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Your freedom secured with a jab: the incentive that could spur our nation of vaccination laggards

That may have worked early in the pandemic when it was not yet clear that we could produce an effective vaccine. We’re not there any more. Now, for every country around the world, there’s only one way out of this pandemic: vaccination.

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Australia hasn’t taken vaccination seriously enough. We’re now midway through 2021, and just 4 per cent of us are fully vaccinated. Where’s the comprehensive rollout of the vaccine? Where’s the nationwide advertising campaign? Where’s our official roadmap for resuming our lives?

In future years, it’s likely that Australia’s vaccine rollout will be taught as a case study of public policy failure.

Communication about vaccine risks have led to widespread vaccine hesitancy. Procurement of vaccines has been too limited. Available vaccines, meanwhile, haven’t been directed into the states as quickly as they should have been.

But there’s still time to inject urgency into our vaccination push. Still time to restore sanity to the point where Australians fear the virus more than they fear AstraZeneca.

Behaviours change when people are given the right incentives. One path, as some have suggested, is incentives in the form of cash and lottery tickets. There’s another way, though. The most powerful incentive would be to give the vaccinated more rights. Let freedom be the most powerful incentive. That’s something other countries are already moving to do.

The Prime Minister has already called for vaccinated Australians to be exempt from internal travel restrictions. But we need a bigger shift in our political debate. The fantasy of maintaining zero COVID must come to an end. Serious scientists know we won’t be able to defeat the virus forever through elimination.

That is why as many adult Australians as possible need to be fully vaccinated. Then, we can manage COVID in the way that we manage endemic diseases.

Yes, the coronavirus would still be around; there would still be positive cases. But there wouldn’t be many cases where people fall seriously ill, and very few cases where people die from COVID. Despite the doubters, the scientific evidence is now clear: vaccination breaks the link between infection and hospitalisation or death, and it likely dramatically reduces transmission, too.

It’s difficult to see many of our political leaders prepared to tell us this straight. Especially when our debate is still dominated by experts and commentators who revel in their prognostications of doom.

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What we really need is hope. Asked earlier this week what his advice was to vaccinated Americans, Andy Slavitt, who led President Joe Biden’s vaccination effort, said: “If you’re vaccinated, the most important thing you can do right now is go live your best life and make up for lost times. There are far greater threats in your life than the Delta variant.”

Populations around the world are now realising vaccination’s power. It’s not too late for us to join them.

Tim Soutphommasane is Professor of Practice and Marc Stears is director of the Sydney Policy Lab, both at the University of Sydney. They are co-authors of A Roadmap to Reopening, a report published last month.

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