My mother-in-law grew up in a hilltop village in Italy surrounded by sloping fields filled with olive groves, endless rows of grapevines and the footprints of the Devil.
Guardia Sanframondi hasn’t changed much for the past thousand years; it’s a postcard town stubbornly clinging to a sun-bleached mountain peak where Catholic traditions and medieval superstitions remain as rich as the aroma of fresh tomato sauce wafting from the open windows.
My mother-in-law was steeped in the magic of the place. She came from a family of warlocks and witches – strega – who for generations passed down through the family a book of spells and prayers designed to keep Satan at bay.
She can still remember her father striding defiantly into the fields under a blackening sky as a looming hailstorm threatened to destroy the family’s small crop. Muttering a prayer, he hurled ash over his shoulder and plunged a dagger into the earth to ward off the coming storm.
She left Italy more than 50 years ago. But with an increasing number of Australians now saying they will not be vaccinated against coronavirus, has she simply swapped one superstitious village for another?
A little over a month ago a Roy Morgan poll found that 77 per cent of Australians over the age of 18 were willing to receive a coronavirus vaccination.
Disturbingly, 12 per cent – a rise of 5 per cent from a previous poll – said they were unwilling to have the jab.
Those figures were largely mirrored in a Newspoll this week that found three in four Australians plan to receive a coronavirus vaccination.
The federal government has already said the vaccination program will be voluntary and those who decline to participate will not affect their eligibility for family tax benefits or childcare assistance – unlike the ‘no jab, no play’ policy that has lifted immunisation rates around the country.
It’s a staggering stance when the pandemic has been regarded as a threat important enough to shut our international and state borders, lock down cities and close businesses.
We have been prepared to bankrupt companies, drive others perilously close to the wall, plunge families into poverty and unleash untold levels of stress and anxiety on generations of Australians.
Yet now, with several vaccines about to be made available and more on the way, we are apparently content to allow a significant number of unvaccinated people – if the polls are right it could be more than 2 million – to continue accessing public transport, childcare and other taxpayer-subsidised benefits?
Yes, it’s a basic human right to refuse to be vaccinated. We do not live – or want to live – in a society that compels individuals against their will to have their body injected with foreign material.
But the past year has amply underlined the obligations and benefits that come with being a member of a large community. Individuals throughout this country have made sacrifices – many of them life-defining – for the greater good.
The reward has been obvious: our health system was not overwhelmed by the pandemic and we also avoided the staggering (and increasing) death toll experienced elsewhere in the western world.
So let’s be clear. Unless you have a legitimate medical reason, declining to receive a COVID vaccine is a blatant refusal to do your part in helping prevent community transmission of the virus.
So why reward such people for their ignorance, stupidity or sheer stubbornness by allowing them to access the same benefits as the rest of us who remain willing to do our share of the heavy lifting?
If you want to believe that China unleashed the pandemic on the world as part of its plan for world dominance, or that Bill Gates is using it as an opportunity to plant microchips in your body, fine. You are entitled to believe whatever you want.
But that should not give you the same entitlement as the rest of us fully fledged, paid-up-members of society.
Vaccination only works when a large enough body of people gain immunity. Having significant numbers of unvaccinated people in the community puts at risk the lives of the vulnerable whose immune systems are too weak or who have other medical issues that prevent them from being inoculated.
My mother-in-law came to Australia in 1968, a tiny woman with a baby in her arms and her belly swollen with another. Her own mother had died when she was young, her education had been limited to a few years of primary school, she spoke no English and knew no-one except her new husband.
She adapted quickly. Now widowed, she video calls her sisters back in the village on her iPad, live streams Mass from the Vatican, binges Netflix and haunts YouTube.
While her education might have been limited and her belief system grounded in religion and magic, she has a greater appreciation for the benefits of science than many of her fellow Australians who should know better.
When Australia’s COVID vaccination program begins to roll out in the next few weeks my mother-in-law, now in her mid-70s, will be among the first to receive a jab.
The rest of us – at least the rest of us who value rationality and the efficacy of science – will follow in the weeks and months to come.
And yet we’ll continue to allow a large number of Australians to move among us with absolutely no defence against the coronavirus – and taking no responsibility in preventing its spread.
It makes you wonder who the stupid people really are.
Walkley Award winner Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists and editors