Locked Down and Fed Up, Australians Find Their Own Ways to Speed Vaccinations


HOWARD SPRINGS, Australia — After an order of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine from the government never materialized, Quinn On realized on Monday that a busy pharmacy he manages in Western Sydney would soon run out of doses. He raced to pick up shots from one of his other stores, while his wife pleaded with local officials for extra supplies.

Their mom-and-pop business has become a vaccination hub where it matters most — in the part of the city where Covid-19 case numbers refuse to decline despite a seven-week lockdown. They had already hired extra pharmacists. They set up a tent on the sidewalk to safely register arrivals. And on Monday, with all their scrambling, they secured a few hundred shots to inoculate a long line of people by day’s end.

“It’s costing us money to do this, but I’m doing this for the community,” said Mr. On, 51, who came to Australia from Vietnam as a refugee when he was 8. “I’m just hoping it will work.”

All over Australia, hope is struggling to gain momentum as an outbreak of the hyper-contagious Delta variant has thrown almost half the population into lockdown. Nearly 18 months into the pandemic, as other Western nations have vaccinated their way to relative safety or just decided to live with the virus, Australia remains locked in an all-out war. The odds of victory, with a return to zero Covid, have grown ever steeper.

Many Australians feel betrayed by the government’s sputtering vaccine rollout, which they say has squandered the sacrifices made last year. An inchoate blend of rage and sadness has settled over this normally cheerful country. Yet, even as Australians slip into muttering curses and snitching on lockdown violators, they are also seeking ways to help with grass-roots efforts to accelerate immunity and escape from the restrictions springing up around the country.

There are big gaps to fill. While case numbers in Australia are growing by just a few hundred each day, far fewer than in other countries dealing with the Delta variant, doctors, pharmacists and economists are all questioning the distribution, the messaging and other aspects of Australia’s glacial vaccination campaign.

Australia’s drug regulator approved the Moderna vaccine only this week, many months after the United States and other countries. Even as supplies of Pfizer and AstraZeneca doses have increased, pushing up vaccination rates, only 24 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, placing Australia 35th out of 38 developed countries. And that’s up from dead last when the first Delta cases emerged in Sydney.

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“We had this incredible window that nobody else in the world had, with nearly a year of minimal Covid transmission, and we were told the whole time that ‘it’s not a race,’” said Maddie Palmer, 39, a radio and events producer in Sydney. “I didn’t believe it then, and now we’ve been proven right. It was a race — and they screwed it up.”

Like many in Australia, Ms. Palmer said she often had to talk herself down from anger. Her days, living alone, have blurred into a routine of laptop work, a walk around the neighborhood and entertaining her cat, Dolly Parton.

Last week, she tried something new. On Twitter, she offered to help anyone who didn’t have time to make calls to clinics and refresh the websites offering vaccine appointments at different locations. Only one person took her up on the offer, and it turned out that the need for personal information made the task impossible.

But she said it was at least an attempt to show that along with grinding angst during an outbreak that has killed at least 34 people in the country so far, the moment also called for random acts of kindness.

“Like everyone, I want my life back,” she said. “If this is the thing that helps get us to normality, then, yep, sign me up.”

Fraser Hemphill, 28, a software engineer in Sydney, found what he hoped would be a more effective solution. When he saw a friend who is a nurse struggling to line up an appointment for inoculation, clicking through eligibility questions for one government website after another, he decided to write a computer script that would pull the mess together.

Covidqueue.com took him less than a day to build. It dings whenever a new open appointment appears, which seems to happen when the government’s opaque system for distributing vaccines adds another batch at one location or another.

Mr. Hemphill said that about 300,000 people in Sydney had used the site since he launched it this month, and that they had checked for appointments 50 million times.

“What it says is that an overwhelmingly large amount of people are very keen, very eager, to get the vaccine,” he said.

Recent polling shows that nearly 89 percent of Australians are planning to get vaccinated, or already have, compared to 69 percent of Americans polled in March.

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There is still some hesitancy about the AstraZeneca shots. Australia, which produces that vaccine, had expected it to make up the bulk of the country’s supply until a small number of clotting cases and a handful of deaths led regulators to suggest that people under 40 wait for the Pfizer vaccine.

Their advice has since changed. With the outbreak in Sydney, health officials now note that the risk of dying from Covid-19 for those who are unvaccinated is significantly higher than the risk of complications from the AstraZeneca vaccine. Tens of thousands of young Australians have rushed to get it, encouraging others to do the same with photos posted online.

In Western Sydney, a diverse and sprawling section of the city with a concentration of essential workers, community leaders have also been translating government messaging and trying to build local momentum. Pop-up vaccination clinics can now be found at mosques, with some people camping out overnight to ensure they aren’t turned away, as social media campaigns from community nonprofits urge getting a dose of any vaccine as soon as possible.

“The penny is finally dropping,” said Dr. Greg Dore, an infectious-diseases expert at the University of New South Wales. “The vast majority of us will at some point be infected by this virus over the coming years; therefore, you want to make sure it’s after you’ve been fully vaccinated.”

Dr. John Corns, a general practitioner in a coastal area east of Melbourne, said the respiratory clinic where he worked had hired extra nurses to meet vaccine demand and had asked doctors to work weekends. He said his new message for patients reflected Australia’s new reality.

“This Delta variant is proving a lot more difficult to get rid of, so the lockdowns last year worked better,” he said. “You have to be thinking ahead of the game; if the country opens up on Dec. 1, you don’t want to be at the start of your vaccine process.”

Dr. Corns, Dr. Dore and Mr. On — along with many others — argue that the Australian government needs to catch up with the urgency of the Australian people by adding vaccine access points, by being more transparent and by obsessing over practical solutions rather than defending past successes or squabbling to score political points.

“Our phones are running hot; customers are also trying to book online — it’s very disorganized, and it shouldn’t be like that,” Mr. On said.

“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” he added. “But it’s going to be hard.”