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UNITING AGAIN: accomodating the unvaccinated in the new normal

We must move on from the hurts of the Covid-19 response in the coming era.

UNITING AGAIN: accomodating the unvaccinated in the new normal

Feb 15, 2022 Politics

When Covid first hit, bureaucrats and the Beehive argued about messaging. The bureaucrats’ advertising agency advocated “Unite Against Covid”. The Beehive preferred the simple command, “Stay Home, Save Lives”. 

In the end, both were used. “Stay Home, Save Lives” was central to defeating the first wave of Covid in 2020. But it’s unity that will be more important as, Omicron-permitting, we move towards a new normal.

The long lockdown of 2021 divided New Zealand the way 2020 did not. It’s not as bad as the 1981 Springbok tour, which was close to a 50–50 split and highly impassioned. Passions are that strong between anti-vaxxers and everyone else, but the split now is more like 95–5. Then again, that means the unvaccinated really do feel like a persecuted minority. Pro- and anti-tour people could at least imagine they were in the majority.

There’s also a sharp polarisation in attitudes towards the Prime Minister. Many in the centre-right are convinced there’s been a huge swing against Jacinda Ardern. The centre-left is offended by the very idea. Pollsters explain it by saying those who supported her before Covid love her even more, while those who were never fans now loathe her.

Any Prime Minister who locks down the nation will eventually face a backlash, especially given 2021’s effort didn’t work as advertised. But the personal aspect was also inevitable. After two years of uncertainty, anxiety and prime-ministerial homilies, imagine how John Key’s ‘okey-dokey’ style would now grate, especially on those who didn’t like him to begin with.

The more alarming divisions, which risk playing out in holiday spots through the summer, arise from Ardern’s decision to introduce internal borders back in August and from them working so well in stopping spread.

To use an Ardernism that connects with her admirers and infuriates her foes, Aucklanders did the “heavy-lifting” in a way other New Zealanders can’t understand including Ardern herself, who spent the 2021 lockdown in Wellington, busying herself with the response. 

Aucklanders then had themselves vaccinated faster than elsewhere, becoming frustrated with slower progress in Northland, Coromandel, Tairāwhiti and Lakes, where we want to head on holiday.

But that tardiness is understandable. After all, Aucklanders didn’t flock to vaccination centres until Delta hit. And, except those working in tourism-related businesses, people who live full time in the country’s most beautiful spots aren’t big fans of outsiders overwhelming them each summer anyway. If you’ve retired to Northland, there’s no reason to be excited about holidaying Aucklanders putting you at risk of infection.

Also excusable are those South Islanders angry about being kept at Alert Level 2 for so long, just because a few JAFAs had Covid, and despite Dr Ashley Bloomfield advising Ardern way back in late September that it was safe for them
to move to Level 1.

In Auckland, there was initial division when vaccination rates in Counties-Manukau lagged. When the overall gap closed, those concerns evolved into a wider tension about lower Māori vaccination rates.

There’s been a bit of the old “why can’t those bloody Māoris get their act together like the rest of us?” But, in fact, Māori aged 65 and over have identical vaccination rates to “the rest of us”. Rates are nearly identical in the 50–64 age group and comparable in the 35–49 group.

Only in the 12–34 age group do differences stand out. Māori leaders point out their people are overrepresented in younger age groups that were only allowed to get the vaccine from September and easily able to from October.

Worse, as early as February, Whānau Ora providers offered to work with the Ministry of Health on the vaccine rollout but were rebuffed. The ministry wouldn’t give information to providers to help them target Māori initially, even after being ordered to by the courts. You don’t need to be Morgan Godfery to see that, when it came to it, Ardern prioritised Pākehā baby boomers over Māori.

Meanwhile, the estimated one million Kiwis living abroad are deeply hurt and bewildered at being excluded from Ardern’s Team of Five Million.

Tough border controls were necessary, but expert advice is that forcing Kiwis abroad to win the MIQ lottery before returning home no longer has any public health justification. There are New Zealanders who are double-vaccinated, who test negative every day, who have already had Covid and built up immunity, who have run out of money and whose foreign visas have expired, who continue to be prevented from exercising their basic citizenship rights to return home. At the very least, hundreds of thousands of once-proud ambassadors for New Zealand now speak ill of it overseas.

Yet we must move on from these hurts, even as the virus spreads through the country over summer. That had to happen eventually and Ardern’s actions in 2020 have prepared New Zealand better than anywhere for that spread, vaccine delays notwithstanding.

We have no choice but to unite. Aucklanders will have to get over and other New Zealanders might like to accept that we did a lot more than “heavy lifting” for four months, and that we all have a right to share our country together. Internal borders can’t be tolerated for long in a liberal democracy. Nor can barriers to citizens returning home. On top of the inevitable royal commission of inquiry, the Waitangi Tribunal and new Māori Health Authority should investigate exactly why the Māori vaccination rate lagged behind, and how that can be prevented in future. Similar inquiries are needed for other aspects of the response, including the vaccine delay and the failure to expand ICU capability.

But, before much longer, even the unvaccinated must have their full citizenship rights restored. However necessary it may be right now, New Zealand cannot be a country where we need to carry around our health records, even on an app, in order to buy a cup of coffee or watch a movie.

The new normal needs to be for everyone.

This story was published in Metro 433.
Available here in print and pdf.



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