Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Make no mistake, our society needs vaccine urgently

Steven Schwartz

07 January 2021 | The Australian

Where is Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine? Britain, Bahrain, the US, Denmark, Russia, Germany, Canada, China, Italy, Estonia, Croatia, Spain, Argentina, Mexico and France have all started vaccinating healthcare workers, the elderly and other high-risk people. Israel intends to have its whole population — nine million people — vaccinated by the middle of next month, while Australia does not plan to vaccinate a single person before March.

Our unhurried approach seems inconsistent with the commonwealth’s COVID-19 vaccine and treatment strategy, which states: “Australia will use Therapeutic Goods Administration … regulatory processes to enable early access to COVID-19 vac­cines and treatments”. It then goes on to say the TGA “will speed up product review and registration while assuring safety and efficacy”. Early access? Speedy? Compared with what?

In a radio interview, TGA head John Skerritt notes that other countries are taking shortcuts in their normal approval processes and issuing “emergency use authorisations” because of their “desperate situation”. Skerritt notes that Australia experienced fewer COVID-19 deaths in a whole year than some countries had in a single day.

We can afford to take the time to conduct thorough evaluations of vaccines because, so far at least, Australia has kept fatalities relatively low. In Skerritt’s view, Australia does not have an emergency.

Scheduling the rollout of vaccines for March leaves our premiers with an invidious choice. Lifting restrictions and opening borders almost certainly would result in more illness and death. To maintain a low fatality rate without a vaccine, premiers must rely on the only tools they have.

These include contact tracing, local and regional lockdowns, state border closures, masks and the occasional whimsical prohibition such as on fishing, alcohol and munching on kebabs outdoors. These measures are not cost free; they exert a heavy burden on young and old.

Border closures separate families while lockdowns destroy jobs and rob children of time at school. Worrying about job security, mortgage payments and putting food on the table has taken a high toll on the nation’s mental health.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports enormous rises in the use of crisis lines and mental health services last year. Beyond Blue (an organisation established to help people cope with depression, anxiety and stress) reported a 39 per cent increase in contacts. Calls to Kids Helpline were up 24.5 per cent.

The most significant increases were in Victoria — significantly, the state with the most draconian lockdowns. Medicare-subsidised mental health services (psychiatrists, psychologists) increased 20 per cent in Victoria and 13 per cent in the rest of the country.

Given that lifting borders and forgoing lockdowns will result in many more deaths, it is not surprising that state leaders (and most of the general population) see border closures and lockdowns as the lesser of two evils.

However, as Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski points out, “When we choose the lesser evil, we must remember that it is also evil.” Australia may not be as desperate as other countries, but we cannot just accept the destruction to social, family and commercial life caused by border closures and lockdowns. Mental health is as important as physical health

It is easy to dismiss complaints about the loss of personal liberty as mere libertarian posturing. Of course, we must be most concerned with saving lives, but we also should do our best to preserve our way of life and give some thought to the mental health of all our people, especially the young ones.

We are grateful not to have the death rates of other countries; nevertheless, Australia is also in a state of emergency. Waiting for March to administer immunisations will leave more time for the virus to spread. Western NSW suddenly has become a COVID-19 hotspot and we can expect similar outbreaks elsewhere.

It is possible that we do not yet have any vaccines to deliver. Still, there are things we can do to prepare for their arrival. For example, the federal government could start mobilising and training the huge workforce required to deliver a co-ordinated national immunisation program.

The program also must specify the order in which people are vaccinated. If healthcare workers go first (as they should), then we need a consistent national definition of who is a healthcare worker (not only doctors and nurses but also pharmacists, technicians, aides, therapists and many others).

Leaving workforce training and policy formation to the states will certainly result, once again, in a patchwork of different rules, regulations, and processes to deal with a virus that does not respect state boundaries.

With a co-ordinated national plan, Australia will be ready to vaccinate the population as soon as the TGA finds vaccines safe and effective. For all our sake, it’s time to get moving.

Steven Schwartz is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He is a former vice-chancellor of three universities and former executive dean of medicine and dentistry at the University of Western. Australia.

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