The New Zealand Government has passed a series of laws under urgency, which are intended to reduce the spread of COVID, stop our health systems from being overwhelmed, and to minimise serious illness and deaths during the pandemic.
The most controversial laws are those mandating COVID vaccination for about 40% of the working population and the use of vaccine passports, which severely curtail the rights of those who refuse to be vaccinated.
The Government says that these draconian measures are necessary to ‘protect us’ but they unfortunately segregate a vulnerable minority (the unvaccinated), who must be blamed, vilified, socially excluded, and thrown into poverty and insecurity.
Will these measures serve to protect us, or are they doing far more harm that good? I believe that these policies are a grave mistake, which may ultimately lead to worse outcomes and more deaths during the COVID pandemic. Why might this be so?
Western thought tends to linear thinking and the idea that complex problems can be solved with centrally imposed, single solution. The magical belief in the COVID vaccines is a case in point.
The quest to get everyone vaccinated is deemed so fundamental to our surviving COVID that the Government is willing to abolish precious human rights, such as informed consent for medical treatment, and to segregate and discriminate against those people who are not willing to comply.
The underlying assumption is that reason, trust, openness and good information are not the best strategies to persuade 90% of the population to get vaccinated. Therefore, draconian laws must be passed to force the ‘irresponsible’ few to accept the vaccine.
The arbitrary adoption of a 90% vaccination target is another example of magical thinking: a belief that if we reach this target then suddenly everything will be all right. Unfortunately, science says that herd immunity is impossible with the current vaccines and the virus will spread widely even if 100% of the population is vaccinated.
On an individual basis, there are compelling reasons for adults to get vaccinated given the widespread scientific consensus on the high degree of protection against serious COVID illness and death (about a tenfold reduction).
For that reason I have chosen to get vaccinated and if I catch COVID that reduces my probability of needing hospital treatment from 20% to 2%, and my potential risk of mortality from 1 in 50, to 1 in 500. Even if I have concerns about the safety of the vaccine, those potential hazards are outweighed by the risks of not being vaccinated. This is the reasonable argument.
Thus an open question is whether we might have reached 90% vaccinate rates anyway – without mandates – if we had shared trustworthy information, rather than propaganda, and put the resources into reaching and supporting our most marginalised and disadvantaged communities?
A regional map of New Zealand showing those rural areas, at the greatest distance from healthcare services, aligns closely with the regions that have the lowest vaccination rate.
Unfortunately, this government still believes that centrally controlled measures – such as the tightly controlled vaccine rollout – are more effective than delegating decision-making and resources to local communities, to find their own creative solutions.
This singular focus on vaccination as the ‘solution’ to the COVID pandemic – with a promise of getting our ‘freedom’ back – unfortunately neglects the critical importance of public health measures and the degree to which the public will follow the rules.
These public health measures become even more important when we examine the recently published research into (Delta) viral transmission and the impact of vaccination.
While the current vaccines provide high levels of protection against serious illness, the protection against infection declines very rapidly, and vaccination makes almost no difference to transmission among close contacts. A concise summary of this science is shared in my recent YouTube video.
The panic reactions of governments to the new Omicron variant reveal the lie. The UK has now recommended that vaccine booster shots be given a mere three months after the second vaccine dose. This is hardly the sign of a highly protective vaccine.
In contrast, a recent Meta-Analysis published by the BMJ showed the critical importance of public health measures. These studies looked at the impact on the population incidence of COVID (the number of new cases) and showed a 53% reduction with hand washing, a 53% reduction with mask wearing, and a 25% reduction with physical distancing.
Almost certainly, these figures represent an over-estimate of the individual effects because those who comply with hand washing are also likely to comply with a range of other protective measures. The research shows that these effects tend to cluster together and they are also strongly socially networked. In other words, if all your friends wear masks, responsibly keep their distance, and wash or sanitise their hands, it’s extremely likely that you will do the same.
Unfortunately, the impact of vaccine mandates and vaccine passports is to place about 10% of the population in a group that are being unjustly punished, having their livelihood and freedoms stripped away, and who find their only support from anti-vax groups spreading conspiracy theories.
This persecuted group is profoundly angry with, and distrustful of, the Government and medical authorities and are extremely unlikely to comply with the essential public health measures.
In essence, this group has been outlawed. Moreover, anyone who aids or abets this group, for instance a close-contact business that admits unvaccinated customers, faces a fine of $12,000 to $15,000.
We know that the greatest transmission of COVID cases arise in household contacts and community ‘super-spreader’ events, such as outlawed large gatherings involving close contact among many people.
Imagine, for a moment, if you are one of the outlawed? Are you going to follow the rules or are you going to say ‘F*** it!’ to the government and just party with your mates. You have nothing to lose because all your freedoms have already been taken away.
Are you going to wear a mask if none of your mates are? Are you going to get tested if you get sick? Will you even be able to socially isolate if you are infected? No.
I now work as a trauma therapist and I see the immense harm being done in our communities by the vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. This is especially true of those who are the most disadvantaged and most traumatised.
A hallmark of traumatic experiences is a feeling of being completely trapped or powerless. When you are made to feel powerless again, your old trauma is triggered and you react with extreme anger of else a feeling of helplessness.
If you live in a parts of the community that experience high rates of poverty, violence, unemployment, discrimination, and poor health status, then you are biologically primed to distrust authorities and to react badly to vaccine mandates – either by angry rejection or complete apathy. Neither are good motivations for getting vaccinated.
For all these reasons, I believe the gain of having a few more vaccinated – as a result of the mandates – will be greatly outweighed by the loss of compliance with public health measures, resulting in far wider spread of COVID, especially in our most vulnerable populations.
For more than a year after the emergence of COVID, we did truly have ‘a team of five million’. We listened to our Prime Minister’s calls to be kind, to support each other, to work together. We witnessed very high rates of compliance with public health measures, such as lockdown and social distancing. Now all of that goodwill has been squandered by the vaccine mandates.
Criminalising risky social behaviour – such as drug taking – in an attempt to reduce harmful health impact, is littered with failures. There are no simple solutions to complex problems, especially when the overall community outcome depends on millions of individual influences, decisions and actions.
The best outcomes occur when we give up punitive central measures and instead we push funding, resources and decision-making to local communities that can adapt to the social, cultural and economic realities that influence health outcomes.
In 2001, Portugal took the courageous step of decriminalising ALL drugs and diverting all the resources spent in policing, the justice system and prisons to a health-based approach. What was the result?
There was no overall increase in drug use and importantly the rates of drug use among young people fell to levels below that of countries with punitive policies; the number of people coming forward for drug treatment rose 60%; the number of new HIV cases among drug users fell nearly tenfold; overdose deaths per year fell from an average of 80 to 16.
The analogy applies here: we have effectively criminalised non-vaccination. My belief is that if we abolished the vaccine mandates we could dramatically reduce the societal polarisation, segregation, anger and fear, we could rebuild trust and engage communities in effective public health measures, reach out to those most in need, and save many lives that might otherwise be lost.
The sad prediction is that the coming months will show the futility of the vaccine passports. Some of the most highly vaccinated communities in the world already have the highest rates of new COVID cases. More and more vaccinated people will become infected with COVID and pass it on to others.
For a while, the government will in desperation double down on measures. How long before all teenagers have to use vaccine passports in almost all aspects of their life. How long before vaccination of small children becomes mandatory too? The government has already bought all the paediatric doses of the vaccine. How long before we all have to take a booster shot every three months to get the ‘green tick’ on our vaccine passport?
Very soon, the illusion of protection will fade away. I predict the Government will abandon vaccine passports unless there is some other sinister purpose for centralised, digitally mediated, social control of the population unrelated to COVID.
I think we will look back with deep regret at a policy that caused so much harm to our communities, took away our human rights, deeply damaged the NZ values of inclusiveness and non-discrimination, and further disadvantaged the most vulnerable.
Then, I hope, there will be a great rising up, nationwide protests and the seizing back of our cherished freedoms and values. The only way this nation can effectively rise to the challenge of this pandemic is to work together, not tear ourselves apart.
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