Cash or freedoms: what will work in the race to get Australia vaccinated against COVID-19?

Originally published on

The race to vaccinate Australians is heating up as the supply of vaccines starts to increase and lockdowns continue.

Labor this week suggested a A$300 cash payment for people fully vaccinated by December. Meanwhile, “Operation COVID Shield”, the newly published national COVID vaccine campaign plan, includes support for “freedom incentives” put forward by the Coalition.

Let’s take a look at how effective the evidence suggests these measures might be in getting more Australians vaccinated.

Read more:
Paying Australians $300 to get vaccinated would be value for money

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccination is a key weapon in our armoury as we navigate the pandemic. We know it’s very effective in protecting people from illness and death, and also reduces transmission of COVID-19.

At this stage, only 19.8% of Australians over 16 have been fully vaccinated.

Although insufficient supply has been the main reason for the slow rollout to date, vaccine hesitancy is an increasingly important issue as we strive for herd immunity.

The latest data from our Taking the Pulse of the Nation Survey shows vaccine hesitancy in Australia has fallen to 21.5% since the recent outbreaks, from a high of 33% in late May.

Among that 21.5%, 11.8% of Australians remain unwilling to be vaccinated, while 9.7% are unsure.

So can financial or non-financial incentives bring these figures down and in turn speed up Australia’s vaccination rollout?

Read more:
Just the facts, or more detail? To battle vaccine hesitancy, the messaging has to be just right

Splashing the cash

The government has proclaimed cash incentives will have minimal impact on vaccination rates — although the review of the evidence they conducted hasn’t been published.

There is in fact evidence from a range of settings showing cash payments do have one-off effects in terms of persuading people to visit a health professional.

Our survey research has shown 54% of those willing to be vaccinated, but waiting, said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible if offered cash.

Cash incentives are likely to encourage people who are willing to get vaccinated, but haven’t done so yet.

Further analysis shows those willing and eligible to be vaccinated (people over 50 at the time these data were collected) were more likely to respond to cash payments if they were male, and if the amount was at least A$100. Overall, half said they would get vaccinated sooner if offered A$100 or more. So Labor’s plan of A$300 would be effective for this group.

However, for people who are unwilling or unsure about vaccination, cash payments may make only a small difference. Just 10% of this group said they would respond to cash.

This is because there are many reasons people may be unsure or don’t want to get vaccinated. These include a lack of access to unbiased advice and information, strong beliefs about vaccination including around vaccine safety, and medical conditions. To increase vaccination in this group, we need to consider different approaches.

Vaccination as a ticket to freedom

We’re likely to see non-financial incentives offered to fully vaccinated Australians as time goes on. These might be in the form of exemptions from health restrictions, or more lenient rules, around, for example, travel and social activities.

We know holding our vaccination records in our smartphones might provide us with more freedom, earlier. The United Kingdom now allows fully vaccinated travellers from the United States and the European Union to enter without quarantine, accepting the risk that even people who are vaccinated can still carry and spread the virus.

Read more:
Incentives could boost vaccine uptake in Australia. But we need different approaches for different groups

Our survey found roughly 70% of Australians think fully vaccinated people should be allowed to participate, without restriction, in sporting events, concerts, interstate travel, religious events, going to restaurants and movies, and the like. Around half believe those who remain unvaccinated once vaccination is available to everyone should be banned from these activities.

Slightly fewer think international travel should be unrestricted even when fully vaccinated.

Of people unwilling or unsure about vaccination, 18-28% stated they would get vaccinated if they were banned from these activities. This suggests that, compared to cash payments, non-financial incentives might be more likely to work for those who are unwilling or unsure about vaccination.

Where to next?

Both Labor’s and the Coalition’s incentive policies would have some impact on vaccination rates, but the devil is in the detail.

Cash payments are likely to be effective for those who are already willing to be vaccinated, but have not yet done so. This would speed up the rate of vaccination.

Cash is less likely to influence those who are unwilling or are unsure, though it could still work for some of these people.

Allowing fully vaccinated people more freedoms will likely increase the vaccination rates among those yet to get the jab, including those who are unsure or unwilling.

Reaching this group is the holy grail, giving us a better shot of attaining the elusive, but crucial, herd immunity. Incentives matter.

Read more:
Media reports about vaccine hesitancy could contribute to the problem

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Would a $300 vaccination payment work? There are reasons to doubt it

Originally published on


If the proposed A$300 payment to each Australian who is fully vaccinated works, it might be at the expense of getting Australians hooked on incentives, and there are reasons to think it might not not work.

Labor has suggested paying $300 to every Australian who is fully vaccinated by December. The government hasn’t ruled out doing it or something like it.

If 20 million Australians took up the offer, it would cost $6 billion.

An alternative would be to emulate the much cheaper US5.6 million “Vax-a-Million” lottery held in the US state of Ohio. But there is some doubt as to whether it worked.

A preliminary analysis comparing vaccination rates in border counties in Ohio and Indiana before and after the announcement found it might have lifted vaccinations by between 50,000 and 80,000 doses.

Another study found no evidence of any effect when other changes that were taking place at the same time were taken into account.

The payment proposed by Labor is many times bigger at A$6 billion, as would be an A$80 million series of Vaxlotto draws proposed by the Grattan Institute.

What matters is cost per additional vaccination

In assessing value for money we would need to do more than work out the cost per vaccination. We would need to work out the cost per additional vaccination.

Then we would need to set that cost against the benefit of lockdowns those extra vaccinations avoided and the lives and healthy years saved.

Read more:
Paying Australians $300 to get vaccinated would be value for money

While the economic cost of lockdowns is large (the estimate released by the treasury on Tuesday puts the cost of Australia-wide lockdown at A$3.2 billion per week) the reduction in the frequency of Australia-wide or partial lockdowns resulting from incentive payments might be small.

The Treasury estimates suggest an increase in the vaccination rate from 65% to 70% of the proportion of the population aged 16+ would cut the number of days of strict lockdowns per quarter from around 40 to 29.

Economic Impact Analysis: National plan to transition to Australia’s national COVID 19 response.
Australian Treasury

Even if effective, the incentive payments would create expectations. Australians might come to expect (or demand) them in order to get booster shots.

Unless the payments are made retrospective to everyone who has been vaccinated (something both Labor and the Grattan Institute are proposing) they could encourage Australians to delay signing up until they know what’s on offer.

Australians might wait til they know what’s on offer

And they could encourage a mentality of compensating Australians who are reluctant to make sacrifices in the national interest. The government’s emissions reduction payments are rightly seen as having this defect, as was the award of free tradable permits under Labor’s emissions reductions scheme.

Sticks, along the lines of denying access to “vaccine passports”, might be more effective than carrots, and they would create fewer expectations.

Read more:
National Cabinet’s plan out of COVID aims too low on vaccinations and leaves crucial questions unanswered

The best approach would be for the government to get its own house in order by ensuring adequate vaccine and booster supply and delivering consistent messages.

On Tuesday General Frewen, in charge of the COVID taskforce, said an incentive payment wasn’t needed “right now”. If other things are in place, it mightn’t be needed at all.

Mark Crosby does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Mungo ancestral remains reburial proposal disrespects the Elders’ original vision

Originally published on

Gilberto Olimpio/Unsplash, CC BY

Plans are underway to rebury the remains of more than 100 Aboriginal people, including the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, arguably the two most important people who ever lived in Australia”.

The ancestral remains from Willandra occupy a crucial place in understanding the dispersal of modern humanity across the globe and the story of our species’ adaptation to climate change. Mungo Man and Mungo Lady have been dated to 42,000 years old, making them Australia’s oldest human remains. Mungo Lady is the oldest known cremation in the world.

Human remains were first identified at the dry Lake Mungo in 1968. During the 1980s, a small number of the ancestral remains were excavated. The vast majority, however, were exposed through erosion and collected by archaeologists from the Australian National University and NSW National Parks. Ancient DNA has been recovered from one individual, but the majority of the ancient people have not been researched.

The age of the remains are instrumental touchstones in the battle for Indigenous rights. This research led directly to the 1981 inscription of the area on the World Heritage List as one of Australia’s first two World Heritage properties.

Read more:
Fifty years ago, at Lake Mungo, the true scale of Aboriginal Australians’ epic story was revealed

Returning the remains home

Aboriginal people have consistently fought for their ancestors to be returned to Country. During the 1980s and 1990s the remains became national symbols for repatriation. There has been agreement among traditional owners, pastoralists and scientists for more than two decades that the ancestral remains should be repatriated to the Willandra.

The remains of Mungo Lady were returned to the area in 1992, and the remainder of the ancient people returned in 2017–18. A National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said in 2018 a permanent “keeping place”, rather than reburial, should be provided with a monument to mark their importance.

The traditional owner groups have been seeking a keeping place since the 1990s, and in 2000 passed a resolution seeking support from government for its establishment.

Read more:
Mungo Man moves to National Museum, but he’s still not home

But following a series of workshops a plan for reburial (rather than a keeping place) was approved in 2018 by a group representing Barkindji/Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples. These workshops didn’t include experts in palaeoanthropology or biological anthropology.

The current proposal is for the remains to be taken into the World Heritage Area and buried in deep, unmarked graves. A recent NSW government review concluded this would not negatively impact World Heritage values.

We disagree with the NSW government report and believe burying the remains would negatively impact World Heritage values. Mutthi Mutthi Aboriginal Advisory Group (AAG) members Jason and Daniel Kelly responded to the NSW government review arguing the government did not adhere to UNESCO policy for engaging with Indigenous peoples and had denied traditional owner communities the rights to free, informed and prior consent.

The NSW review ignored a 1997 report by leading palaeoanthropologists Chris Stringer and Clive Gamble listing the fossil remains and their surrounding archaeological and palaeoenvironmental context as a site of outstanding value to the human evolutionary story.

The NSW government review also omitted reference to international standards such as the Vermillion Accord. It states the perspectives of both traditional owners and scientists should be given respect when considering the disposition of ancestral remains of great significance.

The NSW Department of Environment has now referred the proposed plan to rebury the remains for consideration of the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley.

An early design for the Mungo keeping place by leading Australian environmental architect Gregory Burgess.

What would be lost?

The age of most of the key burial sites is still unknown. If these remains were reburied in secret locations, we may lose the opportunity to re-date a large number of them using new methods. Research on Garnpung Man demonstrated this possibility.

We know Mungo Man and Lady coexisted with megafauna.

Mungo Man is buried with ochre from many hundreds of kilometres away. It may prove possible to reconstruct migration of people across the landscape by looking at the geochemical (isotopic) signatures in their teeth. Importantly, we could trace how this mobility changed between 40,000 and 20,000 years with the coming of peak glacial mobility, a period that saw the Willandra transform from a wetland into a desert.

Recovering DNA or employing a new method known as proteomics could provide insights into the complexity of Aboriginal origins: early humans on their journey to ancient Australia mixed with other species of humans such as Neanderthals and the enigmatic Denisovans.

Around 16 individuals whose remains were uncovered had been heavily burnt or cremated. Studying this could challenge our understanding of the origins of complex mortuary practices.

Further research could also help us understand how our species adapted to past climate change.

A learning place

Many Barkandji and Mutthi Mutthi Elders and community members have expressed their wish to share the stories of these ancient people with all humanity.

Earlier this year, a letter with Barkandji Native Title holders in Nature called for a delay of the reburial process, highlighting an absence of adequate consultation.

Students on the Arumpo lunette during an early Lake Mungo Youth Festival. The Mungo Youth Conference brings together Elders, researchers and pastoralists to discuss the values of the Willandra World Heritage Area.

Read more:
Mungo Man returns home: there is still much he can teach us about ancient Australia

The issue is complex, but common ground exists.

Every party involved has supported the repatriation of the ancestral remains to Country and all refer to Willandra as a learning place.

A recent online forum, facilitated by Mutthi Mutthi members of the government’s AAG, discussed how a keeping place could enable future learning.

Supporting the development of a keeping place and cultural centre for the traditional owners of the Willandra, rather than reburial in unmarked graves will be an action in keeping with the principles of World Heritage.

Some Mutthi Muthi AAG representatives believe the current proposal dismisses the voice of elders of the three tribal groups past and present, who have fought for a keeping place. They say it inflicts soul sickness and cultural harm to traditional owners who have been excluded from consultations.

Michael Westaway receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He was the Executive Officer for the Willandra Lakes between 2004-2008 and undertook his PhD on the ancestral remains from the Willandra after receiving consent from the Willandra advisory committees (including Three Traditional Tribal Groups and the Technical Scientific Advisory Committees)..

Doug Williams was the Executive Officer for the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area from mid 2000 to early 2004

Jason Kelly is a community elected representative for the North West Region of Victoria on the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria.

‘Dancing ghosts’: a new, deeper scan of the sky throws up surprises for astronomers

Originally published on

Jayanne English/EMU/Dark Energy Survey

Scanning through data fresh off the telescope, we saw two ghosts dancing deep in the cosmos. We had never seen anything like it before, and we had no idea what they were.

Several weeks later, we had figured out we were seeing two radio galaxies, about a billion light years away. In the centre of each one is a supermassive black hole, squirting out jets of electrons that are bent into grotesque shapes by an intergalactic wind.

The two galaxies we think are responsible for the streams of electrons (shown as curved arrows) that form the Dancing Ghosts. But we don’t understand what is causing the filament labelled as 3.
Image by Jayanne English and Ray Norris using data from EMU and the Dark Energy Survey

But where does the intergalactic wind come from? Why is it so tangled? And what is causing the streams of radio emission? We still don’t understand the details of what is going on here, and it will probably take many more observations and modelling before we do.

We are getting used to surprises as we scan the skies in the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) project, using CSIRO’s new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a radio telescope that probes deeper into the Universe than any other. When you boldly go where no telescope has gone before, you are likely to make new discoveries.

A deep search returns many surprises

The image produced by the EMU Pilot Survey. The full moon is shown for scale in the bottom left. The dancing ghosts are barely a pin-prick on this image.
Image by Ray Norris from EMU data

The Dancing Ghosts were just one of several surprises found in our first deep search of the sky using ASKAP. This search, called the EMU Pilot Survey, is described in detail in a paper soon to appear in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

The first ‘Odd Radio Circle’. Radio data are green and the white and coloured data show the optical background from the Dark Energy Survey.
image created by Jayanne English from data from EMU and the Dark Energy Survey

The first big surprise from the EMU Pilot Survey was the discovery of mysterious Odd Radio Circles (ORCs), which seem to be giant rings of radio emission, nearly a million light years across, surrounding distant galaxies.

These had never been seen before, because they are so rare and faint. We still don’t know what they are, but we are working furiously to find out.

Read more:
‘WTF?’: newly discovered ghostly circles in the sky can’t be explained by current theories, and astronomers are excited

We are finding surprises even in places we thought we understood. Next door to the well-studied galaxy IC5063, we found a giant radio galaxy, one of the largest known, whose existence had never even been suspected.

A giant radio galaxy with plumes of electrons stretching nearly 5 million light years from top to bottom of the image. These plumes had never been seen before the EMU Pilot Survey, even though the galaxy IC5063 (the bright blob in the centre) is a very well-studied galaxy. The radio emission (white) is superimposed on an optical imge (coloured) from the dark energy survey.
Image by Ray Norris from EMU data and Dark Energy Survey data

This new galaxy too contains a supermassive black hole, squirting out jets of electrons nearly 5 million light years long. ASKAP is the only telescope in the world that can see the total extent of this faint emission.

What EMU can do

Most known sources of radio emissions are caused by supermassive black holes in quasars and active galaxies, which produce exceptionally bright signals. This is because radio telescopes have always struggled to see the much fainter radio emission from normal spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way.

The EMU project goes deep enough to see them too. EMU sees almost all the spiral galaxies in the nearby Universe that were previously seen only by optical and infrared telescopes. EMU can even trace the spiral arms in the nearest ones.

The Galaxy NGC 7125 with EMU radio data (contours) overlaid on an optical image (coloured_ from the Dark Energy Survey.
Image created by Baerbel Koribalski from EMU data and Dark Energy Survey data

EMU will help us understand the birth of new stars in these galaxies.

These some of the first results the EMU project, which we started in 2009. The EMU team of more than 400 scientists in more than 20 countries has spent the past 12 years planning the project, developing techniques, writing software, and working with the CSIRO engineers who were building the telescope. It has been a long haul, but we are at last seeing the amazing data we have dreamed of for so long.

But this is only the start. Over the next few years, EMU will use the ASKAP telescope to explore even deeper in the Universe, building on these discoveries and finding more. All the data from EMU will eventually be placed in the public domain, so that astronomers from around the world can mine the data and make new discoveries.

But don’t take my word for it. You can already use EMU Pilot Survey data to explore the radio sky yourself, using the zoomable image on our website.

Use your mouse wheel to zoom in from the big picture down to the finest details, and see what you find. Perhaps you may even discover something there that the astronomers have missed.

Ray Norris does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Giant bird-eating centipedes exist — and they’re surprisingly important for their ecosystem

Originally published on

Giant bird-eating centipedes may sound like something out of a science-fiction film — but they’re not. On tiny Phillip Island, part of the South Pacific’s Norfolk Island group, the Phillip Island centipede (Cormocephalus coynei) population can kill and eat up to 3,700 seabird chicks each year.

And this is entirely natural. This unique creature endemic to Phillip Island has a diet consisting of an unusually large proportion of vertebrate animals including seabird chicks.

Phillip Island in the Norfolk Island group, with a valley of iconic Norfolk Island Pine trees.
Luke Halpin

As large marine predators, seabirds usually sit at the top of the food chain. But our new study, published in The American Naturalist, demonstrates this isn’t always the case.

We show how large, predatory arthropods can play an important role in the food webs of island ecosystems. And the Phillip Island centipede achieves this through its highly varied diet.

Read more:
Ancient marvels: the first shell-crushing predators ground up their prey between their legs

A well-armed predator stirs in the night

This centipede can grow to almost one foot (or 30.5cm) in length. It is armed with a potent venom encased in two pincer-like appendages called “forcipules”, which it uses to immobilise its prey. Its body is protected by shield-like armoured plates that line each of the many segments that make up its length.

On warm and humid nights, these strictly nocturnal arthropods hunt through thick leaf litter, navigating a labyrinth of seabird burrows peppered across the forest floor. A centipede on the prowl will use its two ultra-sensitive antennae to navigate as it seeks prey.

The centipede hunts an unexpectedly varied range of quarry, from crickets to seabird chicks, geckos and skinks. It even hunts fish — dropped by seabirds called black noddies (Anous minuta) that make their nests in the trees above.

A frightful discovery

Soon after we began our research on the ecology of Phillip Island’s burrowing seabirds, we discovered chicks of black-winged petrels (Pterodroma nigripennis) were falling prey to the Phillip Island centipede.

We knew this needed further investigation, so we set out to unravel the mystery of this large arthropod’s dietary habits.

Black-winged petrel chick just prior to being weighed on Phillip Island.
Trudy Chatwin

To find out what these centipedes were eating, we studied their feeding activities at night and recorded the prey species they were targeting. We also monitored petrel chicks in their burrow nests every few days, for months at a time.

We eventually began to see consistent injury patterns among chicks that were killed. We even witnessed one centipede attacking and eating a chick.

From the rates of predation we observed, we calculated that the Phillip Island centipede population can kill and eat between 2,109 and 3,724 petrel chicks each year. The black-winged petrels — of which there are up to 19,000 breeding pairs on the island — appear to be resilient to this level of predation.

Envenomation of a black-winged petrel nestling by a Phillip Island centipede. (Video by Daniel Terrington)

And the predation of black-winged petrels by Phillip Island centipedes is an entirely natural predator-prey relationship. By preying on vertebrates, the centipedes trap nutrients brought from the ocean by seabirds and distribute them around the island.

In some sense, they’ve taken the place (or ecological niche) of predatory mammals, which are absent from the island.

Luke Halpin monitoring black-winged petrel chicks on Phillip Island.
Trudy Chatwin

Restoration and recovery

Up until just a few decades ago the Phillip Island Centipede was very rare. In fact, it was only formally described as a species in 1984.

After an intensive search in 1980, only a few small individuals were found. The species’s rarity back then was most likely due to severely degraded habitats caused by pigs, goats and rabbits introduced by humans to the island.

The removal of these invasive pests enabled black-winged petrels to colonise. Their population has since exploded and they’re now the most abundant of the 13 seabird species that breed on Phillip Island.

They provide a high-quality food source for the Phillip Island centipede and have therefore likely helped centipede population to recover.

Black-winged petrels on Phillip Island are active both during the day and at night. (Video by Luke Halpin)

Ancient bone deposits in the soil suggest that prior to the black-winged petrel’s arrival, Phillip Island was home to large numbers of other small burrow-nesting seabird species. It’s likely the Phillip Island centipede preyed on these seabirds too.

Now, thanks to the conservation efforts of Norfolk Island National Park, the island’s forest is regenerating alongside endemic species like the centipede, as well as the critically endangered Phillip Island hibiscus (Hibiscus insularis).

The endemic Phillip Island hibiscus.
Luke Halpin

As a driver of nutrient transfer, the persistence of the Phillip Island centipede (and its healthy appetite) might just be key to the island’s ecosystem recovery. But we’ll need to do more research to fully understand the intricate links in this bustling food web.

Read more:
These underwater photos show Norfolk Island reef life still thrives, from vibrant blue flatworms to soft pink corals

Luke Halpin is a recipient of the Endeavour Postgraduate Leadership Award from the Australian Government. This research was funded by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment – Equity Trustees Charitable Foundation & the Ecological Society of Australia, BirdLife Australia Stuart Leslie Bird Research Award and the Australasian Seabird Group. Support was also provided by the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and Norfolk Island National Park.

Rohan Clarke receives funding from Parks Australia, the Australia and the Pacific Science Foundation. Rohan Clarke is affiliated with Monash University.

Rowan Mott is affiliated with the University of Adelaide.

Pacific nations grapple with COVID’s terrible toll and the desperate need for vaccines

Originally published on

Fiji now heads the grim list of Pacific nations counting their dead from coronavirus, having just passed Papua New Guinea’s toll. So far, 254 Fijians have died from the disease, and the nation is recording 1,000 new cases every day.

But numbers are an inadequate and inaccurate way to calculate the cost of the pandemic in the Pacific. Even in the Pacific’s COVID-free countries, the pandemic casts an ominous shadow.

The Delta variant has drastically altered the situation for the Pacific. It was first detected in Fiji in April and spread quickly. This is despite Fiji being the first Pacific nation to receive AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX program in March.

The Bainimarama government is being blamed for not executing a rapid mass vaccination campaign and not sufficiently locking down the nation. The other contagion accompanying coronavirus around the globe – misinformation – has also been blamed for widespread Fijian vaccine reluctance.

Now Fiji’s government is desperately fighting to contain the outbreak. Fears are circulating that it is facing a repeat of the 1875 measles epidemic that killed about 40,000 people.

The Fijian government is desperately trying to contain its COVID outbreak.
Aileen Torres-Bennett/AP/AAP

A mandatory vaccination order was issued on July 8 to all government workers. Non-compliance will be punished by job loss. Currently, 25% of Fijians are fully vaccinated. The government has also expanded curfews for the main island and the outbreak epicentre, Viti Levu.

Beyond the urgency of saving lives and halting the disease’s spread, Fiji is also economically devastated by the pandemic. Most Pacific borders were closed by March 2020, instantly cutting the economic lifeblood of tourism.

Being a Pacific hub, Fiji is a dangerous launching point for the Delta strain to other nations. In early July, for example, nine travellers from Fiji arrived in New Zealand infected with COVID-19.

Read more:
The Pacific went a year without COVID. Now, it’s all under threat

The Solomons and Vanuatu

Repatriating students and their families from Fiji remains a serious concern for both the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The Solomons has decided to repatriate some, but most will remain in Fiji until more vaccines have been administered at home (currently under 3% are fully vaccinated).

Vanuatu’s low vaccination rate of under 8% also makes the return of students a perilous decision for lawmakers. Like Fiji, it is now considering a “no jab, no job” policy.

In addition to the risks posed by Fiji, both nations have had numerous scares from infected shipping crews. All Pacific nations must contend with this border vulnerability.

Papua New Guinea

The havoc unfolding in Fiji is bad news for Papua New Guinea. Though PNG recorded its first COVID-19 case in March 2020, it was not until one year later that a health crisis erupted.

PNG’s official toll is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg, as COVID testing was scaled back once vaccinations became the main focus for health authorities. And this was before PNG’s first confirmed case of the Delta variant was announced on July 16.

Again, mass vaccinations are PNG’s only defence. Vaccine donations have arrived from various sources, but only about 1% of the population is fully vaccinated according to available government reporting.

Australia has already donated thousands of doses to PNG and other Pacific nations, but with a reported stockpile of 3 million unused doses of AstraZeneca, the Pacific nations would be obvious places to send these.

Australia has donated vaccines to its neighbour PNG, but across the Pacific much more help is needed.
Darren England/AP/AAP

Papua and West Papua

Over PNG’s border with Indonesia, COVID-19’s spread is clashing with another surge in political unrest. Tensions had been building again following the rebel killing of an Indonesian general in April. Then Indonesian legislators voted on July 17 to again controversially reshape Papua.

Protests occurred at the same time the Delta variant entered the community. Police controls limiting movements into rebel areas, ostensibly to curb COVID, have increased.

Papuan activists are concerned vaccine distribution will be withheld from rebel populations as an Indonesian tactic to further weaken them. West Papua leader Benny Wenda has called on the West to vaccinate Indigenous Papuans because COVID is an additional existential threat to his people. Wenda’s fears may have foundation. The Papua province has the lowest vaccination rates in Indonesia, at about 6%.

Elsewhere in the Pacific

The news is better in other parts of the Pacific. Numerous Pacific nations, including Tonga, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and American Samoa, have not recorded any confirmed COVID cases. Kiribati recently reported its first case, matching Samoa’s record to date.

The natural isolation of many Pacific populations will protect them for only so long. Analysis of the 1918 influenza epidemic shows outbreaks persisted in the Pacific through to 1921. When it reached the phosphate-mining island of Nauru in 1920, it killed 18% of the local populace.

A century later, Nauru has vaccinated all its adults against COVID and claims this as a “world record”.

Niue has also achieved herd immunity thanks to New Zealand’s swift donation of Pfizer vaccines, a process now being repeated in Tokelau. The Cook Islands, with its more complex geography, nonetheless has a high vaccination rate (55%) sustaining the travel bubble with New Zealand that opened in May 2021.

In the US territory of Guam, where the first COVID death in the Pacific was recorded in March 2020, tourism and vaccinations have merged in a different way. Travellers from Taiwan began taking “vacation and vaccination” trips from early July. While Guam recently reached 80% vaccinated, it also recorded its 142nd death attributed to the pandemic.

Like Guam, Palau got fast and adequate supplies of vaccines because of its freely associated relationship with the US. This has shielded them from the pandemic with near herd immunity.

Yet Hawaii is seeing the same recent surge as is afflicting mainland US. The Delta variant and July 4 parties have combined to unleash what President Joe Biden called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

Hawaii is now seeing the same surge in cases in the past month as has the US mainland.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/AP/AAP

This latest surge, like earlier ones, disproportionately impacts Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander communities living in the US by a substantial degree.

COVID has devastated the US-based Marshall Islands community, especially in Arkansas, so alarming health officials they investigated it in 2020.

French Polynesia has grappled with the costs of an operating tourist industry since early 2020. Twice, borders have been closed when cases numbers and deaths rose, and then reopened. Now President Edouard Fritch is calling for compulsory vaccinations.

In New Caledonia, COVID has complicated a fractious political situation as it heads towards its final referendum on independence from France in December. In February 2021, a budget crisis exacerbated by COVID’s economic impact led to the collapse of the government. In July, the territory elected its first Kanak pro-independence leader in 40 years, increasing the likelihood of a vote to break with France.

COVID has also added complications to the protracted political crisis in Samoa that ended on July 26. Closed borders prevented non-resident voters returning to cast ballots in the April 9 election that saw Fiame Naomi Mata’afa become prime minister.

Read more:
Samoa’s first female leader has made history — now she faces a challenging future at home and abroad

Samoa has seen the same economic and social stresses due to COVID as elsewhere in the region. Many saw the introduction and extension of emergency powers by the now-defeated government (despite having only one case and no deaths) as another move towards autocracy. The political crisis has been a drag on all Samoan government functions, not least a sluggish vaccine rollout.

In another disaster, COVID pushes climate change to the backburner

Every Pacific nation faces its own challenges due to COVID. The region also has shared ones. The Pacific Islands Forum lost one-third of its members in February 2021 in part because meetings were held virtually. The fracturing of this regional body comes at a bad moment, not least in the fight against climate change.

Until COVID, this was the immediate existential crisis facing the region. Now activist worry climate change initiatives have stalled at the long-term peril of the region. As the Federated States of Micronesia president has argued, “economies can die and be revived but human beings cannot”. Whether this also applies to the planet remains to be seen.

Patricia A. O’Brien receives funding from the Australian Research Council and New Zealand’s JD Stout Trust.

Let’s choose our words more carefully when discussing mātauranga Māori and science

Originally published on

Responding to the recent controversy over mātauranga Māori and the letter he co-authored titled “In defence of science”, Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis said: “We don’t know any Māori who knows what mātauranga is.”

This immediately made us wonder: what would happen if we asked a group of scientists what science is?

Common responses to the question “what is science?” focus on causal explanations, controlled experiments, hypothesis testing or falsification (those are popular options, not an exhaustive list).

All point to important aspects of science, and all have been proposed as ways of defining it. But there is no single answer to the question “what is science?”.

This doesn’t mean people can characterise science however they want. Far from it. Our point, instead, is that questions like “what is science?” or “is mātauranga science?” could be asking about any number of different ideas.

Ambiguous statements are poor starting points for careful, constructive debates. We see people talking past each other in discussions of mātauranga and science. These discussions could benefit from more careful articulation of the concepts at stake. We’ll start with science.

What is science?

When we ask what something is, we often seek a definition of that thing. But whereas some concepts are pretty easily defined (electron, uncle), some aren’t (art, life, science).

When we ask a question about a hard-to-define concept – “what is art?” or “what is life?” – dictionary definitions aren’t much use, because what we are after is an understanding of the range of conceptual work the term does for us.

So, when we ask “what is science?”, what are we asking? One way to answer is to list methodologies that many or most scientists use, such as testing hypotheses, conducting controlled experiments or gathering empirical evidence.

Another way to answer is to point to a list of goals and values – yes, despite the myth of a value-free ideal, values are part of science – that many or most scientists strive for. These include reproducibility, empirical accuracy or reliable causal knowledge of how the world works.

Yet another approach shifts away from listing science’s characteristic hallmarks and points to its status. Here, we might answer the question “what is science?” by saying something like, “science represents our best empirical knowledge of how the natural world works”.

The many faces of science

Any of those answers can be framed generically. We can talk about science universally: as a set of methodologies anyone can employ, values anyone can strive for, or status any body of knowledge can achieve, at a given time, in a given domain.

We can also talk about science in a specific way: as a modern institution housed in universities, companies and NGOs. We can talk about the history and culture of this institution: it traces back to the Enlightenment and to earlier times and places, and it is funded by governments and industry and rich donors.

We can talk about things this institution, or particular people involved in it, have done throughout its history: discovered antiseptics and subatomic particles and the structure of DNA, exploited indigenous peoples around the world in the name of research, come together globally to develop COVID vaccines in under a year.

We see all the above understandings of science — methodological, epistemic, status-based, universal and specific — on display, and often run together, in the recent debate about mātauranga and science. And that’s not even an exhaustive list of ways to address the question “what is science?”.

Slow down, show respect

Mātauranga spans Māori knowledge, culture, values and worldview. When someone asks, “is mātauranga science?”, there is a range of things they could really be asking about, including:

does mātauranga (or do forms of it) use scientific methodologies to generate knowledge?

do we value mātauranga as a valid way of knowing about the world alongside science?

how should we uphold this value in a way that respects intersections and differences?

should relevant content from mātauranga be taught in science classrooms?

These questions and others are (at a bare minimum) starting points for more productive discussions than “is mātauranga science?” There is nothing constructive to be gained by framing those questions in ambiguous definitional terms.

In closing, we note the question “what is philosophy?” has no clear and easy answer, either! A favourite quotation about philosophy says it is “thinking in slow motion”. More of that would be welcome in the current discussion.

In practice, that will mean striving to avoid ambiguity in everything we say, pausing with respect to consider our audience’s point of view — and choosing our words carefully.

Emily Parke has received funding from Marsden to explore mātauranga Māōri and science.

Dan C H Hikuroa has received research funding from Marsden, MBIE, National Science Challenges, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, Te Pūnaha Matatini to explore mātauranga Māori and science.

Accelerated jabs for younger people after Doherty modelling shows it’s vital to vaccinate them quickly

Originally published on

The government is set to tweak its vaccination timetable to accelerate jabs for those aged 30 to 39, after Doherty Institute modelling showing it is vital to get younger adults quickly vaccinated, because they are high COVID transmitters.

Those in their 30s and 20s – scheduled for the Pfizer vaccine – are at the back of the queue under the rollout plan, becoming eligible from September-October, according to the man in charge of the rollout, General JJ Frewen, speaking some weeks ago.

With Pfizer in short supply, they are now under some pressure, including from Scott Morrison and changing health advice, to take the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Government sources said on Tuesday the plan would be tweaked, probably this week, after incoming Pfizer supply numbers were confirmed.

The Doherty modelling, used as a basis for national cabinet last week setting vaccination targets, says: “As supply allows, extending vaccinations for adults under 40 years offers the greatest potential to reduce transmission now that a high proportion of vulnerable Australians are vaccinated.”

The vaccine uptake by young people 16 and over “will strongly influence the impact of vaccination on overall transmission,” Doherty says.

The modelling was released on Tuesday at a news conference by Scott Morrison and Professor Jodie McVernon, Director of Epidemiology at the Doherty Institute.

McVernon said the 20 to 39 year olds were “the peak spreaders” of the virus.

“They will bring COVID home to their children, they will take it home to their own parents, and this is the group now where we’re proposing the reorientation of the strategy,” she said.

National cabinet last week agreed in principle to a four stage plan to move from the present suppression strategy (aiming for zero community transmission) to a limited reopening when 70% of people 16 and over have been fully vaccinated. When the vaccination level reached 80%, lockdowns would be rare and limited.

In an analysis for the national cabinet meeting, Treasury calculated the direct impact on economic activity of various vaccination scenarios modelled by Doherty.

Treasury found that “continuing to minimise the number of COVID-19 cases, by taking early and strong action in response to outbreaks of the Delta variant, is consistently more cost effective than allowing higher levels of community transmission, which ultimately requires longer and more costly lockdowns.”

At 50% vaccination rates, the direct economic cost of minimising cases is about $570 million a week; at 60%, it is about $430 million.

At 70%, with only low level restrictions needed, the expected economic cost of COVID-19 management falls to about $200 million each week, reducing to about $140 million at an 80% vaccination level.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the clear message from the economic modelling “is that until we get to 70% and above vaccination rates, the economic imperative is that governments need to move fast to get on top of those cases. If they don’t, we see lengthier and more severe lockdowns, which have a much more significant economic cost.”

“What Treasury have found is that at 50% and 60% vaccination rates, it’s five times more costly, should governments not move early to get on top of the virus.”

The NSW government has recently come under sharp criticism for not moving earlier in the current Sydney outbreak. There is now a prolonged lockdown.

Despite Australia’s still low vaccination rate – only about one in five 16 and over have had two doses – Morrison strongly rejected Anthony Albanese’s proposal that everyone who is fully vaccinated by December 1 should receive $300.

Morrison said the proposal was “a vote of no-confidence in Australians”, and “a bubble without a thought”. It said to people that health concerns they might have about a vaccine could be paid off.

Pointing to the relatively high level of take-up by older people Morrison said: “Do we really think that Australians of younger ages are less committed to their own health, the health of their families, the health of their communities, than those who are older? Of course not.”

“It’s not a game show. And it’s very important that we continue to respect how Australians are engaging with this process. So if they do have hesitancy about vaccines, I’m not going to pay them off. I’m going to pay a GP to sit down with them and talk them through their concerns, which is what I have already done.”

The Essential poll, released Tuesday, found 47% of people who have not been vaccinated say they would take Pfizer but not AstraZeneca. This unwillingness to receive AstraZeneca has increased substantially since April.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Podcast with Michelle Grattan: a four-stage plan and a $300 payment to get vaccinated

Originally published on

As well as her interviews with politicians and experts, Politics with Michelle Grattan now includes “Word from The Hill”, where she discusses the news with members of The Conversations’s politics team.

In this episode, politics + society editor Amanda Dunn and Michelle talk about the outcome of last Friday’s National Cabinet meeting – an updated four-point plan for exiting COVID restrictions via vaccination levels of 70% and 80%.

They also discuss Scott Morrison’s vehement rejection of Anthony Albanese’s proposal that Australians be given $300 incentive to get vaccinated.

Additional audio

Gaena, Blue Dot Sessions, from Free Music Archive.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Why Jack Dorsey’s Square paid a record $39 billion for Afterpay

Originally published on

The A$39 billion (US$29 billion) that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s digital payments company Square is paying to acquire Australian upstart payments outfit Afterpay is the biggest takeover deal in Australian corporate history.

It surpasses the A$32 billion European commercial real estate giant Unibail-Rodamco agreed to pay for Frank Lowy’s Westfield Corporation in 2017.

The deal marks an extraordinarily successful journey for Afterpay, a company founded in 2014 and listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in May 2016 at $1 a share.

At the close of last week, before this deal was announced, its share price was A$96.66, giving it a market capitalisation of about $27.5 billion.

Square, which at the end of last week had a market cap of about US$123 billion, may pay 1% of its buyout offer in cash, but the rest will be in stock, giving Afterpay shareholders 0.375 shares of Square for each Afterpay ordinary share.

The stock swap means the implied price Square is paying for Afterpay share is about A$126.21 — a premium of about 30.6% to its closing price last Friday.

Why so valuable?

That’s to do with the profitability of the “Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) market, in which Afterpay has been a pioneer. The market has become even more profitable due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated the use of online and cashless payments as well as leaving more people short of money.

How Afterpay works

BNPL companies are so-called because they work differently to traditional credit companies. The reason they emerged first in Australia can be attributed both to “the inventiveness of Australia’s retail and finance sectors” as well as a quirk in Australia’s credit regulation laws.

Under Australia’s National Consumer Credit Protection Act, credit is defined (in line with the dictionary definition) as a method of paying for goods with the credit provider making their profit through charging interest.

Afterpay does not charge consumers interest. The majority of its revenue instead comes from merchant fees, charging a commission of 4-6% on the value of the transaction plus 30 cents for every purchased. The rest of its revenue comes from charging late fees when customers fail to make repayments on time.

Afterpay’s standard repayment plan is four equal instalments every fortnight over two months. A missed payment incurs an initial $10 penalty. If you still have an outstanding balance after one week a further $7 is charged.

Afterpay has made it very easy to buy now, pay later. It charges merchants a commission on the transaction as well as late fees if customers miss their scheduled payments.
Sam Bianchini/Shutterstock

It could be argued these late fees are the equivalent of charging interest — and a hefty interest payment at that. One $10 late fee on a debt of $150 translates to an effective interest charge of 6.67% per fortnight.

But because they don’t explicitly charge interest, Afterpay and other BNPL companies are not covered by credit laws.

This has led to concerns about BNPL providers profiting at the expense of the most financially vulnerable consumers. In 2018 the Australian Securities and Investments Commission called for reform to close the legal loophole. It wanted BNPL providers to operate under the same rules as credit providers — including the same responsible lending obligations to perform a credit check and verify that customers could afford to take on the debt.

However, this has not happened. A Senate inquiry decided last year no regulation was necessary, instead endorsing self-regulation. Afterpay and its rivals signed a voluntary code of conduct earlier this year.

Read more:
What’s the difference between credit and debt? How Afterpay and other ‘BNPL’ providers skirt consumer laws

Booming profits

Despite these concerns, the ease of Afterpay’s technology has made it a very convenient way to buy things. Its logo is becoming ubiquitous. Over the year to June 30 the number of merchants offering it as a payment option increased by 77% to 98,200, and number of customers by 63% to 16 million.

In the first six months of 2021, Afterpay’s gross profit was US$284 million — about 150% more than the US$113 million profit it booked in the six months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (July-December 2019).

With the BNPL market proving to be so lucrative, credit card companies, banks and tech companies have been looking to muscle in. Visa announced its BNPL plans in July 2019, and it is just now rolling out its technology to merchants. Commonwealth Bank of Australia is also in the process of establishing its “StepPay” offering. Paypal launched its “Pay in 4” service last month. Apple last month also announced its own plans.

Read more:
How to know if your online shopping habit is a problem — and what to do if it is

Square, co-founded by Dorsey and Jim McKelvey in 2009, has gone the simpler route by buying the pioneer in the market.

Afterpay’s board has unanimously recommended shareholders accept the offer. Both Afterpay and Square shareholders still need to approve the deal. So too does Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, under Australia’s foreign investment laws.

But this is all likely to be a formality. It’s an offer too good to refuse.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.