Australia’s covid-19 experience—pride before the fall 

The Australian covid-19 experience has been a rollercoaster. We greeted covid-19 head on. Our first outbreak was in April 2020 and the approach taken was to do all that we could to achieve “zero-covid.”

I have type 1 diabetes, so I was glued to daily updates to see how much of the virus was in the community, calculating the risk this posed, and deciding early on to bunker down and isolate. 

But, luckily, we smashed it. Our first wave was contained within a short time. Our second wave (in Melbourne, my hometown) was significant and scary, but, thanks to a long lockdown with severe lockdown restrictions, we got through that too. By Christmas, Melbournians enjoyed relative freedom with no new daily cases and little threat of covid in the community. It seemed miraculous to me, after being locked down for over 100 days straight, to walk into a concert hall or sit in a restaurant. 

We were proud of how we handled the pandemic in our corner of the globe, watching terrifying numbers of new people being diagnosed and dying from covid-19 in other countries.

But that pride didn’t last for long. Vaccines were being approved for emergency use in the US, UK, and EU, and we watched the vaccination rollouts start in other countries. The results were promising and the idea that we might just be able to open our borders and travel freely started to feel like possible. I was thrilled to see friends with diabetes also getting their covid vaccinations. We all waited, knowing our time would be soon. 

We waited and we waited.

As Australians became annoyed at the sluggish pace our government was moving to get us vaccinated, our prime minister tried to calm community frustrations by repeatedly claiming it wasn’t a race. With so little covid in the community, and our ability to conquer outbreaks via other restrictions, he attempted to soothe us, reminding us of the privileged position we were in to be able to take our time. 

But people like me with a chronic condition with which covid doesn’t play all that well, were impatient. I’d always seen it as a race—a race to protect the most vulnerable in the community using every means possible. 

Finally, at the end of February 2021, months after vaccines were in the arms of people overseas, our rollout started. In the lead up there were announcements promising deliveries of vaccines from overseas, along with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being made in my hometown.

Magical numbers and targets were promised. I held on to those numbers. I waited for confirmation that diabetes would be in an early priority group.

The first magic number was four million. The prime minister promised that at the end of March, four million doses would have been administered. The reality was only 670,369 doses had been delivered.

Vaccination for my priority group started on 22 March 2021. But there were six million Australians in that group and there weren’t enough vaccines in the country to meet demand, nor infrastructure to deliver them. It took four hours and dozens of phone calls to finally book my appointment.

On 27 March 2021, I cried with relief as I received my first AZ shot, a relief magnified as my parents and in-laws had theirs too. I was so grateful, but also felt guilty, because I knew many others in the same phase couldn’t get an appointment. 

The rollout has continued to be turbulent: Not enough vaccines have been procured and the infrastructure for the rollout is baffling with a complicated and arduous booking processes. Changing regulations as to who can get which vaccine when, has hampered success. So has the absence of an effective communication strategy. As risks about the AZ vaccine became frontpage news, vaccine hesitancy increased. People became confused as to what the changing guidance meant. Mixed messages from politicians, health professionals, and regulatory bodies resulted in people not knowing what to do. This confusion was reflected in our vaccine progress which was moving at a snail’s pace. 

It’s only now, five months into our rollout, while living under the threat of outbreaks, that we’re seeing decent numbers of fully vaccinated Australians. On 1 August 2021, 19% of Australians 16 years and over were fully vaccinated. But this is still well below the percentages seen elsewhere. 

There is currently a Delta outbreak in New South Wales, and other states are implementing short, sharp lockdowns to try to prevent the spread of the variant. Whenever there are a few new diagnoses in the community, there’s a new problem brewing. We know Delta affects young adults and children in numbers not seen with other strains, and that means that there’s a new threat, a threat in a largely unvaccinated cohort. 

Today, in Melbourne, I’m back to working from home. My (fully vaccinated) husband is teaching from the front room; our (unvaccinated) sixteen-year-old daughter is doing remote learning in the study. I’ve stopped counting the number of weeks we’ve been in this situation, and I’m steering clear of focusing too much on numbers. We’re in lockdown number six, and now, with the most virulent strain of the virus in the community, combined with low vaccine rates, my anxieties remain high. 

I feel that the Australian experience—one that started so promisingly only to stumble at perhaps the most critical moment—will be regarded as a cautionary tale of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. There’s a lot to learn from our successes. But, sadly, even more from our failures. 

Renza Scibilia has lived with type 1 diabetes since 1998. She is a diabetes advocate and activist, and is the programme manager for Type 1 Diabetes and Communities at Diabetes Australia. Since August 2017, Renza has been wearing a ‘DIY’ artificial pancreas system and is part of the #WeAreNotWaiting movement. 

Competing interests: none to declare