I have tried to keep up to date with the discourse around covid vaccines, mandates and vaccine passports, both in NZ and abroad.
I have had 3 jabs willingly and I am deemed an essential worker. I have also felt the sadness of losing a close friend to Covid.
There are two things that concern me, firstly, the increasing state intervention in people’s lives currently taking the form of vaccine mandates and vaccination passports. Secondly, the growing distrust and contempt that seems to be mutually felt between the mainstream media and a growing section of the population. There is hostility coming from both sides and with that hostility, quality dialog and debate are casualties.
I do not think it is in any way acceptable for journalists to be abused, threatened or intimidated by protesters. Nor do I think it is acceptable for the media to deliberately misrepresent the protest movement. I think both sides need to pause and take a breath. To a large degree the protest movement has been written off as a very small fringe group of extreme troublemakers who have been fueled by misinformation and right wing conspiracy theories. But this is not the full story.
The Nuffield Institute on Bioethics is against mandatory vaccinations for health workers. This is not some fringe group; they are funded by the British Medical Research Council. These are highly qualified people at the top of the establishment. They have looked deeply into the pros and cons of the issue and decided on balance vaccine mandates are counterproductive. They are also against vaccination passports. The British Medical Research Council and the Royal College of Nurses, while promoting the use of vaccines against Covid, also oppose vaccine mandates.
My sense is that many New Zealanders are, at the least, uneasy with vaccine mandates and passports. The government /media message that is consistently delivered, is that this protest movement is only representative of the tiniest slither of the population and is an extremist fringe.
And yet in the New Zealand Herald’s poll (Monday 14 February) 31% supported the protest (when I last checked). That’s a big slither and quite remarkable when you consider the incessant bad publicity that has be heaped on the movement for more than a week now. Every political party has distanced themselves from them, countless politicians and commentators have thrown insults at them. TV1, Newshub, RNZ, Stuff, Prime and Newstalk ZB (with some exceptions, eg. Barry Soper and Grant Duncan) have kept up a steady campaign to discredit the protest. None of that excuses the appalling behaviour of some individuals toward journalists.
Though I do think journalism has been letting us down and is in need of self-reflection. Every journalist has the right to their opinion and the right to share it. But they must also consider the massive power imbalance they have. When that power joins with the power of the state, liberal democracy is undermined and we are moving in the direction of totalitarianism, where all dissenting opinions are either actively suppressed, ignored or misinterpreted.
Of course all dissenting opinions are not equal, but by picking up only the opinions that are easy to strawman, means important issues are obscured. It now seems current affairs is so heavily laden with commentator opinion that no one is listening with the intention of understanding. The voice of the down-trodden, is a mere whisper if heard at all. The saddest thing is seeing journalists determine the motivation of others actions and then knocking them down. Without any attempt to understand what is going on. One thing that is making life difficult for the media is the unusual alliances happening right now, making it difficult to pigeonhole the movement. Left and right, alt-left and alt-right are all obsolete terms on the grounds outside parliament. People have come from a wide spectrum of places ideologically and have met in the same space. This is all about timing. The mandatory imposition of social isolation on one group of people, a.k.a. the vaccine passport system, has brought these people together temporarily. The anti-vax, vax-hesitant, vaxed and even some pro-vax (which I belong to) have found common ground in the rejection of the passport system and mandatory vaccination.
For a variety of reasons, a small number of people chose not to have a new drug put in their body. For that they have paid a heavy price, which includes joblessness (equals extreme poverty), restrictions on movement, restrictions on access to public and private facilities (including libraries, sports, funerals etc.), family rejection, social isolation, exclusions of every sort and a steady stream of insults and condemnation. On top of all that many still share the same fears around Covid. Can we truly say they had their voices heard? And what did the mainstream media do? Mostly put the boot in. What happened to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’?
The media seems reluctant to give voice to this group for fear it might undermine the vaccine role out, but with vaccination rates passing 95% that fear is misplaced.
There are many protesters who are well informed and feel deeply that something just isn’t right with mandates and passports. Yes, there is misinformation around, but that accusation can be thrown around too easily against anyone who holds a differing opinion. Is it not reasonable to have some suspicion of big pharma? They hardly have the cleanest track record. Put simplistically, profit is their main priority not the well-being of humanity. Not conspiracy theory, just how it is. The media have failed to really dig into this and either put to rest those suspicions or discover there are legitimate concerns.
Even with the most credible information we can find, in the end we also need to listen to our gut, our instinct, our intuition, and then decide where we draw the line. And of course, people will draw the line at different points, and it is important to determine what is at stake with these decisions.
I think it is time to move this debate out of the gutter and end the mudslinging, and in doing so help to heal some the divisions that are emerging. It needs the light of reason, discernment, and a little bit of open heartedness from all sides, media included.
Image credit: Peter Mattiassi