A beginners guide to the mandate protests

With spin, spin and counter spin in play around the Parliament protests, PAT PILCHER figured it was time for some hard facts, Max!

I recently wrote about the mandate protests happening at Parliament. Since then, much more information has come to light, showing just how ugly this mess has become. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably already aware that protestors descended on Parliament, setting up camp and protesting vaccination mandates and a raft of other issues.

 

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While Witchdoctor applauds anyone’s right to protest, seeing it as a vital part of any democracy, the protest has gone well beyond what could be considered a protest, morphing into something far darker. I’ve engaged with protestors and supporters to try and find out what their views are, and their objections are many-fold. Broadly speaking, their key beef seems to cover the following issues:

The Vaccine – the prevailing theme here is that it is seen as an experimental drug doing more harm than good.

The Mandate – they say it is impinging on their freedoms.

The Government – there is a lot of anti-Government sentiment, with Government policies attributed to unemployment, mental health, and domestic violence issues.

The Media – they’re on the Government’s payroll and are not telling the truth.

Let’s address these concerns, issue by issue:

The Vaccine 

Sitting right at the heart of this mess is a massive (and growing) amount of misinformation around Covid vaccines. We’ve written about how to be a covidiot. Protestors and their supporters call the vaccine an experimental drug. Some refuse to take it. Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences of Auckland University, debunks the many myths surrounding covid vaccines, saying that “The authorised Covid-19 vaccines are not ‘experimental’ any longer. The endpoints required for authorisation for use were met last year (safety and efficacy). Clinical trial participants are a valuable source of data, and following them up for as long as possible is desirable and normal in vaccine trials. Also, new vaccine trials are kicking off all the time. Vaccines are used in experiments for their entire life, which can be many decades. Claiming that the Covid-19 vaccines are ‘experimental’ in a bid to scare people is misinforming them. There have been over one billion Covid-19 vaccines administered with safety and effectiveness closely monitored.”

So, is the vaccine doing more harm than good? Again, Petousis-Harris debunks this with an elegant explanation: “There has never been an authorised vaccine that has caused cancer, sterility, or dangerous mutation of cells. Ever. However, several vaccines prevent these things, for example, HPV and HepB vaccines prevent cancer. Claiming there is no proof that any vaccine will not cause something far in the future is akin to asking me to prove to you that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. I will never be able to prove to you that there are no fairies in my garden. This is also the impossible expectation. You cannot prove a negative – the Russell’s Teapot analogy explains this well. The onus is on the proponents of these claims to prove them, not for anyone else to disprove them. There is not even a hint of a reason to think that the Pfizer mRNA vaccine might cause these things.”

The big takeout here is that a lot of the fear, uncertainty and doubt around the vaccines is fuelled by a huge amount of misinformation, with much of it coming from questionable online sources. If you really want to know how effective and safe the vaccine is, do yourself (and others) a favour by seeking out credible sources for your research. If a piece of information stands out and you want to know more, there are many great fact-checking sites you can use to check the integrity of the data. Look for reputable sites (as in those that deal with viruses, medicine, and science) and the opinions of a qualified doctor (or scientist) to see what they have to say. Facts are your friend.

The Mandate

Virtually all the protestors/supporters I’ve spoken with have said being forced to vaccinate or risk losing jobs has ruined lives and livelihoods.

Before debating the rights and wrongs, let’s get some context to fully inform arguments. Covid has killed around 6 million so far. That is not a small number. Economies have been trashed by outbreaks, and health systems have collapsed under the weight of Covid cases. So, keeping Covid at bay as much as possible by getting as many people vaccinated as possible should be a complete no-brainer, right?

The rationale for vaccination mandates is simple. Being vaccinated lowers the likelihood of you suffering from severe symptoms and taking an ICU bed from someone whose illness was not preventable. Mentioning this to protest supporters garnered responses of “you can still catch the virus if you’re vaccinated”, or, “you can be vaccinated and still infect others”. Again, peer-reviewed science (which I trust many times more than the say-so of online conspiracists) says that the risk of either is significantly reduced if you’re vaccinated. In short, the mandates reduce the risk unvaccinated people pose to others and themselves.

To be clear, mandates are not some elaborate power grab by an evil government. They’re about keeping as many people as safe as possible. While I feel that they are somewhat heavy-handed, the reality is that the Government was faced with ugly choices in an ugly situation. They did the best they could.

A common argument frequently used by protestors is that mandates trample over their bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy is part of the Human Rights Act. Under the act, an individual can choose to refuse medical treatments. While bodily autonomy is a credible and serious-sounding term, the reality is that vaccination mandates do not force vaccinations. They are not abuses of bodily autonomy. The mandate is a legal requirement for people in certain locations (shops, restaurants, etc) or specific roles (schoolteachers, wait staff, etc) to be vaccinated. It is a choice. While protestors and their supporters shout about freedom, the reality is that everyone is free to choose to be vaccinated or not. If you don’t want to be vaccinated, you will be required to avoid places and roles requiring a vaccination. With freedom comes a responsibility to others, and the fact is that no one’s bodily autonomy is being violated. Vaccinations are totally your choice. Simple as that.

There are small grains of truth to the protestor’s perspectives, but the details often trip up their arguments. Mandates were brought into play for good reasons. At the time, a sizeable chunk of the population had yet to be vaccinated. We were also staring down the barrel of a looming Omicron outbreak. Personally, being vaccinated was a no-brainer. It would keep people I cared about and me a lot safer should Covid come knocking. There are exceptions to this. Some people with medical conditions cannot be vaccinated, and these people can apply for an exemption. Like most Kiwis, I chose to get vaccinated for purely unselfish reasons.

In a nutshell, mandates are there because getting vaccinated is a responsibility that applies to us all if we want to continue to enjoy the privilege of participating in society. Those claiming vaccine mandates restrict individual liberties and livelihoods ignore the fact that a considerable amount of time and money was spent trying to overcome anti-vaccine and vaccine hesitancy by the Government. In the end, the Government was left with no choice but to bring mandates into play in a bid to get enough of New Zealand’s population vaccinated. This isn’t quackery. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics also argues that mandates are justified when other measures don’t work.

The Government

This is where the situation gets messy. Politics. Ugh.

One of the things I noticed with many protestors and supporters is that most seem very anti-Jacinda. A good many are also anti-Labour party. We live in a democracy, and that is totally their choice. Perhaps more concerning is the sheer amount of political spin and misinformation being peddled. The media covering the protest are labelled as “paid Government media”. To be clear, Witchdoctor has never received a cent from the government. Neither has many media outlets reporting on the situation. Some media who, during lockdowns, were on the verge of bankruptcy, were given a bailout by the Government. They’re listed here. Except for state broadcasters TVNZ and RNZ (both of whom have an established track record of balanced and non-sensational reporting), most of the media in NZ covering the protest is privately owned with no links to the Government.

Perhaps the most concerning politics around this situation are those least discussed. That said, they need to come under the glare of public scrutiny so that everyone can be aware of what is going on.

Newsroom recently published a well-researched and thorough expose of the players behind the protest. It reads like a business who’s who of far-right activists. All the usual suspects are present and accounted for. Amongst the activists there, the newsroom piece lists Action Zealandia, Destiny Church and other groups like Counterspin Media, who stream on GTV which is owned by Trump’s ex right-hand man, Steve Bannon. GTV is frequently referred to as a source of misinformation by numerous fact-checking organisations. Counterspin media is tied to far-right activist Kelvyn Alp, a director and presenter. Recently, a Counterspin contributor interrupted a press conference by Jacinda Ardern, shouting misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. According to the newsroom piece, Alp took an active role at the protest, calling for protestors to storm Parliament and arrest MPs.

Stuff also reports that high profile white supremacist Philip Arps was arrested in Picton, on his way to Wellington. The Stuff piece says that Arps told people at a BP petrol station in Christchurch that there would be “public executions”. According to Stuff, he said, “I’ve been promising it, I’ll see you in seven to 10 years”.

While it is already well known that the protestors have many differing agendas, the rank political opportunism going unnoticed is concerning. None of these players are lightweights. Most of the peaceful protestors are unaware that they are, in effect, supporting extremist elements.

Our take is simple. Park your politics. Regardless of which political party you support, look at the science and medical facts. If the mandates/vaccinations were to end, what would the consequences be for Kiwis and New Zealand’s economy? Look to fact-based scientific research that can guide your thinking, regardless of your political leanings.

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