While COVID-19 restrictions have been slowly easing up in the US, Canada, and the UK, half of Australia’s population has been put into lockdown once again. With Australia being the last of the OECD countries to roll out a vaccine, some have dubbed the nation’s vaccination strategy a “failure,” going as far as to label it “one of Australia’s biggest ever public policy failures.”
Despite setting a goal of fully vaccinating its population by October 2021, only 13% of Australia’s vaccine-eligible population has been fully vaccinated, and only 35.3% have been partially vaccinated.
Australia’s Early Approach and Its New Challenge
Australia initially started off its strategy towards COVID-19 on the right foot. The country took an approach of “zero-COVID,” a strategy of combating the pandemic through “maximum suppression” of the virus rather than through herd immunity. Australia was able to achieve zero-COVID by following strictly enforced lockdowns, establishing an international travel ban, suppressing anti-lockdown protests, and implementing fines ranging from AU$1,000 to $5,000. Australia was among countries such as New Zealand and China in initially succeeding with their zero-COVID strategies.
The ease of lockdown restrictions that Australians were enjoying was disrupted as the Delta strain became increasingly challenging to tackle. The city of Melbourne joined Sydney and Brisbane in announcing its sixth lockdown in the first week of August 2021. Melbourne extended the lockdown end date twice from the end of August into September 2021, and many are predicting its further extension into September as New South Wales reaches record high cases since the first lockdown of the summer.
This most recent lockdown means Melbourne has reached 200 days of intense COVID-19 restrictions, including a curfew from 9 pm to 5 am. Residents are only allowed to move within a 5km radius of their homes for exercise and shopping and have been given a 2-hour limit on exercise. The first lockdown occurred from March 30, 2020, to May 12, 2020, lasting a total of 43 days. Five additional lockdowns followed, with the longest lasting 111 days, from July 8, 2020, to October 27, 2020.
Who’s to Blame?
This rollback in Australia’s handling of COVID-19 has been called a “public policy failure,” due to the country’s vaccination strategy. The Australian government has heavily relied on the AstraZeneca vaccine, along with supply deals with Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax. Many have criticized Australian Prime Minister Scott Morris and Health Minister Greg Hunt for their “passivity” in lobbying for the increased supply of Pfizer vaccines to Australia.
However, an export ban imposed by the European Union (EU) in January 2021 blocked the shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines into Australia, due to the third wave that hit several European countries. Only one-third of the nation’s order of 3.8 million vaccines were supplied. For this reason, Scott Morris blamed the delay of the vaccination rollout on the EU.
Additionally, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has labelled the vaccination strategy as “a more black and white failure of public administration.” Scott Morris’ current government has until May 2022 to hold elections, leaving time to potentially relieve the current criticism on the vaccine rollouts.
Following the shipment delay, Australia requested a delivery of 250,000 vaccine doses in February 2021. This batch was also blocked by the European Commission due to Australia’s low infection rates relative to Europe’s. These two occurrences significantly delayed the vaccination rollout for Australia’s citizens.
As the Delta strain has gained traction in its spread, an increased number of young people have begun to transmit the virus. While countries including Canada, the US, and some European nations have started offering the vaccine to children aged 12 and up in order to combat the highly infectious strain, Australia’s current status has prevented it from lowering the age group eligible for the vaccine.
Along with the nation’s “over-reliance” on the AstraZeneca vaccine, a large anti-vaccine sentiment has been quickly spread through misinformation. The “lack of an effective public education campaign” has also been brought up as a reason why some have remained vaccine-hesitant despite rising cases.
As Melbourne entered its sixth lockdown in early August, hundreds took to the streets to protest for “freedom” and “no more lockdowns,” in a so-called “Freedom Rally.” Victoria Police made 15 arrests the night the lockdown was announced, and authorities are still searching for instigators of violence and “breaches of health directions.” This protest has been labelled by Victoria Police as the “most violent in nearly 20 years.”
However, the five previous lockdowns were also met with resistance from people of the “sovereign citizen” movement, who argue that their rights and freedoms are being restricted by the public orders, especially Melbourne’s 111-day lockdown. There were cases of violent resistance, with one case occurring in which a woman “repeatedly smashed a policewoman’s head into the ground” after being asked to wear a mask. Other resistances occurred in the form of breaking curfews, challenging police at checkpoints, and “refusing to disclose basic information.” As a result, fines for rule breaching have been raised to AU$5,000.
While the rapid spread of the Delta variant has raised concerns over lowering the vaccine age eligibility, the issue of global vaccine shortages is apparent. Many of the world’s poorest countries are suffering amidst the pandemic due to the scarcity in the distribution of vaccines. The entire African continent, which is home to 18% of the world’s population, has only received 2% of the vaccines distributed globally, while some countries in the continent have yet to administer a vaccine dose at all.
While the World Health Organization raises the question of whether vaccines in “developed” countries, such as Australia, should be offered to healthy children under the age of 12, many “vulnerable older people” in developing countries have not been given the same privilege.
Containment of the virus and higher collective immunity as the year ends may change the current public perspective of the Morris government. It will be interesting to see how the Morris government will be able to recover from Australia’s COVID peak, keeping in mind the ethical issue of global vaccine shortages.