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  • Thu, 4, Mar, 2021 - 6:00:PM

What can be done about anti-vaxxers?

Innoculation / Katja Fuhlert / Pixabay

With Auckland now in Alert Level 3 and the rest of the country escalating to Level 2, emotions are understandably running high.

I certainly had my own share of confusion, frustration and fear following the news of a new Covid case with an uncertain chain of transmission in the area where I grew up, where my parents live still. Even now an epidemiological link has been found to link that case to the rest of the cluster, I’m still nervous about how many others Covid may have spread to.

As I’ve written before, South Auckland was always going to bear many of the burdens of Covid-19. With many dense housing developments, a major international airport and close-knit communities, outbreaks of the virus there have the possibility to wreak havoc on our people.

I know it feels like we are being yanked about through different alert levels, and we all have whiplash. As health professionals have reiterated, the country needs to keep these safety measures up until vaccination programmes can add an extra layer of protection to our Covid-19 response plan. To hear that South Auckland residents might be prioritised for vaccines was a welcome surprise.

Vaccines are our single greatest method of bringing about herd immunity — where enough of the community is immune to an infectious disease such that cases cannot spread and overwhelm the health system. Vaccines will enable those inevitable new Covid-19 cases to be contained far quicker, which means more people will live. More people will never have to fight the virus personally.

A vaccinated community is a safer community.

But I know not everyone thinks the way I do. In South Auckland, like in the rest of New Zealand and the rest of the world, the anti-vaccination movement is alive and kicking. Though talks of vaccination campaigns are popular in the media now, a countercurrent of anti-vaxxer sentiment still persists.

And that makes me worry.

What has gotten the country through the last year, gruelling as it has been, is our teamwork. Our compassion. Our willingness to experience personal discomfort for mutual safety. Those who oppose Covid vaccines are not simply risking their health when they opt out, they could put their immuno-compromised contacts — who are unable to vaccinate — at risk. Those are the elderly, the sick, the very young. They are someone’s loved ones.

People are anti-vaccination for a variety of reasons. Many are parents who do not want their children to be the exception to the claim that vaccines are mostly safe; they may have heard misinformation about allergic reactions or dangerous side effects like autism.

There are also cultural nuances at play here: people who feel left out or mistreated by society are often more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. About 5G networks, or about microchips inside vaccine doses. Laura O’Connell Rapira penned a fascinating piece explaining the strong scepticism that sweeping government policies sometimes receive from Māori communities. “There are records of people in parliament speaking about the best way to get rid of us,” she says.

So what can really be done for the anti-vaxxers that we know and love? 

It’s long been known that cold facts don’t change hot-blooded emotion. I don’t think any amount of statistic-spouting would ever convince a parent not to be anxious, or a victim of racism that the people in power are looking out for them. But something has to be done. Lives are at stake, now more than ever.

In the long-term, systemic solutions can help reach out to people who need to be heard. Having Pasifika and Māori better represented in the healthcare sector means marginalised communities can be treated in a safe, understanding environment. More comprehensive health education in school can start positive conversations about public health and safety from early, seminal ages.

In the short-term, we should never shun anti-vaxxers. Don’t drown them in science. Do not patronise them. They are part of us. Rapira notes, “Pushing people out only pushes them to dig in.” The last thing we want is to cement anyone’s harmful convictions, which is often what happens as a defence mechanism.

Prepare for some deep engagement with your loved ones who are thinking of forgoing the Covid vaccine. Start from a place of empathy and find some common ground.

An easy origin is everyone’s desire to protect the ones they care about. Further away from that instinct is where disagreement arises about what that logistically entails, so emphasising the positive, communal benefit of vaccination can streamline those discussions.

Vaccines are important. They are incredibly beneficial. But the vast majority of us have survived all the lockdowns thus far not because of vaccines, but because of kindness and consideration. 

Kindness and consideration. When we inevitably encounter future obstacles to a safe, healthy community, those are the qualities we need to amplify.


  • Health System /
  • Public health /
  • Conspiracy theories /
  • Anti-vaxxers /
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