An area in Queensland has become a hotbed of anti-vax sentiment as opposition to mandates heats up and becomes politicised.
In a town of 6000 people, a gathering of around 400 for a protest against mandatory vaccinations is significant.
The tiny Queensland coastal town of Yeppoon has become an unlikely hotbed of unrest against the state’s vaccination rules, which will see unvaccinated people banned from restaurants and other businesses from December 17.
A weekend rally to protest the changes drew hundreds of people and the local Livingstone Shire Council voted last week to write to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk asking the State Government to reconsider the new rules, after a passionate town meeting last week also drew hundreds of concerned residents.
“We have heard the strong message coming from our community and want to relay that to the Premier,” Mayor Andy Ireland said in a statement.
The town, located about 25 minutes from Rockhampton, is one of a string of seaside communities on the Capricorn Coast that is a popular destination for tourists and retirees. Just 20 minutes off the coast lies Great Keppel Island, famed for its sandy white beaches and reef access.
The community’s older population and stream of visitors would make it susceptible to a Covid outbreak but local businesses are worried that vaccination rules will stop them operating at “full potential” as it is thought the rules will reduce the number of available employees.
“Our local businesses fear that these restrictions will hinder Queensland’s economic recovery by not allowing full participation following the reopening of borders,” Mr Ireland said.
“Local businesses also remain unsure about their obligations and liabilities for employees under Workplace Health and Safety legislation.”
Local business owner Laureth Rumble, who is a member of the Capricorn Coast Business Owners Pro Choice Alliance, a grassroots group co-founded by former councillor Tanya Lunch that has organised the gatherings, said there was a lot of pressure on businesses to police the vaccine mandate.
She said she had been given legal advice her business would be breaching privacy and discrimination laws if she asked customers for vaccination certificates and that WorkCover advice suggested an employee could pursue a civil claim against the business if they were forced to get vaccinated and got injured or died.
“There’s a lot of issues around mandates,” Ms Rumble told news.com.au.
While the group says they are not opposed to vaccination, Ms Rumble said she did have safety concerns about the vaccine.
“I have concerns about an experimental vaccine,” she said. “We don’t know the long-term effects.
“It’s important not to force something on someone where we don’t know the long-term health profile.”
Ms Rumble said staff were also worried the vaccine would impact their fertility, although there is no evidence to support this.
“By forcing a medical procedure, we’re going down a slippery slope and losing our freedom. This has no place in a democratic society.”
However, Ms Rumble said she did understand why “high-risk settings” such as hospitals would require vaccinations.
“It depends on the setting and what kind of job,” she said.
University of Sydney vaccination policy expert Professor Julie Leask said some of the group’s concerns were reasonable, including about the policing of people’s vaccination status.
“This is something they’ve never had to do before in an ongoing way and that will have a cost for business,” she told news.com.au.
“In small towns, businesses may also have relationships with clients, there is a cohesiveness and trust.”
However, she noted that Queensland was in a vulnerable state right now and needed to get vaccination rates up.
“It’s extremely unlikely for vaccination to cause any long-term side effects that don’t start to show up days or weeks after you’ve been given the shot,” she said.
“That’s because of the way vaccination works.”
She also noted that Australians who experienced an adverse impact from the Covid vaccines were able to claim up to $20,000 under the Federal Government’s indemnity scheme.
Prof Leask said what did seem to be unique was that business owners had gathered together in protest.
“Rather than individual businesses feeling concerned and not feeling terribly happy with the requirements and keeping it to themselves, you’ve got organising by someone,” she said.
‘Don’t call me a radical or terrorist’
Vaccination restrictions have become so contentious in the area that Keppel Labor MP Brittany Lauga, whose electorate office is located in Yeppoon, said she had received death threats and so had other doctors in the area.
An email sent to her office last week had the subject line: “Enough is Enough. Call me a Antivaxxer, Radical, Extremist or Terrorist again and I’ll show you how good I can be at that. No threat, a PROMISE.”
The email indicates local concerns are not limited to the operation of business.
“It is our view that our chance to have a stroke of [sic] die from the vaccine is greater than getting Covid,” the email states.
“Stop being a bunch of scared w**kers. When your number is up, regardless if it’s a bullet, shrapnel, gas or Covid or otherwise it’s over. But myself and my family are not committing suicide by taking this vaccine to the benefit of [Anthony] Fauci and Bill Gates …”
As is common among many anti-vaxxers, the email appears to refer to a conspiracy theory. In this case it points to a theory involving US chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, that patents for coronavirus were filed as early as 1999 as a way for governments and corporations to make money.
“It’s pretty disappointing and sad that people are making pretty serious threats … when we are just trying to do our job,” Ms Lauga told news.com.au.
“I listen to the health advice and they are telling us the vaccine is safe and the most effective form of mitigating outbreaks.
“I’m just trying to help protect the community.”
Ms Lauga said she thought those attending the protests were a mix of people against vaccination, others who were vaccinated but concerned about keeping their businesses open if they couldn’t hire unvaccinated staff, as well as businesses afraid of retaliation if they had to turn away those who are unvaccinated.
Vaccination is being politicised
Ms Lauga also believes the issue of vaccination has become politicised and said it was “no coincidence” the threatening email had arrived days after Queensland senators Matt Canavan and Pauline Hanson attended the community meeting on November 15 where business owners expressed their frustration at the coming changes.
It was the same night Melbourne protesters took to the streets with a set of gallows to protest against Victoria’s new pandemic legislation – something Prime Minister Scott Morrison was later criticised for failing to fully condemn.
Ms Lauga points out most people in the area were getting vaccinated – more than 80 per cent have received a first dose – and believes Ms Hanson should stop “meddling” and listen to the health advice.
She said Ms Hanson had backed a High Court challenge last year to try to force the reopening of Queensland’s borders, and had also suggested Australia follow Taiwan’s lead in opening up the economy while advising elderly residents to stay home.
“Now we have a vaccine and can open up but she’s trying to stop that,” Ms Lauga said.
“It’s about opportunism and not about what it’s in the best interest of our community and economy.”
Ms Hanson this week attempted to introduce a private members bill seeking to ban mandatory vaccinations and overturn state and territory leaders’ requirements for full vaccination in some settings.
In her speech, Ms Hanson emphasised people should have a “right to choose” and railed against being forced to be part of a “grand experiment”.
Ironically she later spruiked the drug Ivermectin, which has not been proven to be effective against Covid-19 and also asked why another vaccine called COVAX-19, being developed in South Australia, had not yet been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Prof Leask said vaccination was being treated like a “political football”.
“This week has gone pear-shaped in terms of politicisation of vaccination, which is deeply concerning,” she said.
“We don’t want to see left/right gradients form, something we haven’t had before in Australia and which could have repercussions for other vaccinations,” she said.
Prof Leask said politicisation of the issue could see far right or moderate right supporters more likely to reject vaccinations because it’s what their social group does and it becomes part of their identity.
Prof Leask is also concerned about labelling people “anti-vaxxers” and including people in this group even if they were mainly against mandates and not necessarily vaccinations.
“Someone like me, who is a strong supporter of vaccination, can raise legitimate concerns about vaccination mandates but can be called an anti-vax enabler in the process,” she said.
“Using the term anti-vax can be an effective and derogatory label.
“What it does is turn vaccination into a highly politicised topic that takes away from the core function about it being about public health for all, and turns it into a political device for party politics.”
This is already being seen in Victoria, and in both federal and state politics.
Queensland politicians like Pauline Hanson and Matt Canavan, as well as NSW MP Craig Kelly have been stoking anti-vaccination statements, potentially for political purposes.
University of Queensland laureate fellow Professor John Quiggin said vaccination was exactly the type of issue he expected Ms Hanson to pick up.
“I would have predicted this is the kind of issue she would raise,” he said.
He said it involves the distrust of scientific authority – also seen in climate change deniers – a belief that people are independent and don’t need the government even if they are benefiting from payments, and the lack of response to arguments about getting vaccinated for the sake of other people.
However, Prof Quiggin noted Ms Hanson only had a small support base, with a ceiling of about 10 per cent of the population.
Prof Quiggin believes anti-vaccination sentiment is a “relatively small-scale phenomenon” being driven by a number of different factors.
Supporters include long-time anti-vaxxers as well as those who had been politicised – some who were taking their cues from the Republican Party in the United States.
Others might have other reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated, including being scared of needles, but did not want to admit this.
“So they go to demonstrations and make it about a bigger issue rather than just nervousness with needles,” he said.
Queensland is not like other states
One of the problems for Queensland is that residents have mostly lived normal lives with the exception of a few snap lockdowns, restrictions on interstate travel, mask wearing and density limits on some businesses.
Unlike states such as NSW where residents in lockdown have gradually been afforded more freedoms as vaccination rates have risen, some Queenslanders will actually enjoy less freedom come November 17, when most hospitality businesses will no longer be able to serve unvaccinated customers or employ unvaccinated staff.
Tighter restrictions are necessary as once the state opens its borders, Covid-19 cases are expected to rise, placing pressure on local hospitals and bringing Covid into communities that have so far experienced no or very few cases.
“I think we have been a victim of our own success,” Ms Lauga said.
“In Central Queensland we haven’t had a Covid case here for 18 months so people don’t know what the threat is.
“When [authorities] say Covid is coming, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
However, unlike NSW, where unvaccinated people will be able to visit retail shops and restaurants from December 15 or once 95 per cent of people are vaccinated, Queensland has not set a date for opening up to those who are unvaccinated.
Prof Leask said the indefinite nature of the restrictions on unvaccinated people in Queensland could be imposing unnecessary hardship on people.
“Once you reach around 92 per cent vaccination coverage, you substantially reduce the chance of an outbreak,” she said.
“At an individual level, someone who is not vaccinated, is more a risk to themselves and other unvaccinated people than to those who are vaccinated.”
While Prof Leask supports vaccination requirements in certain sectors such as health, aged care and possibly those working with the Indigenous community, she said beyond this, any other mandates should be as “temporary as possible”.
“The gain is not worth the hardship it brings,” she said.
Particularly in Queensland, where people are potentially going from greater freedoms to less freedoms, Prof Leask believes the new rules could generate more protests than have been seen in Victoria and NSW.
“It can have all sorts of knock-on effects, and that is what businesses are concerned about and what we are seeing on the streets in Melbourne and Sydney, it can cause hardship for individuals and family conflict, where one person who doesn’t want to get vaccinated can restrict the family from certain activities indefinitely.”