Every word of a media report can be true and accurate, but it can still mislead.
“Two dead of blood clotting after vaccine” is a classic case.
Novelty is an essential element of newsworthiness. The first Covid deaths got wide coverage. The 900 th got much less.
It explains Australians’ inconsistent approach to the risk Covid presents.
They were correctly willing to accept tough lockdowns when Covid struck because media prominently reported deaths in nursing homes (my mum or granddad) and people (like me) dying like flies in places with no lockdowns, such as the US. But now far too many are incorrectly opposed to vaccination arising from the huge media prominence of the one or two very rare blood-clot cases. It was highlighted by the alarming Essential Poll this week which reported that one in six Australians do not intend to ever get vaccinated and 40 per cent say there is no urgency.
The headlines conjure up the vision of an injection regularly causing death.
The death-after-vaccine reporting is accurate but misleading because people picture it happening to them, just as they picture themselves winning the lottery, when the chances of either are so remote as not to be worth wasting time on.
Though it must be said that the chances of winning a substantial prize in a lottery is higher than dying from a Covid vaccine (even assuming that the several deaths after vaccination are in fact caused by the vaccination).
The prominent reportage of things like shark and crocodile attacks make people think they are much more likely than they really are. Yet real risks go largely unreported, such as the 5000 people who die from falls (off ladders, roofs and walls as well as just falling over) and the 1200 people who die on the roads.
Covid still presents a major risk for Australians. Far too many people think we are out of the woods, like the 40 percent in the Essential Poll who are not in a hurry or the one in six spooked by the reporting prominence of the one a million post-vaccination deaths.
A counter-information campaign might help somewhat, but governments will have to go further to meet the danger posed by this misplaced complacency.
Governments cannot force people to be vaccinated. That would be assault. But after vaccines are available to all, Governments could prohibit (on pain of fines) unvaccinated people from a range of places (sporting venues, shopping malls, schools, universities, pubs restaurants and the like) and could prohibit them from crossing state borders.
It sounds harsh but it would be no harsher for unvaccinated people than the initial lockdowns were for the whole population.
On balance it seems like a fair policy. Mask-wearing, social-distancing and snap lockdowns can only be eased after widespread vaccination, but even then, unvaccinated people would still put everyone at risk of another Covid outbreak triggering society-wide lockdowns. Why not just impose the lockdown procedure just to the unvaccinated.
That is what schools do to children who are not vaccinated against a range of devastating childhood injuries. That is what many countries do to people arriving unvaccinated from places with yellow fever and other diseases: they get sent back.
Some people’s fear of or aversion to vaccination is such that they would accept the isolation as a fair price.
To suggest “we have got the thing under control now, so we can relax” is the wrong attitude. Rather we should be saying “we have got the thing under control now so we need to keep applying the measures which got it under control, because if we don’t the US, European and Indian experience awaits us”.
Those measures have to stay in force until the bulk of the population has been vaccinated; everyone has been offered vaccination; and those who do not get vaccinated are prevented from wandering about unrestricted.
Another reason for restricting the unvaccinated is that if it is not done it would be an invitation for people to say, “why should I bother getting vaccinated”.
Again, it is a balance between individual liberty and community interests. In the face of a threat like Covid, community interests are likely to hold greater sway. We saw that in the early Covid response, and we are likely to see it more broadly.
Once people saw it was possible to give more help to people without work and to provide free childcare, it was reasonable to ask why not all the time, particularly as free childcare is likely to mostly pay for itself as more women work more and work more in higher-paid jobs. Further, as people see that the really well off have done very well out of the pandemic, they will demand a fairer tax system.
It is difficult to see the Government getting away with the looming tax cuts for the highest income-earners without paying a political price or providing some further help for those on lower incomes.
Covid should put an end to the cycle of tax cuts for the well off, followed by Budget stress, followed by austerity and cuts to welfare. The hardship Covid has caused middle- and lower-income earners should see that cycle reversed.
Lastly, when Australians overcome the distorting effect of the media prominence of extremely rare blood-clot cases and we finally get around to rolling out free vaccination to the whole population, people will rightly expect more on the public-health front such as higher Medicare rebates and free dental treatment.
The Covid response proves we can be fairer on the economic, social and health fronts.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 1 May 2021.