Even by pandemic standards, Saturday was a rattling day. As Covid cases in Sydney reached their highest tally to date, anti-lockdown protests turned violent in the CBD.
The day before, NSW had begged both the federal government and other Australian states for more Pfizer vaccines. The proposed approach gave me new hope, which by afternoon was extinguished. No solution appeared to be in sight.
Yet on Saturday, another vaccine turn. In response to the NSW outbreak and “ongoing constraints of Pfizer” the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) changed its official advice to “all individuals aged 18 years and above in greater Sydney … should strongly consider … AstraZeneca”.
Minutes later I got a text from my 18-year-old nephew, Aki Hennessy, saying: “I got the first AZ shot.” I didn’t need to ask if his twin brother, Luca Hennessy, had been jabbed too because they do most things together.
The appointment had been booked earlier that week at their local GP in Five Dock by their dad, Patrick Brownlee, after gauging the twins’ interest. Despite Atagi’s changed advice, adults have been eligible for AstraZeneca since late June.
“The clinic said to come in and discuss it with the GP and the GP would check they weren’t in a high risk category,” said Brownlee, who wanted to align with the advice that everyone consult with their GP. Said Aki: “The GP asked if I knew about the blood clotting risk. He told me the statistics but I told him it was fine, I already knew.”
Hearing the news of my nephews’ vaccination felt like sunshine slicing through a break in the clouds. Not only because I want my family to be safe. But because combined with Atagi’s changed advice, as well as the great piles of AZ that are readily available in Australia, their proactive enthusiasm to get the jab seemed, for the first time in weeks, to suggest a way out of this mess for all of us.
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If these two fairly typical teenagers had got it, maybe more would follow.
Aki and Luca are in year 12 at Concord high school in Sydney’s west. They’ve been slugging through online preparation for their HSC trials without the spark of seeing their friends at school. They’ve missed milestones, they’re over lockdown. They want a light at the end of the tunnel to keep their spirits up, but they’re anxious it might be snuffed out by yet another bummer summer.
When I spoke to Aki and Luca – who said they were the first in their friendship group to get the AZ vaccine – three key themes stood out.
The first was how the images in their head could have – and according to many experts should have – storyboarded the Australian Government’s vaccine advertisement, had the ad focused on hope and positivity instead of on fear.
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“There’s a massive gap between your two AstraZeneca shots so I thought if I got it now, by the time I go to schoolies, I’d be fully vaccinated,” said Aki. “By the time I finish school, I can go out and do whatever I want where people who don’t get the vaccine, depending on what the government says, might not be allowed to leave their local government area and stuff like that.” My nephew Luca said: “We might be allowed to go overseas before the unvaccinated.”
The second was how little confidence they had that any Australian authority figure could predict the future. Instead they were looking overseas and hedging their bets. “In the UK, you can’t go to the nightclubs and the pubs unless you have proof of vaccination,” said Aki. “I’m interested in travel and social events,” said Luca, “and being vaccinated is the only way so, better safe than sorry.”
The third was their pragmatism. “I’m learning about immunity now in biology, adaptive immunity and all that, so I knew how the vaccine worked,” said Aki. “I was just like, ‘Well, I need to get it, because I don’t want to get the virus’. The risk of catching the virus feels riskier than the blood clot, 100%.”
“There are bigger risks in life,” Luca said. “There’s always going to be risks with medication, I’ve had medication before. If the government’s giving it to me, it’s not like they want to kill me.”
Luca says he doesn’t know anyone else his age who had volunteered to get AZ yet. “If it had been done well, heaps of people would have had it by now. The fact that I don’t know anyone else is a point in itself really. It’s confusing.”
Both said they probably wouldn’t share their vaccination decision too broadly on social media though, beyond group chats and messages to friends. “I’m more of a private person that way,” says Aki.
“But if it was face to face at school and somebody said, ‘Nah, I’m not sure’ I’d be like ‘Why would you not?’ I might take more of that aggressive tone because it’s just like ‘Stop being an idiot mate. It’s the right thing to do’.”