Coronavirus: Australian ad showing Covid patient gasping for air sparks backlash as country battles Delta variant

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A dramatic government health advertisement showing a young woman gasping for air while on a ventilator has sparked a backlash in Australia, with social media users criticizing its targeting of young people for coronavirus vaccination — the majority of whom are not yet eligible to receive the recommended shot.

“COVID can affect anyone. Stay home. Get tested. Book your vaccination,” reads an on-screen message in the 30-second ad, seemingly intended to illustrate the risks posed to young people by the highly-contagious Delta variant.

The ad, which began airing Sunday night in Sydney, “is quite graphic, and it’s meant to be graphic,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said during a news conference Sunday. “We are only doing this because of the (COVID-19) situation.”

While Australia has fared better than many other developed nations in keeping infections relatively low, Sydney has seen case numbers surge in recent weeks as the Delta variant takes hold. In response to the outbreak, restrictions have tightened in Australia’s largest city, with tough rules in place limiting outdoor gatherings, exercise and shopping.

New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, reported 112 new locally transmitted cases Monday, almost all in Sydney, despite the strict lockdown measures.

The new government ad is part of a broader COVID-19 health campaign highlighting the seriousness of the latest outbreak, however, many Australians have expressed concern over its use of “insensitive” scare tactics, and what many perceive to be muddled, contradictory messaging.

Bill Bowtell, adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales and strategic health policy consultant, said the ad is “misconceived in every possible way.”

The young woman shown struggling to breathe is of particular concern, according to Bowtell. Under Australia’s current vaccine rollout, most people under the age of 40 are not able to receive the recommended Pfizer-​BioNTech vaccination, he said.

“Every piece of health communication should be tasteful, has to have integrity and honesty. This fails in that regard,” Bowtell added.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that people under the age of 40 could ask their general practitioner for an AstraZeneca shot even if they were not yet eligible to get a vaccine, reversing a policy that previously gave priority to high-risk groups such as health care workers and the elderly.

However, Morrison’s comments were widely contradicted by senior health officials, many of whom cited guidance provided by the government’s own advisory group on immunization, suggesting young people wait to receive the Pfizer-​BioNTech vaccine, owing to the reduced risk of rare blood clotting events.

As a result of the mixed messaging, take-up of the AstraZeneca shot has been low, while shortages of the Pfizer-​BioNTech shot have continued to hamper Australia’s nationwide rollout. As of Sunday, just over 9 million vaccine doses have been administered across the country, according to the Department of Health. Just 9 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to CNN’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker.

Addressing the backlash against the new government health ad Monday, Morrison said there will “always” be criticism. “I know that, and it was only a few weeks ago that our very critics were saying that the advertising needed to be stronger, far stronger, even making references to grim reapers,” he told CNN affiliate Sky News Australia.

“[The ad] has two messages… one is to stay at home,” Morrison added. “We can’t be complacent about this. And young people moving around the city was putting people at risk right across the community, including themselves.”

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