TIME TO ENGAGE CHARITY GROUPS TO SPREAD THE RIGHT MESSAGE
The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2021
When it comes to vaccination, the Morrison Government has been more gab than jab. Despite the Prime Minister promising that Australians would be ‘at the front of the queue’, almost 200 million people globally had been vaccinated by the time the first Australians received their shots. In Israel, around half the population has received a vaccination. In Britain, it’s around one-third. In the United States, it’s more than one in ten. If vaccination was an Olympic sport, the medal winners would be running laps around Australia.
Yet now that the vaccine rollout has finally started, the challenge is to ensure high uptake across the community. According to a survey conducted by the federal health department, 64 percent of Australians will ‘definitely’ get a COVID vaccine, while 9 percent will ‘definitely not’ get vaccinated. That leaves 27 percent of the population who are unsure of whether or not they will get vaccinated.
Persuading the uncertain 27 percent will be one of the central public health challenges for Australia this year. There is no question of compelling people to get vaccinated, so the task is one of persuasion. If the vaccination rate is too low, outbreaks of COVID could persist for years. With a sufficiently high level of vaccination, we stand a better chance of sending COVID the way of polio and smallpox – diseases that once claimed thousands of Australian lives, but have now been wiped out in our country.
This isn’t just a national challenge. If certain communities have a low vaccination rate, then COVID could spread quickly through those areas. We see this already with diseases like measles, which has come roaring back in communities where vaccine hesitancy is high. It’s not just about the science, it’s also about how much people trust medical experts and government programs.
When it comes to COVID, the facts are clear. The vaccines approved in Australia are highly effective, and side effects are extremely rare. Australian health authorities have been at pains to bust common myths around COVID, such as the suggestion that it is spread by 5G networks, or can be treated by gargling salt water, eating garlic, taking Hydroxychloroquine, or holding your breath for ten seconds.
Yet as the vaccine rollout proceeds, it will be necessary to step up the campaign of trust-building. And in this task, we should turn to one of the most trusted sectors of Australia: charities and non-profits. Just as community groups provided support during the economic shutdown of 2020, they can help ensure the success of the vaccination program in 2021.
Engaging organisations that have enduring connections in our communities will be critical to reaching marginalised groups. Isolated people, refugees, people with disabilities, and those in remote communities are all at particular risk from COVID-19. Community groups have the expertise to connect with these people and directly address their concerns about vaccination. Faith communities – including churches, mosques, synagogues and prayer groups – are a trusted source of information for many Australians.
Trust will be an increasingly valuable commodity as plans develop for a successful vaccination campaign. But for a significant segment of Australian society, the most trusted go-betweens are yet to be engaged.
To capitalise on the connections of our charities, the Morrison Government must ensure that trusted organisations have resources to dispel unnecessary doubts about vaccination. Charities should be empowered to bust myths, like the suggestion that the COVID vaccine changes your genome, connects you to the internet, causes autoimmune diseases, or makes you infertile. Falsehoods like these must be debunked if the rollout is to be a success.
Over the past generation, Australia’s civic community has come under tremendous strain. As Nick Terrell and I showed in our book Reconnected, the typical Australian is less likely to join organisations and less likely to volunteer. Most sporting groups are struggling, political groups are waning, and social ties are fraying. Most of us yearn to live in a more connected society, yet formal organisations have come under pressure like never before.
That’s why it’s vital to use this opportunity to invest in community groups – and not just those that work in health care. Engaging community groups will improve the uptake of the vaccine, and strengthen civic society in the process. Partnering with the community sector will make Australians healthier – and improve the health of our society too.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.