it should be possible to finalise this national plan urgently. It will give Australians hope and a greater sense of urgency to get vaccinated, especially if “vaccine passports” become available. Many advanced economies are moving towards easing restrictions and their “vaccine passports” enable the vaccinated greater freedom to travel and to attend large public events.
There also needs to be a concerted effort to vaccinate the elderly in migrant communities across Australia. As of 24 July, 76.9 per cent of Australians aged over 70 have had one vaccine but only 36 per cent have had two vaccines. Two vaccines have been found to give you a much higher level of protection.
We need to look at the demographics of the almost one quarter of our elderly who haven’t been vaccinated even once. Which communities do they come from, which suburbs do they live in and what are the reasons they’re not vaccinated? Is it vaccine hesitancy, a lack of information or a lack of access to a clinic?
What efforts are being made to vaccinate people on aged care packages who are house-bound? Last year, Victoria sent people to knock on doors to get people tested. Home visits need to occur to vaccinate our most vulnerable.
I’ve made it my practice to ask people whether they’ve been vaccinated. It’s concerning to me to have met elderly Greek Australians who are hesitating to get vaccinated, especially with AstraZeneca.
The frequently changing advice about which vaccine is recommended for specific age groups has been widely acknowledged as having been unhelpful. The advertising campaign needs to ramp up and be much more inspiring.
I’m deeply grateful to the Hellenic Medical Society, the Greek Community of Melbourne, and other organisations for calling on Greek Australians to get vaccinated. They are leading the way and drawing attention to governments at all levels that there is vaccine hesitancy and that it needs urgent attention now.
Ethnic media and ethnic community leaders, especially health professionals who come from migrant communities, need to be supported by governments to address vaccine hesitancy. If you don’t acknowledge publicly that vaccine hesitancy is a problem, then how do you expect to enlist these ambassadors?
Medical professionals are incredibly busy running their clinics. If they come from an ethnic community background, then they should be supported financially to speak with ethnic community leaders and groups and do things like radio interviews. I know some have done this already from various ethnic communities, and they are to be commended for their efforts. They played an important role last year so they could be supported by governments to do even more.
Personally, I’m 52 but I had no concerns to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca and, even though the advice changed about people in their fifties, I won’t hesitate to get my second Astra Zeneca vaccination soon.
I urge all members of Australia’s Greek community to speak to their doctor soon about their specific circumstances and their suitability to get vaccinated. The scientific evidence tells us that the risk of a person aged over 70 getting very sick or dying from Covid-19 is significant, whereas the risk of dying from a blood clot is rare. Of course, everyone should seek medical advice that’s relevant to their specific circumstances. Please don’t wait to do something that could protect you and your loved ones now.
Jenny Mikakos is a former Victorian health minister