Young people have been largely left out of the conversation throughout the pandemic. It was not until ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher revealed that her teenaged daughter had contracted COVID-19 at Lyneham High School that political attention turned to the experiences of children and their exclusion from the vaccination rollout. Senator Gallagher stridently critiqued the federal government for its failure to "ensure a prompt, efficient rollout of vaccines ... [leaving] children completely vulnerable to COVID-19".
There has recently been a lot of talk from the NSW and federal governments about "living with COVID" and "opening up" once we hit 70 and 80 per cent double vaccination rates, based on Doherty Institute modelling. Yet these figures only include Australians over the age of 16. Children are not included in these national targets, despite the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation approving the Pfizer vaccine for those aged 12-15 in late August. The Doherty Institute modelling predominantly addresses the benefits of vaccinating over-16s. Professor Sharon Lewin, the Institute Director, notes that 'the additional benefits [of vaccination for] 12 to 15 year olds [are] much lower". However, other modelling currently in progress specifically examines the impact of the Delta strain for children, the best approaches for their protection, and strategies to ensure that these considerations are included. Until we know more, it is important to protect children as best as we can.
Due to the nature of COVID to date, it has made sense to prioritise vaccination for older and more vulnerable demographics. As such, young people have been patiently waiting their turn. Yet the queue has been moving at a glacial pace thanks to the federal government's many failures in the vaccination rollout - or stroll-out. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Scott Morrison - who received his first Pfizer jab in February - has repeatedly told Australians that this is "not a race, it's not a competition". In June, Delta hit NSW and rapidly spread across the country, exposing both the unvaccinated to infection and Mr Morrison's laissez-faire attitude to much justifiable ridicule and scorn.
Young Australians are still waiting for vaccine appointments. It was only in late July that young people in hotspots gained restricted access to AstraZeneca, as per the ATAGI update, though many still found it difficult to secure a shot. While the ACT opened Pfizer bookings for those aged 30-39 at the start of August, those aged 16-29 could not register interest until the end of the month, with the first available appointments in mid-October. It is uncertain when those aged 12-15 will be able to book an appointment, and trials are still under way in children under 12. As of August 27, only 28 per cent of Canberrans aged 16-29 have received their first dose of either vaccine while children under 15 remain virtually unprotected.
Looking overseas, the Delta wave has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. It's no surprise, then, that most cases in the ACT outbreak are under 40, including an alarmingly large number of school-aged children. Thirty seven per cent of cases are under the age of 17 while 46 per cent are in those aged 18-44. The places of most spread are frequented by young people: schools, sports centres, clubs, and pubs.
We need to include young Australians in the conversation instead of speaking for them or excluding them altogether.
Though they're less likely to be hospitalised or die from the virus, this should not be our only measure. The Delta variant is leaving young people with long-term health issues, such as a greater risk of fatal heart complications, damage to other organs, as well as the threat of "long Covid". In the UK, there are an estimated 160,000 people under 25 living with this condition, of which 34,000 are under the age of 16 and 11,000 are 2-11 years old. While young people are more likely to make a speedy recovery from symptomatic illness, the risk of lasting health complications is a reality for many.
Young people are bearing the brunt of this current wave, not only in terms of case numbers but also in the sacrifices they're making. They've experienced a disruption to their education, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, and are isolated from social groups at a critical stage in their lives. Mental illness and distress are increasing and so, too, are the wait times for mental health support. Almost one in 3 Australians aged 18-24 lost their job in 2020, with young women facing more COVID-induced job losses than men. Those who kept their jobs are more likely to work on the frontline, keeping our society fed, supplied, and cared for. Sixteen- to 29-year-olds make up 79 per cent of food preparation assistants, 68 per cent of checkout operators, and 41 per cent of child carers, and are overwhelmingly women.
Society is heavily reliant on young, casual, minimum-wage and predominantly unvaccinated workers who put their health and safety - and that of their families and housemates - at risk to keep society going. That they weren't prioritised for vaccination is another indictment of a government who have too often pushed the young under the bus. Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an infectious diseases expert at UNSW and member of the World Health Organisation's COVID-19 response team, has been arguing since June that under 40s should be prioritised in the rollout. The Doherty Institute has also recognised this fact in its modelling and recommended that this would help reduce transmission and spread to vulnerable groups.
The rhetoric around lockdowns and vaccines has overlooked the living circumstances of young people. We're more financially precarious and less professionally secure. We're more likely to mix with a greater number of people, whether at work or in our social lives. We're also more likely to rent, rather than own, and tend to live in sharehouses with other young adults or apartments with no outdoor space. Many of us experience significant hardships, yet concerns are dismissed and support is lacking.
Children under 16 have even less of a voice. They've made sacrifices throughout the pandemic and are rightly worried about catching or spreading the virus. When children are mentioned in our national conversations, it's usually to discuss the trials and tribulations of home-schooling with endless debates about when face-to-face teaching should resume - to speak about them, rarely ever for them. There is a desperate desire to get children back in school, but little effort to ensure their safety once there with appropriate ventilation, vaccination, and space for social distancing. Opening the country once we hit the 70 and 80 per cent vaccination targets among those aged 16+ means that children will be exposed. We risk even more schools becoming super spreader locations.
This is just another in a long line of examples for the extent to which this government has ignored the interests of young Australians. Prior to the pandemic, schoolchildren were taking to the streets in vast numbers demanding action on climate change. Yet we have a Prime Minister who dreams of a "gas-led" recovery and refuses to commit to a target of net zero by 2050. The government has also failed young Australians when it comes to job security, the economy and affordable housing. The pandemic is further deepening the intergenerational divide between the haves and have-nots.
Not only do young Australians not have a voice, but we are also not politically represented. Currently, there are no MPs and only one senator, Jordan Steele-John of the Greens, in Federal Parliament aged 29 and under. According to the UN Youth Representative Consultation Report, only 7 per cent aged 12-25 felt represented in politics and only 13 per cent felt heard and respected more broadly. We are not the voting base of the Coalition. The vast majority of 18-34-year-olds voted for Labor and the Greens while only 15 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted for the Liberals. Is it any wonder we feel politically silenced?
We need to include young Australians in the conversation instead of speaking for them or excluding them altogether. We need to listen to their fears and concerns and acknowledge the unique burdens placed on them if they are to receive the support they need. It is also crucial that we include children in our vaccination targets. It's great to see ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr stand up for young people, advocating for the need to vaccinate 12-15-year-olds at the national level before "big decisions are made" on easing restrictions. Mr Barr is walking the walk by using a 12+ metric instead of 16+ for vaccination targets - hopefully other premiers and the Prime Minister will take note.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow in politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.