Thu. May 19th, 2022

Sydney’s lockdown ends on Monday, and Melbourne follows later this month, with fully vaccinated people receiving a range of social and economic privileges not available to those yet to be vaccinated.

Freedoms for those who are vaccinated vary between states, but include greater access to employment, education, and other activities, such as having visitors to your home, shopping, or going to the gym.

As vaccination rates are generally lower among low socio-economic groups, this is likely to further increase inequality between the most and least socio-economically favored Australians.

Australia faces two major COVID challenges: how to increase vaccination rates in priority populations and how to continue to protect these groups.

Read more: Opening when 80% of eligible adults are vaccinated is not ‘safe’ for all Australians

How vaccination rates are compared

This week’s local government vaccination data (LGA) in Victoria shows continued uptake of COVID-19 vaccination in most government areas.

The graph below shows the distribution of first and second doses as well as the percentage needed to achieve 95% full coverage in the three most and three least socioeconomically disadvantaged LGAs.

Vaccination rates, comparison between least (Brimbank, Greater Dandenong and Hume) and the most socio-economically beneficial LGAs (Stonnington, Broondara and Glen Eira) in Metro Melbourne.

Sydney reports a similar distribution between low and high socioeconomic LGAs, but is ahead of Melbourne in overall vaccination rate.

Pandemic of the poor and disadvantaged

COVID-19 is fast becoming a pandemic among the poor and disadvantaged. Four times as many poorer Australians died of COVID in 2020 than those with richer backgrounds.

COVID infection rates are higher, with a larger number of essential workers, larger family groups under one roof and people living in shared homes.

This trend is also seen in a number of other countries, including Chile and Israel.

COVID rates are higher among key workers and large households.
James Ross / AAP

Native Australians have one of the biggest risks of dying from COVID-19. At the end of September, only 30% of the first nations’ Australians were fully vaccinated, despite being a priority population. At present, this rate is 41%, indicating progress but still insufficient protection.

Disability advocates have warned that Australia could face a similar situation to the UK, where 60% of people who died from COVID had a disability.

As of September 15, only 40% of NDIS participants were fully vaccinated, despite also being a priority population.

Read more: Children with disabilities are given priority in the roll-out of vaccines, but many are struggling to make ends meet

New disease, but old health problems

Less vulnerable groups are much more likely to suffer from one or more chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease. These conditions put them at greater risk of serious illness or death if they receive COVID.

These underlying health conditions mean that the poorest 20% of Australians die up to 6.4 years earlier than the richest 20%.

People with a serious mental illness die up to 23 years earlier, mostly due to poor physical health.

Read more: Vaccinations must reach 90% of First Nations adults and teens to protect vulnerable communities

Poor and disadvantaged Australians are also most at risk of getting COVID and becoming seriously ill.

However, the model for easing restrictions does not take into account how “opening” will affect these groups.

Our health and recovery policies must not leave these groups behind. Targeted and tailored information and services are needed for disadvantaged Australians to overcome these barriers.

Billboard of cartoon woman with pink hair and bandaid after being vaccinated.
Reopening plans should specifically consider vulnerable groups.
James Ross / AAP

So what is going to happen?

COVID cases are expected to increase when restrictions are lifted and public health measures are relaxed. This will leave vulnerable groups at greater risk for COVID.

As other researchers have argued, in addition to high overall vaccination targets, will require a layered plan that includes:

  • specific vaccine targets for priority populations
  • makes the indoor air safer
  • maintaining high test and tracking speeds
  • booster shot.

Read more: Only relying on vaccination in NSW from 1 December is not enough – here is what we need for lasting freedom

Such a stratified plan combined with staggered lifting of restrictions is essential to prevent high numbers of cases and potentially serious illness and death in populations already disproportionately affected by other health conditions.

We also need to increase the health skills of disadvantaged Australians so that they can better understand and have greater confidence in the information about their health in general, including in relation to COVID and beyond.

Stella McNamara, research assistant at the Mitchell Institute, co-authored this article

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