The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia was a pandemic hero. Mixed messages and rising cases are muddying the picture.

A health worker is pictured behind police lines near the entrance to a Sydney apartment block after it was placed under strict lockdown, with residents barred from leaving, in the Bondi neighborhood of Sydney on July 13, 2021. (Andrew Leeson/AFP/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — A pale and feverish young woman lies on a hospital bed, struggling to breathe. She frantically looks around for help while weakly tugging at the oxygen tube in her nose. After 13 seconds that feel far longer, her frightened gaze fixes on the camera, and the awful scene fades to black.

“Covid-19 can affect anyone,” warns Australia’s new public service announcement. “Stay home. Get tested. Book your vaccination.”

The video was designed to shock young people into taking the coronavirus seriously, health officials say.

But it has also drawn a backlash, as a sluggish rollout has left most young Australians ineligible for vaccinations, while the worst outbreak in almost a year has sent Sydney into shutdown and spurred a surge in demand. Officials in Melbourne said Thursday they were putting the city and the rest of Victoria state into shutdown as well.

“It’s a call to action, to get vaccinated, but that girl is in her 20s. She can’t get vaccinated,” said Bill Bowtell, a health adviser who was one of the creators of Australia’s AIDS awareness campaign in the 1980s. “The whole thing is utterly misconceived and should be taken off the air.”

Fueling the ad controversy are growing frustrations about not only the vaccination rate — among the worst in the developed world, at about 10 percent fully inoculated — but the government’s mutating messaging. Australia’s vaccine rollout has been pushed back or revised more than a dozen times. And shifting rules regarding who can get an AstraZeneca shot vs. a Pfizer-BioNTech dose are giving worried Aussies whiplash.

“People are saying, ‘All right, they want us to get vaccinated, so give us the vaccines. Where are they?’ ” said Carmen Lazar, who runs a community resource center in Fairfield, one of the Sydney neighborhoods hit hardest by the current outbreak. “And then there is all the mixed messaging: Don’t do Astra. No, don’t do Pfizer.”

Australia has been the envy of the world for much of the pandemic. Closed borders, contact tracing, widespread testing and localized shutdowns have enabled the country to repeatedly suppress the virus. Restaurants have remained open, beaches busy, masks rare.

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But the clarity of “covid zero” has been clouded by confusion about when vaccines will arrive. When the rollout began in late February, the government said Australia’s 20 million adults would be fully vaccinated before the end of October. Now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says adults will be able to get a first dose by year’s end — if things go according to plan.

They haven’t so far. Australia initially bet heavily on AstraZeneca, but more than 3 million early doses from Europe were delayed, Morrison said. Australia began making its own doses but quickly restricted them to people older than 50 because of concerns about rare blood clots connected to the vaccine, especially among young people. Then the government upped the age limit to 60 on the advice of an expert panel, leaving 815,000 people in their 50s who had received a first dose wondering what to do.

The guidelines suddenly shifted again in late June when, amid an outbreak of the more transmissible delta variant in Sydney, Morrison announced that AstraZeneca was available to anyone upon consultation with their doctor.

Some state leaders said the decision was dangerous. The president of Australia’s top medical body refused to endorse the idea, only for his deputy to embrace it. Adding to the confusion, some young Australians who asked their doctors for the AstraZeneca shot were turned away.

Australia left thousands of citizens stranded abroad in the pandemic. But it let the French rugby team in.

Australia is now phasing out AstraZeneca in favor of 40 million doses of Pfizer, the delivery of which is set to ramp up in the coming weeks. It has also inked an agreement with Moderna for 25 million doses starting later this year. But the Pfizer deal has been beset by confusion. The government has denied reports that it could have secured doses of the vaccine sooner and scoffed at an attempt to help by Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of the opposition Labor party.

“I did chuckle when I saw the story,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told a conservative radio host this week of Rudd’s efforts. But the story also highlighted that Rudd had spoken to Pfizer’s global chief, while Morrison had not.

Hunt declined an interview request and did not respond to questions. A statement from his office said Australia has avoided the high casualties seen in Britain and the United States by following expert medical advice, and praised the new ad as “hard hitting” and “deliberately confronting."

For months, Morrison has told Australians that the vaccination rollout is not a race. But as the situation in Sydney has become more serious, with new cases averaging nearly 100 a day and the shutdown set to last at least two more weeks, the prime minister has started to show more urgency.

“I know people have been critical. And I understand that,” he said this week. “But we’ve been making up the ground. We’re almost at a million doses being delivered a week. We keep that rate, we get it done. And we’re only about two months behind from where we initially thought and hoped to be.”

In Fairfield, the working-class neighborhood of southwest Sydney that is currently the site of many new infections, there is a feeling that the community is suffering because of the government’s shortcomings, city councilor Dai Le said.

“If we’ve got a huge problem, as they’ve been saying about Fairfield,” Le said, “then surely to address that you need to provide the vaccine to as many people as possible.”

State officials said this week that anyone older than 40 can get the AstraZeneca vaccine, and that teachers in hard-hit neighborhoods such as Fairfield would also be prioritized. But Le said fear and confusion are still common in her community, and that the federal government’s new ad will not help. Instead, the video’s tone could strike some as exaggerated, leading them to distrust other government messages, such as the need to get vaccinated.

“The ad shouldn’t be about fear but informing,” she said.

Bowtell said the ad was “reprehensible” and “fake” for using an actress at a time when about two dozen people are in Sydney’s intensive care units with covid-19. More effective would have been a video of a survivor or the family of someone who had died of the disease, he said. But Bowtell himself has been accused of going over the top in a well-known 1987 AIDS awareness ad featuring a grim reaper mowing down people like bowling pins.

“I make no apologies for the grim reaper ad,” he said, arguing that it was dramatic but effective and backed by a broad public information effort. (The Morrison administration did introduce another, more positive ad campaign called “Arm Yourself” this week but it has also drawn some criticism.)

Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious-diseases physician in Canberra, said the new ad accurately captured a “snapshot” of someone in respiratory distress, although such a patient would quickly be helped. The ad appeared to be aimed at young people who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously but would rankle those who are, he added.

Sydneysiders in their 20s and 30s took to social media to lambaste the ad. Some wryly noted that they had booked their vaccination months ago, with no sign of a shot yet in sight.

“Maybe in retrospect it would have been wiser not to run the ad,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane, adding that it exposed the government to accusations of hypocrisy.

Morrison has struggled to send a consistent message throughout the pandemic, Williams said, but the problem has grown during the vaccine rollout, the poor management of which could cost the prime minister politically when elections are held sometime in the next year. At the same time, Morrison appeared to have finally landed on a winning message with his line about a million doses per week.

“I’d say that’s probably where we should have started months ago,” Williams said.

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