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On The Politics Of Vaccine Toughlove

Vaccine mandates begin to kick in today for education and healthcare workers. All of them will need to have taken a first dose step towards full vaccination, largely because their work routinely brings them in contact with either patients or with children not (yet) able to be vaccinated. Those requirements enjoy wide public support. Beyond that point, things get murkier. Lockdowns have been replaced by a traffic light system, even though there is little clarity about what conditions would trigger changes in the red/amber/green levels. Since the numbers of new cases no longer seem to be a key determinant, will it be large Covid hospitalisation increases, or some other evidence that the health system can no longer manage to cope?

What is at stake here is public confidence in the government’s ability/willingness to stop then getting infected as being a top priority. (Covid infection now seems to be being regarded as a virtual inevitability.) It doesn’t help that the government‘s current messaging seems intent on trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Yesterday for instance, PM Jacinda Ardern was claiming that the traffic light system was actually safer than lockdowns. Ahuh. If so, this is only because the open slather granted to businesses under the traffic light system will go hand in hand with vaccine certificates and higher rates of vaccination. But does that make the traffic light system safer than lockdowns – or does it mean that those side factors reduce the inherent unsafety of treating the ability to shop as being superior to all other government priorities?

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Similar obfuscation surrounds the government’s insistence on describing a 90% level of people having one dose of the Pfizer vaccine as a ‘milestone”? Break it down. One dose provides only limited immunity. Sure…this is better than being entirely unvaccinated but it is only the full two dose regime that delivers something like 90-95% levels of immunity, and then only a fortnight after the second dose. Even then, there is still somewhere between a 5-10% chance of “breakthrough” infections occurring.

Currently, New Zealand has a 90% first dose rate, and 81% of us are fully vaccinated. Does this make us, as the PM keeps on saying, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world ? Yes and no. The government emphasis on the 90% first dose “ milestone” and the 81% fully vaccinated figure obscures the fact that – even at best - these are ratios only of the population 12 years and over who are currently deemed to be eligible for vaccination. They are not ratios of the population at risk from Covid. For the record, only 72% of the total New Zealand population has been fully vaccinated. (Kids (and babies) can get Covid, too.)

That’s why – if we measure the total number of vaccine doses administered against the total population at risk, New Zealand ranks only 20th among 39 OECD countries. A full range of data on New Zealand’s Covid effort is available here. The recent slowdown in our administration of vaccine doses rate is well captured by this chart. Besides these sobering figures, do we know how many Covid infections are occurring among the (a) partly vaccinated and among (b) the fully vaccinated? This would give us a useful snapshot of the extent of “breakthrough” infections. This summary from a week ago is of serious cases, who were in hospital with Covid at the date in question -

Fifty-six per cent of cases in hospital (46 people) were unvaccinated or not eligible due to their age [ie they were children.] Ten people (12 per cent) were partially vaccinated, receiving their first dose more than 14 days before becoming a case, and a further 14 cases (17 per cent) contracted Covid-19 within a fortnight of receiving their first vaccine dose.

Eight people in hospital (10 per cent) are fully vaccinated, having received their second dose of the vaccine 14 days before becoming a case, and two cases (2 per cent) received their second dose less than 14 days before testing positive.

These figures underline what a bogus milestone any 90% “first dose” figure is, in reality. The figures also indicate that perhaps roughly 10% of the serious cases requiring hospital care are “breakthrough” infections among the fully vaccinated. Sure, we’ve always known that being vaccinated does not make anyone bullet proof against Covid. And no doubt, being vaccinated provides a much better shield than having no vaccine protection at all. But can even full vaccination really justify the heightened risks inherent in the traffic light system per se, and in the shift to isolating at home? There are reasons to feel uneasy.

Changing tack

Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant… But Summer 2021 is likely to see a steep rise in Covid cases, especially as the virus travels beyond its current confines and into rural and/or Maori communities where vaccination rates are relatively low. To use the WW2 term, New Zealand is reaching the end of the “phoney war” period of its battle against Covid. The real battles (and the substantial losses) are about to take place.

At the same time, the rise in Covid case numbers may also bring to an end the curious phase we’re now living in, where - if you have the right postal code - you can still choose to live in denial about the threat at the gates. In a couple of months’ time however, it should have become crystal clear to even the most paranoid of vaccine refuseniks that the Covid threat is real - and is not merely the product of a hellish collusion between Big Government, the lamestream media and the needle-waving agents of the health system. Just like Britons woke up from the ‘phoney war’ to the realities of Dunkirk and the Blitz, almost every New Zealander is probably headed for an uptick in their anxiety levels.

Already, the public mood has darkened in recent months, and the government has been taking a hit in the polls as a result. Basically…the Delta variant, and the lockdowns required to contain it were causing what has been deemed to be unacceptable levels of harm to business activity. This in turn has made it difficult for the government to sustain a suppression strategy in Auckland and Waikato, while maintaining an elimination strategy for as long as possible everywhere else, if only in order to buy time to raise the vaccination levels. In the process though, this shift to a nationwide suppression strategy has all but erased the main point of difference between the Ardern government and its parliamentary critics.

Meaning: Over the past 18 months, the public had generally agreed with the government’s core message that the best public health strategy has also been the best strategy for the economy. National always argued otherwise - and for much of the time, New South Wales and Victoria provided a compelling cautionary example of the human costs in lives and hospitalisation if the economy was allowed to re-open prematurely.

The days of those sharp points of difference seem to be over. By tiptoe-ing away from the elimination strategy and pinning almost all of its suppression hopes on a vaccination programme that continues to be socially inequitable, Labour has been blurring the lines for the past two months between itself and National. As a consequence, two opinion polls last week showed a sizeable narrowing in the gap between the centre-left and the centre-right. Another sign that the government has been losing control of the Covid narrative is that approval of its handling of the pandemic dropped from 60 per cent in October to 46 per cent, while those rating its handling as “poor” rose by ten points to 26 per cent. By and large, the public would still prefer to be safe, than to shop.

To put this sea change in Labour policy another way: lockdowns were a proactive policy, aimed at blocking the spread of the virus. The traffic light system is a reactive policy, and the red light will kick in only if and when things have gotten out of hand, and even then the reaction will (probably) be only on a regional basis. Business will be left free to operate despite whatever havoc the pandemic may be causing within the community. At the same time… instead of being penned in MIQ facilities, people will be allowed to shelter at home, despite the potential consequences for families and communities.

This new found willingness by the government to tacitly accept the rise in Covid cases that will certainly ensue – especially in the rural/provincial areas where vaccination rates remain well below the national average – is likely to do ongoing harm to the government’s image of competence and compassion. Behind the soothing words, the entire thrust of the government’s stance on Covid has changed. Instead of continuing to wrap the community in lockdown protections until vaccination rates could take over the job of keeping the community safe, a toughlove approach is being adopted, even before 90% full vaccination nationwide has been achieved. After December 1st ….Individuals, families and communities will be exposed to the consequences of their actions, and inactions.

More mandates, less compassion

Vaccine mandates play a key role in the government’s new tough love approach. Just as the majority of the public will be exposed to greater risk from the reluctance (for whatever reason) of the minority to get vaccinated, the unvaccinated themselves will be facing a wall of restrictions on their employment options and on their access to bars, cafes and concerts. The ‘freedom’ to put your loved ones and the community at risk because of your personal values and beliefs about vaccines is about to shrink, significantly. Conscientious objection is going to come at a price.

No doubt this will raise the anger levels among the small minority of vaccine holdouts. – Some of that resentment is already being genderised. Thus far, it has been a lot easier for Jacinda Ardern to rule as an embodiment of sympathy and understanding than it will be for her to rule in future as the toughlove enforcer of vaccine mandates. With rare exceptions – Angela Merkel ? - there tends to be pushback whenever women are issuing the orders, and are not making merciful compassion the No 1 component of their public image. Is Ardern capable of being Churchillian? We are about to find out.

Footnote: Of late, a small cottage industry has developed that aims to explain why conspiracy theorists believe the wacky things they do. Most of these “explanations” seem to blame Donald Trump and social media, which explains nothing. Leaving aside (a) the New Age types who refuse to sully their bodily temples with artificial vaccines, and (b) the libertarians who oppose taxes and regulations on principle… What many in the angry crowds here and in the US share in common is a sense of being denied opportunity in an economy that continues to treat them as disposable.

In the circumstances, being told by the same government what to do about Covid – allegedly for the general good – is not merely annoying. It smacks of hypocrisy. When has neo-liberalism ever cared a toss about them before? It is only because the unvaccinated now pose a threat to everyone else that room is being found for them on the vaccine life raft. To be clear: I’m not trying to justify vaccine refusal, but merely to explain the anger that’s evident in some quarters about government compulsion that comes wrapped in the language of compassion. For those bridling at vaccine mandates, central government discredited itself long before social media arrived on the scene.

Camp Cope Returns

Three years after the Melbourne post punk trio Camp Cope ran out of gas and fell silent…they’re back. This time, lead singer/writer Maq has dialled back the shouty energy that she used to wield so well, in favour of something more held back and melodic. “Blue” is the wistful first single of the band’s new phase. Fans will find hints of the old energy still churning away below the surface:

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