Adriana Midori Takara officially became Australia’s youngest female victim of COVID-19 when she passed away over the weekend. The 38-year-old Brazillian citizen, who had lived in Australia for more than a decade, tried to get vaccinated before her death but wasn't able to get an appointment.
Takara has been remembered as a “sweet, smiling, kind, gentle, caring girl”, who dreamed of becoming a permanent resident.
Takara is just one person in a pandemic that’s taken close to 1,000 lives in Australia (and devastated millions globally). So why has her story hit home for so many people?
Part of it is that she could have been any of us or our friends. Takara was just 38 years old, with no underlying health conditions, and yet she died just 10 days after contracting the Delta variant.
According to reports, Takara tried “numerous” times to get an appointment for a vaccine in the weeks before she fell ill, but each time was told via the NSW Health portal that no appointments were available until after October.
It’s worth asking the question: did Australia fail her?
Australia’s response to the pandemic, once the envy of the world, has now become a lesson in what not to do. On the day Takara contracted the virus, just 11% of the population was vaccinated. On the day she died, in the early hours of July 25, it was 16%.
A lot has been said about where the vaccine rollout went wrong, and why. In September 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $1.7 billion deal to supply and produce two vaccines still in the trial stages: one being developed at the University of Oxford – which we now refer to as AstraZeneca – and one at the University of Queensland.
Two months later, in November, the government announced an additional deal to purchase vaccines being developed by two other pharmaceutical companies: Pfizer / BioNTech (10 million vaccines) and Novavax (40 million).
Morrison promoted it as proof we “weren’t putting all our eggs in one basket”, with no guarantee the vaccines would work. And in fact, they didn’t: the UQ vaccine was suspended in December last year after trials found it was generating antibodies that gave a false positive result to HIV.
So we were left with three. AstraZeneca was the go-to vaccine not just for Australia, but the world, and whatever Morrison said, most of our eggs – specifically, 53.8 million of them – were in the AstraZeneca basket.
And then, the AZ started to falter. Reports of a rare but particularly serious blood clot side effect started to emerge. Some governments overseas suspended its use. In Australia, ATAGI (Australia Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which advises the government on vaccines) recommended that the only other available vaccine at the time, Pfizer, was preferred for under 50s, and then under 60s. (Novavax, which has never brought a vaccine to market, is experiencing significant delays due to production issues.)
The government might have hedged its bets for problems with one vaccine, but not two. The shortage meant restricting vaccines only to those who were most at risk: medical staff, frontline workers, and vulnerable Australians (although that has hardly been without failure either).
Which brings us to the perfect storm in June. Vaccine hesitancy and complacency were high: unethical reporting on the very rare deaths related to AstraZeneca bred fear, and the lack of both urgency and motivation bred complacency. A limo driver transporting international flight staff was unable to get the AstraZeneca vaccine for medical reasons and unable to get the Pfizer due to supply issues. He caught the Delta variant, it spread, and now the entire city of Sydney is in lockdown, and ten people have died.
One of them is Takara. It’s not clear from reports which vaccine she was trying to access (and perhaps it’s not known). However, she was ineligible for a Pfizer vaccine right now and is believed to have contracted the virus around the same time ATAGI updated its advice for people living in outbreak areas to get the AstraZeneca, regardless of age.
The pandemic, and particularly the Delta strain, has made every government in the world look stupid at some point. Every single one has made mistakes, course-corrected, and – most of the time – made policy decisions they believe are in the best interest of the largest group of people.
But our vaccination rollout has been a failure. Targets have been missed, and then quietly abandoned. Getting vaccinated feels like a game of lottery. Government doublespeak in how many more vaccines are coming and when does nothing but erode what little trust we have left. And when Scott Morrison finally uttered the word “sorry” this week, it felt both long overdue and hollow.
Every death in this pandemic has been a tragedy, including Takara’s. But it’s the feeling that, with different decisions made by people who will never meet her, she might not have died, is the one I’ll be finding hard to shake.