Confession: I was briefly excited by Scott Morrison on Tuesday night. I try not to be inspired by the politicians in power. Usually they're conducting a spin class as opposed to providing any real substance.
But this was heroic! Forking out for a very expensive COVID-19 vaccine, making vaccination mandatory. Awesome public health measure. Australians would be among the first in the world! And not just Australians, we would support access to the vaccine for countries in our Pacific family, as well as regional partners in south-east Asia.
"If this vaccine proves successful we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam and make it free for 25 million Australians," the Prime Minister said.
Free! For all Australians! How good are we!
Anyhow, my excitement lasted until Thursday mid-afternoon, when Health Minister Greg Hunt made it clear that the vaccination would not be mandatory. But kind of. Also there was the small matter of the vaccine not being quite ready yet for humans, as we all are.
I'm somewhat sympathetic to the early announcement of availability. We know we can't return to normal until we have a vaccine (unless we want to follow the advice of the "live and let die" crowd). It will be wretched damp masks and endless handwashing until we have that mighty vaccine.
But the decision to make it elective rather than mandatory is why, as the young people say, we can't have nice things.
All vaccines should be mandatory. All of them. The only people who should be exempt should be those who have a genuine medical reason (I have no idea what those genuine medical reasons might be, but since I do not have a medical degree, let's leave it to the actual experts who will know which person can't have which vaccine).
It's about educating people about what's a myth and what's not (folks, you do not get an episode of polio when you have polio vaccine. You just don't).
Ignore the Barnaby Joyces of the world. Remember his opposition to Gardasil? That's a vaccine to prevent the spread of human papillomavirus, which causes cervical and anal cancers. It was 2006, and Joyce was just a Nationals senator in the Howard government. He opposed the free provision of a vaccine which would save the lives of hundreds of women a year. Why?
Joyce thought that the rollout of Gardasil would lead to mass rooting. I think he called it promiscuity, but same-same. Turns out he didn't need Gardasil to encourage promiscuity, but there you go. The amazing thing about Gardasil is that it works! Really really well.
There will always be people who oppose vaccination, and we should ignore them all to stay safe and healthy. Georgie Dent, the executive director of The Parenthood, a lobby group for Australian parents, feels the same way.
"I'm firmly in the compulsory vaccination camp ... the public health outcomes from mass vaccination have been quite extraordinary and it brings home that it is possible to eliminate certain illnesses because of that protection," says Dent.
"The coronavirus has reminded us of how fragile we are as individuals and collectively, when it comes to a contagious virus or other illness."
But Dent says childcare doesn't insist parents or workers are vaccinated. Childcare centres, preschools and kindies must sight a valid vaccination record or exemption for all children. The family assistance payments are not available for families where children are not vaccinated unless they have an appropriate exemption.
Julie Leask wants incentives rather than punishments. When I called her on Wednesday to enlist her in my "mandatory vaccines for everyone" campaign, she told me to settle right down.
Of course, she says, it is really appealing to bypass people's choice and mandate vaccination. Get the government to do it for you. As she points out, regulation is important in public health.
Which, of course, is the case already. We all have to wear seatbelts when we drive, we have fluoride in our water, the sale of cigarettes to minors is forbidden, there are speed limits and blood alcohol limits for those of us driving cars.
But coercion should be a last resort, says Leask. Unfortunately for my argument, she's an actual expert. Leask, a professor at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine and Health and a specialist in vaccine hesitancy and refusal, says there are better ways than telling people what to do. Shame, really.
First, it is about having excellent public health programs that are proportionate to what works. It's about educating people about what's a myth and what's not (folks, you do not get an episode of polio when you have polio vaccine. You just don't). Then: reminding people a vaccine is due; getting health workers to recommend vaccination; making sure vaccination services are easy to access.
Give incentives. Create campaigns to reach everyone from everywhere. Maybe even have mandatory opt-outs.
I reckon it is also about recognising that Australians are a bolshy lot. They don't like being told what to do. For example, you might have regulations around who can work in healthcare and who can't. Government might consider a travel plan. Sure, you want to travel far and wide, to corona spots all over the world. Fine, enjoy Florida. But you can't come back until you have survived hotel quarantine at your own cost. Period.
I'd prefer mandatory vaccination, but Leask tells me Australians don't respond well to that kind of thing. She also reminds me that we are not even close to having a vaccine that works yet, let alone one ready to be rolled out to healthcare workers, the elderly, or those with chronic diseases. They will be first in the queue.
All my excitement has abated. When the time comes and the first delightful syringes come loaded, we will all be ready to be brave little soldiers. A small pinprick for some, a giant step back to our old lives.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.