What the hell does ATAGI stand for anyway? I don’t mean what it is short for (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation). I mean what it represents and what values drive the experts who sit on this body and tell our political leaders and the rest of us whether or not a vaccine should be taken.
I sit here in my study on a Saturday night during yet another tiresome lockdown. As a Gen Xer, staying home on a cold and rainy Saturday night is pretty normal, although I would like to be able to have a civilised bottle of red with a meal at my local Thai or Vietnamese restaurant down the road, as is my custom.
So, with time on my hands and possibly gifted with a little more ability to express myself in the written form than later generations (ie those who have forgotten the proper uses of the apostrophe), I can sit here and write for a non-existent readership in the manner of Flavius Josephus about whatever is on my mind.
Hence I can tell you what I think about ATAGI and what it stands for.
Firstly, it represents the latest phase in the degeneration of Australian society and public life into technocracy, that is, the rule by experts.
All the people on ATAGI are at the top of their fields in the medical profession, which means that they are even smarter and better qualified than the physicians you normally encounter. This also means that they are probably even insufferable than the grumpy or tactless GP with the awful bedside manner whom you are used to having treat you.
GPs are not always the best communicators, and I doubt the good doctors of ATAGI are any better. But ATAGI has a role, as experts, to advise the government on whether vaccines are safe or not, and if so, to what degree.
Politicians are pretty driven and clever people for the most part, and very good at persuading sufficient members of their own parties and then the public to vote for them. But most of them went to law school, which meant whilst they are very clever indeed, that they did not have to buckle down the way that med students do to get their degrees. There was still time and opportunity for them to party on at the pub or wherever.
As society gets more and more complex, political leaders need to be advised by more and more highly qualified experts on the implementation of policies. Sometimes, it is very hard to understand what the science or mechanics is behind something, and getting the experts to tell you what to do is tempting.
Which is why the batch of technocrats at ATAGI are so appealing to the government. Governments like to be reelected, and they like to have someone to shift the blame to, although the mess around the world in many places is such that some countries are just giving up and appointing experts to tell their parliaments what to do. We are getting to that point here.
Secondly, the ATAGI is about cowardice. This cowardice is short hand for several unappealing qualities.
One is the blame shifting which the politicians are doing with the ATAGI and the vaccine roll out debacle (none of the current crop have the moral courage of a farm boy like Harry Truman, who had no professional education beyond knowing when to tell men to fire a cannon, but which sufficed for when greatness was thrust upon him, and who owned leadership through the quote on his desk ‘The buck stops here’).
Another is the risk aversion which has come from the way that the ATAGI has messaged the risks attached to Astra Zeneca, which has fed into the fears of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists (didn’t they all used to be nutty new age hippy types in the Dandenongs?), and caused even more sensible people to hesitate about getting vaccinated.
I suspect that this risk aversion stems from the fact that doctors all pay high premiums in malpractice insurance, such that they are not always going to know anymore how to take a calculated risk. Medical rocket scientists on the ATAGI are not going to be much different in their conditioning from the somewhat grumpy GP who tut-tuts you for drinking too much – both will be conditioned to be risk averse.
And a third and possibly more appalling part of the cowardice which the ATAGI represents is its prevarication. Whilst Year 12 maths is a prerequisite for entering med school, it does not appear that the understanding of probabilities has remained high in the memories of the members of the ATAGI.
This has probably contributed to their risk aversion. Simple maths is that we have many millions of doses of Astra Zeneca, and very few doses of the Pfizer, and that the infectiousness of strains like Delta or Lambda means that we should not wait many months to try and get everyone vaccinated. Simple maths also means that it is easy to calculate that COVID could at most kill about 520,000 people, whilst dosing everyone with Astra Zeneca would kill about 26 people.
The current wave of COIVD cases means that the ATAGI has yet again equivocally changed its recommendations about Astra Zeneca to suggesting that under 40s (or is it under 50s or under 60s?) ask their GP as to whether they should take the one in a million risk and get the Astra Zeneca dose.
Honourable mention to Dr Jeanette Young, Chief Health Officer for Queensland (and its next Governor), even though she is not on the ATAGI. Her recent public utterances about how she would not want any 18 year old to die from Astra Zeneca are going to do more to ensure that people do not get vaccinated and that some people get very very ill as a result, including young people.
And now to be flippant. Whilst ATAGI has proven to be pretty useless during this plague, the long defunct ATARI of the video game boom of the early 1980s would come in quite handy right now during this latest COVID plague lockdown. I do wish I had an ATARI 2600 games console right now. Shooting space aliens in some classic game like Space Invaders or Galaga or Galaxians or Defender would be very therapeutic.