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Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Simon Wilson – Pandemic, protest, nurses and nutters

OPINION:

Last weekend I found myself in need of medical help (a story for another day; I’m fine now) and two of the people who attended to me were about to lose their jobs. They were nurses and they were anti-vax. At least, anti the Pfizer vax. They were also, in every other respect, exactly the sort of people you want looking after you when you need looking after: kind, skilled, friendly, very efficient.

They weren’t the kind of people who are threatening to kill the Prime Minister.

Did you miss that? At the protest at Parliament on Tuesday, quite a lot of the people there shouted words and carried placards to that effect, aimed at the PM, her colleagues and officials, and the media.

One man had a sign calling for everyone responsible for the 9/11 and Christchurch mosque “inside jobs” to be hanged. Online, as Toby Manhire at the Spinoff has reported, there were calls for “guillotines and gallows”, along with riots and civil war.

And yet, also at that protest, there were many more people who seemed to be like my two nurses. Not harbingers of hate, not longing for a lynching, not threatening that the day of reckoning will be upon us soon. Decent people, deeply concerned that we’ve taken a wrong turn in our strategy for dealing with Covid.

My nurses weren’t upset about the compulsory nature of the vaccine mandate, as such. I think they understood that when it comes to public safety, society agrees to impose all sorts of prescriptive rules on itself. Most obviously, the road rules. It’s in the nature of their job that they see what happens when people don’t follow public safety rules.

They were worried about the vaccine itself. They didn’t think it was safe and they were upset the media wasn’t telling the truth. Also, they didn’t want me to think they were nutters. And I didn’t. On the basis of my experience with them, I would happily swear that they are sane and highly functional people.

Later, though, one of them emailed me some links. My nurses, it turned out, had got some of their information from a small group of doctors whose ideas have been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked by very patient health experts.

The “most important of all” their sources was a British pharmacologist who turned out to be a celebrity anti-vaxxer, described by the Times as “a hero of Covid conspiracy theorists”. To find his writings, the nurse referred me to a social media platform that’s been called “a paradise for white supremacists and other assorted angry extremists” and “a cesspool of anti-Semitic content”.

My heart sank. How do sane and highly functional people become lost in that mess?

The same story is playing out around the country right now. Everyone knows someone. The vaccine is being rejected by teachers, nurses, firefighters, people who are not vile in any way. People we value for the vital contributions they make to our safety and our ability to thrive, and who have, since the pandemic began, earned our admiration and gratitude. People we really did not expect to jump the other way on either vaccines or the value of vaccine mandates.

Their numbers are small. But not so small they’re insignificant. And in rural towns, some churches and in other small or tight-knit urban communities, they are influential.

What do we do?

There’s a lot of talking required, a lot of listening and a lot of respect, time and care. Nobody has any easy answers. How do you help someone unravel the conviction that everyone in authority is part of a conspiracy?

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My respect for the frontline health and community workers, the school principals and others who now have this task added to their work has ratcheted up many notches, and it was already high.

But if there are no easy answers, it does seem clear that we should want to be in this together. To weave ourselves, or knit ourselves, or whatever metaphor floats your boat, back into a more coherent community.

There are lots of challenges in that. The desire for business, travel and summer holidays as usual conflicts with the desire to keep vulnerable communities safe. Particularly among Māori.

And my nurses and that protest on Tuesday have highlighted three other things that now seem critical.

First up, we really shouldn’t trivialise the power of the extremists now in our midst. Their aim is not to make the world safe in a pandemic, or safeguard democratic rights, or restore business confidence or save the planet or anything else worth fighting for.

As researchers at Te Pūnaha Matatini have reported, they’re using concerns about vaccines and mandates and personal choice as a Trojan Horse. A vehicle to help sow chaos in civil society.

Every call to “hang them all” is an attempt to normalise the idea of violence as a political tool. An attempt to shift the hatred into the mainstream of political discourse.

We’ve seen it in America and if you think that’s not relevant, take another look at the photos of that Tuesday protest. American flags, Trump imagery, QAnon and other far-right American slogans are spread all through that crowd.

This isn’t happening randomly. It’s international, organised and funded. And dangerous. There are many stories of people who speak up about this being showered with venom and threats. Let’s not laugh it off.

The second thing? It’s a plea to everyone the extremists are trying to make common cause with: I really hope you just say no.

Complain, protest, by all means. Protest is important. But don’t do it with them, don’t support them on social media and don’t let them join with you. Call them out.

None of this will get easier, whatever happens to lockdowns and mandates and infection rates. We’ve entered a new age. Civil society and the democracy that sustains it will remain under massive pressure. The shouting may never go away.

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Which leads to the third thing we need. We have to get better at talking to each other.

There are many real concerns now about how we’re handling the pandemic. It’s not a surprise, because there are no obviously right answers. Every choice involves loss, to someone, somewhere. Some systems don’t work as they should. People make mistakes. How we set priorities will always be in dispute.

But we’d be able to manage all this if there was a little less aggression in the common discourse, a little more compassion and recognition of the complexities and uncertainties.

And for everyone worried that it’s the end of democracy as we know it, here’s a story, recounted by Annette Lees in her wonderful book, After Dark.

In 1941, night-time blackouts were introduced in New Zealand, for fear of attack by Japanese bombers. People were prosecuted for failing to comply and there was an awful lot of grumbling.

One woman in Whangārei was “spoken to severely” after being caught hunting for snails with a torch in her garden.

New Zealand was never bombed. But it wasn’t wrong to have the blackouts, or to enforce them. We are all hunting for snails and we need to shield our torches.

For information on the safety of the Covid-19 vaccine and other things you need to know, listen to our podcast Science Digest with Michelle Dickinson:

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