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THE COVID19 pandemic has taught us much. Lessons that have been incredible tough.

It’s taught us about the importance of basic hygiene, about economic fragility and about the susceptibility of political decision-making.

Our “normal” existence has been shattered by an enemy we can’t see, smell or feel and almost every aspect of the freedoms many of us take for granted – family, work, school, travel – have been unsettled, if not completely up-ended.

For a generation which has ridden a wave of incredible medical and technological advancements, the COVID19 pandemic is not just a shock but a total rejection of our perceived invincibility.

The world has experienced devastating pandemics before, and less deadly spreads which have fortunately controlled in more recent times. Depending on which source you consider expert, the Spanish Flu pandemic which started spreading in 1918 killed somewhere between 50 to 100 million people.

In that instance, people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds caught the virus first and they died in greater numbers than the rich. Being from a prosperous socio-economic background didn’t protect you from getting the Spanish flu, but it did help you survive.

An insightful study into the impact of the Spanish flu on the rich and the poor from Svenn‐Erik Mamelund, from Oslo Metropolitan University, in 2018, found “social inequalities in pandemic outcomes do not form part of the discussion in international preparedness plans for pandemic influenza. This is not conducive to achieving the international goals of eradicating poverty, reducing social inequalities and ensuring good health for all …”.

Mamelund’s study is not the first, and will not be the last, to lament the failure of focus on protecting and supporting the disadvantaged and vulnerable amid a pandemic.

We’ve seen it in micro examples in Australia during this pandemic, where people in insecure work, those with no work or mental health issues and single parents – all cohorts at greater risk of poverty, have been plunged into deeper depths.

Governments have recognised these impacts and a mix of restrictions, lockdowns and health advice have positioned Australia to fight the spread of the virus.

Economically, it’s much harder to make the case that we’ve got it right. Billions of dollars have been poured into the economy to avoid immediate calamity but seemingly unaligned to the long road out.

This week we learned that vaccination rates in regions where larger numbers of disadvantaged residents live is much lower than socio-economically prosperous regions. It’s particularly stark in the outer western areas of Melbourne and Sydney where populations are on average younger and more diverse.

Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of NSW this week described the data as shameful.

For the broader Ballarat region, our early vaccination numbers are encouraging, albeit data is not yet available to show what the rates are within individual suburbs.

The concern is that the vaccination rollout and education campaign may yet be the biggest challenge of the pandemic response.

The mixed messaging regarding the safety and availability of vaccines has undoubtedly increased hesitancy.  That there are continuing campaigns encouraging people to get a vaccine “because that’s the way out of the crisis” is obvious, yet far too shallow in the circumstances.

That messaging means nothing if there is insufficient supply, or if access to vaccines for communities where the virus has the potential to spread quickly is limited. And it won’t be effective if the messaging is not supported by unambiguous and targeted education about the efficacy of vaccines.

If we can’t convince people who, for no reason of their own, are unaware or just wary, the progression to vaccination levels which will support fewer lockdowns will not be achieved.

There’s never been a more important time to support the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community. We’ve so much generosity from our community in supporting causes to reduce that vulnerability in the past 12 months – ensuring access to housing, food and basics which we used to take for granted for those that have fallen into poverty.

Now it’s time to ensure that community generosity is backed by a concerted and unambiguous vaccination program which targets those most at risk.

* Andrew Eales is the chief executive officer of the Ballarat Foundation. To donate go to www.ballaratfoundation.org.au