When the federal Department of Health belatedly released its wide-ranging COVID-19 advertising campaign last month, it presented a clear message about the role of individual choice in the latest round of outbreaks. Unlike earlier smaller-scale informational campaigns, the “Arm Yourself” campaign seeks less to inform than to urge individuals to seek out vaccination. Alongside this wider campaign, a video advertisement targeted at Sydney was released, depicting “graphic” scenes of a woman struggling to breathe on a ventilator. This sparked global media attention, and was widely condemned for the way in which it targeted people under 40, many of whom were still currently ineligible or unable to access COVID-19 vaccination. Choosing to geographically target this advertisement to those in the middle of Sydney’s outbreak, which had been fuelled by that lack of access to vaccination, reflected the cruel political choice to deflect blame onto individuals and away from structural, avoidable political failures.
Presenting the failed vaccination rollout as a by-product of individual choice might deflect attention away from political neglect, but it also deflects attention away from dealing with real causes. As with Victoria’s second wave in 2020, the NSW Delta outbreak is spreading heavily through workplace transmission in essential worker categories, along with those who live with them. A high proportion of these workers live and work in the Western Sydney LGAs designated as hotspot areas, and many are in age groups that have only just become eligible for AstraZeneca vaccination in the past week.
Earlier this week, the Doherty Institute released advice confirming that workers in “essential” categories at high risk are less likely to have been able to access vaccination. Given the high proportion of insecure work in the retail, food, logistics, healthcare, and childcare industries, essential workers under serious financial strain are less likely to be able to afford to absorb the cost of vaccination without paid leave. Requiring workers to get vaccinated on their lunch break or day off, navigating an inconsistent and under-stress system to do so, doesn’t send the message that these workers are as “essential” as their work is considered to be. Responding to the contributions and sacrifices made by people in frontline positions, by piling on further risks to their security, is a betrayal of those who are keeping the economy functioning.
There remains the opportunity to genuinely create the circumstances where individuals might “arm themselves”, surrounded by the resources which allow them to do so. No single policy will be enough for this – it requires a far-thinking consideration of how to facilitate care and support, from substantial and rapid targeted financial support including vaccination leave, to care assistance, more isolated housing and travel support to minimise transmission risk. It involves providing information, support and outreach through more appropriate community mechanisms than intrusive and militaristic policing, and a more systematic approach than punitively focusing on individual actions. It involves recognising that COVID-19 risk is higher, and vaccine coverage likely to be lower, in areas of the community that are already significantly marginalised – and working with people in need of support, rather than scapegoating them.
There is of course a place for encouraging individual action– yet for this to be meaningful and effective, there needs to be enough opportunity and support for individuals to make those actions. Without that, in a context where vaccine access is so inconsistent that even many of the highest “priority” groups are still awaiting their chance, the call to simply “arm yourself” reflects a cruel redirection of responsibility onto those with the least power.
Individualising blame for structural problems in the face of weakened state infrastructure has a long precedent. In 1987, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave a famous interview defending the undermining of welfare provisions, where she claimed that “there’s no such thing as society”, only “individuals” and families. In that same interview, she discussed the AIDS pandemic, including fear-driven advertising campaigns featuring looming tombstones and tolling church bells. On both topics, Thatcher focused heavily on “personal responsibility,” while justifying winding back the responsibilities of government.
That classic conservative political tactic, of undermining collective resources and supports, while blaming individuals for structural failure, is on full display in Australia in 2021. There is a place for individual solutions and individual responsibilities to the collective – yet these cannot in themselves replace the responsibilities of the state to maintain systems necessary for public health. To claim that they should is to misrepresent the nature of the threat, with deadly results; and to needlessly inflame anxiety and pressure on vulnerable groups, while refusing to address the real structural neglect of their material needs. Rebuilding those collective supports is crucial to meeting the pressures of the present, and helping to rebuild for the future.