It was supposed to be the year of freedom for all of us. The year we hoped life returned to a bit more normality, but alas, pandemics seldom ever last just a year. COVID-19 is still the mantra we all live by – the cause of or excuse for every social or economic disruption we face.
Remember all the ‘2020 is the worst’ slogans everyone plastered over their social media. Well, it turns out you can’t wish your way out of a pandemic. Social media hashtags don’t count for much in reality, no matter how much we want them to. The Pandemic continues and life seems to have been put on hold for another year.
There was great hope of course, in the form of our wonder drugs – The COVID-19 vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines all with strong, (albeit varying) levels of protection began to be rolled out in the developed world at the beginning of the year. In December 2020 the Pfizer vaccine gained provisional approval from the UK health authorities, and most other health agencies in the developed world followed suit in early 2021.
The COVID-19 vaccines have been an inspirational lesson on what humanity can achieve – the culmination of decades of scientific and technological knowledge being harnessed to overcome one of the greatest crises we’ve collectively faced in recent history. Even countries like Taiwan and Cuba, affected by their troubled political status have each developed their own successful domestic vaccines. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, an adenovirus based vaccine much like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, also appeared to offer good protection and has been distributed through the COVAX Scheme. The similarity to the AstraZeneca vaccine may just be more than a coincidence as accusations of IP theft have been levelled at the Russian Government.
In developing and lower-income nations, the WHO and UNICEF oversaw the COVAX scheme, designed to distribute WHO approved COVID-19 vaccines to countries in need; undeniably a worthy project, as this pandemic will not end until the majority of the world is vaccinated. Unfortunately the project has seen a lot of criticism, as vaccine inequity has led to developed nations hoarding their supply. Looking at the most heavily vaccinated countries 0n earth as of writing, it is largely nations with a high human development index (HDI) that dominate the rankings.
Vaccines by the Chinese companies Sinopharm and Sinovac and were given WHO emergency use approval in May and June respectively, and have been widely used in both China and in the developing world through the COVAX scheme. Neither vaccine offers similar levels of protection to the western developed vaccines, but were approved by the WHO as they met the minimum criteria of 50% efficacy in preventing symptomatic infection in controlled trials. This differs to their effectiveness, which is measured by real world performance in countries where these vaccines have been rolled (there is a good explainer on the WHO’s website re: terminology).
It’s understandable that there was a considerable level of mistrust towards China’s own vaccines, especially from Western Powers. After all, Wuhan was where this all started, and their limited transparency at the beginning of the outbreak, together with reluctance to assist any sort of official investigation meant the origins of it all remained, much like the Middle Kingdom’s ancient imperial days, shrouded in secrecy. ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ is bound to be a popular diplomatic tool, but there is a sense with China’s vaccines that the poisoner is now also offering the antidote. Still with much of the Pfizer and Moderna stock being hoarded by the developed world, many developing nations have had no choice but to take what China is offering.
While the idea of a ‘lab leak’ had little evidence last year, there has been more credibility leant to it since it was revealed Dr Peter Daszak, the lead scientist behind the open letter published in the Lancet last year which denounced the theory, had a personal conflict of interest as he worked for the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Western intelligence agencies have also trickled information that the lab leak theory is still being investigated.
It will be interesting to see if anything substantial emerges within the next year in the search for the origin of COVID-19, but I don’t have much hope. It seems too late at this point, and perhaps even in March 2020 it was already too late.
MINDSET OF THE VACCINE HESITANT
As the COVID-19 vaccines began to be rolled out worldwide, a particularly vocal minority of children stood up and loudly proclaimed their opposition to taking their medicine. The ‘Vaccine Hesitant’ or ‘Anti Vaxxers’, or the even less charitable ‘Plague Brigade’ – whatever you call them, you will find them in every country, and in seemingly every internet comment section, fighting their misguided fight.
Given that vaccination is the only way we can get out of this pandemic without millions more dying, it would be tempting to simply write them all off as idiots. Still, there is a cause for their concern, even if it is misguided.
It was always a given that there would be some opposition towards whatever the solution was to ending the pandemic. Aside from eating, sleeping and breathing, there isn’t much you can get 100% of humans to agree with. Ever since the disgraced scientist and infamous charlatan Andrew Wakefield published his now retracted study in the Lancet linking vaccines and autism, the anti vaccination movement has been lurking in the background, slowly compromising the health of themselves and their friends and family.
While the movement mostly leans conservative, it crosses political divides, being popular in wellness based groups and environmentally focused left leaning types. Although there is widespread support for vaccination amongst all major religious groups with COVID-19 vaccination endorsed by The Pope, The Archbishop of Canterbury and The Dalai Llama, there is still pockets of opposition. Haredi jews and certain islamic groups like The Nation of Islam oppose vaccination. There is also a subset within evangelical christianity, who are, much like Chicken Little, constantly looking around to see if the sky is falling, or in other words, looking for the signs of the apocalypse. The COVID-19 vaccine is the latest in a long line of false predictions of a ‘Mark of The Beast’, but will no doubt not be the last.
WHY THE OPPOSITION?
It should be acknowledged that there have been adverse effects and tragically there have even been deaths caused by the COVID-19 vaccines, but these numbers are infinitesimally small. Death by shark attack, electrocution and falling down the stairs are all more likely than death linked to vaccination, at least with Pfizer’s vaccine. In New Zealand, two people have died from complications from the Pfizer vaccine to date (out of over 4 million vaccinated). Indeed the numbers are so small, that even international news outlets have reported when one of our few vaccine related fatalities made the headlines. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine also had a rare but potentially fatal blood clotting condition in individuals under 30 which led to multiple European governments imposing restrictions on its use.
The reason these deaths make the headlines, is because the complications are so rare, they are headline worthy. Do any cost-benefit analysis, and you will find the risk of COVID-19 far outweighs the risks of these vaccines. Myocarditis is a rare side effect of the Pfizer vaccine, but despite this risk the vaccine has still been endorsed by the British and New Zealand Health Foundations simply because the risk of complications from COVID-19 is far higher than with vaccination. A study by the US Centre for Disease Control tracking patients across 900 hospitals found that:
“The risk for myocarditis among patients with Covid-19 was nearly 16-fold higher than the risk among non-vaccinated patients without Covid-19” – Data Indicates Covid 100 times riskier than jab, New Zealand Herald, 24th December 2021
The Anti Vax movement is a byproduct of the success of vaccination. These people have lived in a world largely free of deadly infectious diseases. A world without smallpox. A world where polio only exists in the deep recesses of Central Asia. A world where measles and mumps and malaria are isolated to the developing world. The reason for such a disparity is due to the unsanitary conditions and poor state of the developing world’s healthcare systems. These are countries where nearly everyone knows a mother who has lost a child to disease or starvation, and where children do not have equal access to vaccines.
We are so immensely privileged that we take these things for granted, but it is because of these largely disease free environments that we are susceptible to believing misinformation. Let us not forget that for most of human history, the science behind germ theory was unknown. The Chinese figured out that boiling water was healthier than drinking untreated water, and by the early medieval era the Arabs had figured out that cleanliness was next to godliness unlike the much dirtier Europeans. We live in a world where the access to this information can be found by just about anyone, and yet ignorance still abounds.
It’s hard to accept that a disease could spring up and start killing millions of us, since we haven’t known one in our lifetimes. Yet this has hopefully been a wake up call. Our countries are not immune (excuse the pun) from these maladies, and there will in all likelihood be another pandemic during our lifetime.
Yet these vaccines have been demonized by conspiracists and fearmongers, all the while playing down the risks of disease itself. A commonly trotted out line is that there is a “99% survival rate”. This was calculated from a tenuous analysis of some of the early studies in the original outbreak, and even then was only calculated for younger healthier individuals without any co-morbidities.
The ‘Delta’ and ‘Omicron’ strains are deadlier and more transmissible than the original strain, meaning that this is no longer true. But even if it did still hold weight – even if 99% of people do survive, they can be left with debilitating lifelong side effects of the disease. If someone needs to be put on a ventilator, after several weeks of being ‘proned’, they may lose their ability to walk and be bedridden for life.“Surviving” in that instance doesn’t sound quite so appealing does it?
Another argument by the Anti Vaxxers is that people have an “immune system”. Well, so does everyone else. The point of the vaccine is to assist and improve your immune response. In fact, it makes your immune system stronger and more capable of fighting the disease.
I guess why I have some difficulty in empathizing with these arguments, is wondering – why be so cavalier with your life? Why be so dismissive? So much was and still is unknown about COVID-19 and these people were gambling with their own lives. “Long COVID” is still being studied, but for many who caught the disease and suffer from the side effects, it has been life changing. To dismiss the severity of the disease is to dismiss the experience and loss of millions of people around the world. All of these associated health conditions will take considerable toll on the healthcare system in the years to come. Even when we are past this pandemic, there will still be people suffering from the after effects of COVID-19.
Throughout the course of the pandemic there have been heartbreaking accounts of the suffering the disease has inflicted upon families around the world, but I wanted to copy one account from a user on the website Reddit that was particularly visceral.
Covid changed the trajectory of my life. I feel so lost. My family lives in Florida, where the infection rate is incredibly high. I came down from NY to help my parents by doing the grocery shopping, etc… so they wouldn’t need to leave home. It spread through my family like wildfire.
First, my 28yr sister got it and ended up in the hospital for over a week on oxygen. She is now fully recovered. (She works with the public, and though she wore a mask, Florida never mandated wearing masks in most businesses).
Then, my sister-in-law got it. She then gave it to my 2yr old niece (she tested positive but never showed symptoms), 7yr niece, and my brother. My sister-in-law was hospitalized for about a week, and 3 months later, continues to have lung capacity issues and a persistent cough. My brother and nieces recovered without hospitalization.
I caught it, possibly from caring for my nieces while my brother and sister-in-law were in the hospital (although I was as careful as possible… but keeping a face shield/mask on a two year old is impossible). I was incredibly ill for about a month. It was difficult to get out of bed, and there were days when the exertion from getting out of bed left me breathless for 30min. I couldn’t talk without losing my breath, my whole body ached. It felt like I had been hit by a car. I wasn’t able to resume any kind of normal functioning for a month. Today my lung capacity isn’t quite where it was before, but it has continued to increase over time.
My aunt caught it. She died in the hospital 3 weeks ago.
My mom caught it. From the home health-care nurse we hired to decrease her exposure, who decided to go to the beach with her family for a weekend, even though she promised us that she would stay in quarantine. My mom fought for weeks, struggling for every breath. She’s on a ventilator now, on 100% oxygen. Her doctors met with us via a phone conference last week to inform us that we should start preparing for her death. We’ve decided to let her go in three days. She’s 68 years old. I haven’t been able to hug her in 6 months. I haven’t heard her voice in a month. She’s going to die alone in a hospital, without ever regaining consciousness, as her children grieve alone, in separate housing, just a few miles away.
The sheriff in our county banned all masks in the police departments and banned all officers from wearing them. Our schools don’t follow basic safety measures, most local businesses don’t wear masks (even when preparing food) and don’t require masks.
My family continuously wore masks to protect our community, but we weren’t shown the same human decency.
I’m 24. My mom won’t help me put on my wedding dress. She won’t call me on my birthday. She’ll never know her future grandchildren. I’ll never be able to call her again for recipes, advice, or when I need comfort. I feel so lost.
I told my boyfriend last night that I can’t bear the thought of celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas this year. We’re planning on going to the family cabin for the next several months to grieve and hold each other. It feels like my mother was murdered… by grown-ass adults who couldn’t be bothered to wear a fucking mask. ”
– /u/Thotgirlisalady – ‘People from Reddit who survived Corona, how has your daily life changed? What are the side effects after?’ 1st October 2020
If the Anti Vaxxers could see what the nurses and healthcare professionals are dealing with everyday on the front line, then they would hopefully change their minds. But disease is an invisible killer. It’s much easier to dismiss what you cannot see. It’s unsurprising that the ‘Freedom and Rights Coalition’ (our main Anti Vaccination organization in New Zealand) has seen a considerable social media presence. Living in a country where most individuals haven’t known someone with the disease has made it appear even more hidden.
The indirect impact of the disease has been huge. Hospitals are being forced to postpone elective surgeries, and in industries worldwide, workers who are isolating or sick with the disease are causing huge disruption. Cancer Patients and those with serious illness are all losing the medical care they need in areas where COVID-19 cases have surged.
After all, if people were routinely dying of vaccines, they would just be another number….a bit like what the deaths by COVID-19 have become. After over 5 million recorded deaths worldwide, people are tired of this pandemic. Yet we can never move on until the majority of the world is vaccinated. It’s why it’s particularly frustrating – because we need widespread vaccination to return to an era of travel and socializing without the masks and social distancing.
While being vaccinated is an individual choice, and one that primarily offers protection for yourself, it also does affect others. It’s why most analogies (e.g. wearing a seatbelt) don’t accurately convey how important it is. However, perhaps the only really comparable situation are the numerous other diseases we have avoided through vaccination.
HESITANT OR CONSPIRACY THEORISTS?
Of those who are refusing to be vaccinated, I believe only a small subset are genuine conspiracy theorists. The idea of ‘Nanobots’ or microchips being inserted is ludicruous. These people voluntarily carry a microchip around everywhere within the same device tucked inside their jean pocket that also carries a GPS tracker, microphone and facial recognition camera. If you’re going to go all in on your rejection of modern society, then have some real conviction and go live in the woods like Mr Kaczynski.
Perhaps because it’s easier to believe that the ‘Plandemic’ was a nefarious and highly sophisticated government program, than it is to realize that in any year, a disease could emerge from nature and kill a whole lot of us all over again.
The central root of the Anti Vaccination movement is a distrust for authority. Indeed if it wasn’t the COVID-19 vaccines as a rallying point for resistance, it would be something else. If you don’t trust your governing institutions, then you can’t convince yourself they are for your benefit, because the relationship is already poisoned by hostility. The ‘Mainstream Media’ has been corrupted and so they seek alternative news sources which lack fact checking or substance.
It is not hard to see why there is distrust. Nobody should blindly accept what a government tells them to do, because there are plenty of governments on earth which do not have their citizens best interests at heart, and have a unequal or dysfunctional social contract (e.g. China, Russia, or any authoritarian state). However, there is clearly something deeply wrong with our societies if people think the government is planning to kill them.
“Anti Vaxxers” do not reject medical science – very few people in the modern world do. After all, most of their alternatives they are modern medicine. Ivermectin is a useful anti-parasitic medicine widely used in the developing world for treating river blindness and other tropical diseases, but it is not designed for treating a respiratory illness. It’s a bit like taking foot cream for treating baldness. Yet these people proposing completely ineffective solutions still arrogantly believe to know more than the medical professionals who have devoted their career studying diseases.
Psychologically, we can easily condition ourselves to ignore any sort of problem until it directly affects us. The former ‘Fortress New Zealand’ was a great example of that. We lived as if COVID-19 no longer particularly mattered because it was in other countries. The same phenomenon happened at the very beginning of this. First it was a ‘Chinese’ problem, then it was an ‘Italian’ problem, then it was an ‘American’ problem…and then, well….then it became a problem for everyone.
You can rest assured that nearly every single “Anti Vaxxer” infected with COVID will head straight for the hospital instead of their local faith healer or witch doctor. The numbers don’t lie – this is exactly what is happening. The majority of hospital admissions are unvaccinated, and despite making a terrible mistake, they can’t be denied treatment.
The Anti Vaccination Movement claims they are not ‘anti’ vaccination as much as they are ‘pro choice’, using similar rhetoric heard in the debate over abortion. Shouldn’t people be free to make the wrong choice, after all? In a free society we have to be free to make mistakes. The problem with this argument, is that it’s a choice that affects others. Still, their choice is a choice to prolong the pandemic, and it is a choice that affects others. Vaccination can be as crucial as a choice between life and death.
It should be as difficult as possible to make a choice that kills you or can potentially kill another person. Suicide is a choice after all, but it shouldn’t be encouraged. If you’re going to pick a cause to die for, then make it a good one.
THE ‘CONSPIRACY’ BUSINESS
It’s true that MRNA vaccines are a new technology and the long term effects are uncertain, but they have gone through stringent trials and tests by every regulatory agency. The speed as to which these were rolled out is a testament to the brilliance of modern medical science.
Let’s not forget these are the successful vaccines. The European Union was hoping for a successful vaccine from Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical company, but unfortunately their vaccine did not prove to be a success. This was one of the reasons the EU was late in negotiating their contracts with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, leading to an embarrassing war of words as other countries like The US, UK, UAE and Israel had all negotiated better contracts to deliver the vaccines earlier. Moderna and AstraZeneca do not have a record of success with earlier vaccines, but millions of collective man hours went into developing safe and effective products.
Of course, “Big Pharma” is not our friend, but if there is any conspiracy that existed you could just call it capitalism. They exist to make a profit, and if not for regulatory agencies holding them to account, they would likely engage in all manner of underhanded tactics. They have a vested interest in their product being successful, because there is billions of dollars to be made. Of all the main COVID-19 vaccines, only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was produced at a not-for-profit basis, and the company announced in November that while it would now profit from the vaccine in developed nations, it would still be produced at a not-for-profit basis in the developing world. Contrast this charitability to Pfizer, where the sales figures for Pfizer’s vaccine in 2021 are estimated to be $26,000,000,000 USD (that’s billions by the way).
Pfizer also had its own controversies over the years. In 2009 it was fined $2.3 billion USD for fraudulently marketing the anti inflammatory drug Bextra. Then there was the case of Ventavia, one of the research companies contracted by Pfizer which botched their trials Pfizer falsified Covid vaccine trial data, claims UK journal : The Tribune India and had numerous quality control issues. Thankfully there is nothing to suggest the other medical research companies contracted by Pfizer for their vaccine have any such issues.
These companies are not immune to profiteering or corruption, but likewise they maintain rigorous checks because they know exactly how much money is on the line. When you are negotiating multi billion dollar contracts, the last thing you want is an embarrassing product recall. And while the conspiracists may argue that Big Pharma is hand in hand with governments in a secretive and avaricious tryst, in the real world regulatory agencies are investigating and holding them to account. At least in The United States there have been significant medical recalls over the years including the anti inflammatory drug Vioxx in 2004, and the painkiller Tylenol in 1982.
Outside the medical field, Samsung Galaxy Note Smartphones, VW Diesel Cars and Boeing’s 737 Max Airplanes have all been recalled, costing their respective companies millions of dollars. As soon as profitability comes at the cost of consumers lives, governments are obliged to intervene. It’s why accountability is so important, but the accountability is there.
Nobody wants to be a guinea pig for medical trials unless they received significant compensation, and even then there are few takers. The public are acutely aware of how important their health is to their life and wellbeing. This is why I understand the reluctance of certain genuinely vulnerable groups I can sympathize with individuals who have experienced allergic reactions or other complications from other vaccines. But this is all the more reason why healthy individuals who aren’t immuno-compromised and do not have adverse reactions to these vaccines should be vaccinated.
One of the most contentious issues during this pandemic has emerged with vaccination. That is the question as to what extent people are excluded from partaking in certain activities based on their vaccination status.
New Zealand instituted a heavy handed mandate with the introduction of the ‘Traffic Light’ system, which saw compulsory vaccination in several workplaces. Most jobs in the public sector, including healthcare workers, nurses, teachers and emergency responders all require vaccination. A Vaccine Pass is also required to dine at restaurants, attend events and concerts and also shop in certain locations. It has been left to the employers discretion as to whether vaccination is required, but many of the country’s largest employers have instituted a mandate.
I personally dislike the idea of becoming a ‘papers please’ type society. One of the greatest freedoms of the english speaking world has long been that ID is not a requirement for life, whether in New Zealand, The United Kingdom or The United States. It certainly makes things difficult – but you can live your entire life without a form of identification. Banks and Lawyers all have alternative means of verifying your identity. A Drivers Licence is optional, and so is a passport. In many respects, the ‘Vaccine Passport’ has just become another form of ID.
Many people are either too complacent or too unfazed to get vaccinated unless it’s required for things they actually care about. Indeed it has been the threat of losing their jobs from these vaccine mandates that has motivated those who were hesitant to get vaccinated.
I reluctantly support New Zealand’s vaccine mandates, only due to the state of our healthcare system. An Official Information Act request from November 2020 revealed that throughout 2020, the 23 total ICU beds in Christchurch Hospital were routinely at 60%+ occupancy, even with no COVID-19 in the community.
“New Zealand has one of the lowest levels of ICU beds per capita in the OECD at 4 per 100,000 population.
This compares to Australia at 9, France at 16, and Germany at 34.” https://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/new-zealands-staffed-icu-bed-capacity-and-covid-19-surge-capacity
When COVID-19 becomes more widespread, there will be a significant toll on hospitals across New Zealand. Patients with serious injuries from car crashes or other accidents may not be able to accommodated as the beds and resources they require will be prioritized towards COVID patients. The healthcare system in this country has been handicapped by decades of underfunding and mismanagement, and while successive governments have done their best to paint over the cracks, they are still visible.
Still, while some governments may not require a mandate, for anyone wanting to travel internationally vaccination will soon be as important as having a passport. One of the major benefits of mandates is that they do increase uptake of vaccination. Countries like Israel and The United States which were once pandemic leaders, have seen their vaccination numbers plateau. Unless restrictions are imposed, apathy will take precedence.
Ethically a mandate is coercive, but it not compulsive .Some have stubbornly refused and given up their jobs, but most have accepted that it is not worth their livelihoods.
It’s not wrong to exclude people from higher risk activities, which is what the mandate does. It is wrong to shut them out entirely from society. Choices have consequences, both good and bad. The best choice is getting vaccinated.
While I reluctantly support the mandates, there does seem to be a sort of quasi fascistic undercurrent in some people gleefully excluding others from society. Hop onto online forums and there is no end of memes ridiculing the anti vaxxers, as well as naming and shaming their businesses to avoid, It all feels very much like a tired out joke. We’re laughing behind their backs, and they’re probably laughing behind ours. Everyone has already made up their minds by now, and I suppose that’s why people are less charitable to those taking a contrary view. Because to put it bluntly, if you are opposed to COVID-19 vaccines you are opposed to facts.
It’s not a case of there being ‘two sides to every story’ or a matter or nuance, it is simply facts and fallacies. Vaccination does work. The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at reducing serious illness or death, and (at a less effective rate) of reducing transmission of the disease. There is no ‘but’ or objection of any relevance to this fact. Nobody who is unvaccinated, unless they have received legitimate health advice from their GP, has made an informed choice. And yes, it sounds arrogant and exclusionary, but we need to recognize truth from fiction. People can believe what they wish, but unless substantiated, their beliefs are nothing more than the fragments of their mind.
I can understand peoples frustration if they have anti vax friends or relatives themselves. As Churchill famously said, a fanatic is a person who won’t change their minds and won’t change the subject. Nobody wants to have the same conversation over and over, but while I do reluctantly agree with the mandates, I don’t agree with mocking anyone who believes differently, or excluding them completely. But while the carrot is much preferable to the stick, it has unfortunately taken mandates to ensure compliance. The other matters is that the numbers are not on their side. While they might shout the loudest, every developed country on earth is on track to reach 70% or more of the population vaccinated, with most at over 80%.
The Anti Vaxxers are shooting themselves in the foot. So long as you are masked and vaccinated, you have eliminated the risk as best you can do. Of course the vaccine mandate doesn’t preclude Anti Vaxxers from accessing essential services. Even with our strict mandate, there will still be unvaccinated people walking about and using the supermarkets, petrol stations, riding public transport, at fast food outlets and at pharmacies. That’s the uncomfortable truth – much as some might want to exclude them completely from society, they still exist, and we still need a line of dialogue open.
The other thing that some of the internet’s vaccine policemen are reluctant to acknowledge is that even with vaccination, there are still risks. Dining indoors and attending bars, gyms and other crowded venues where masks are removed are still risky activities as vaccinated individuals can still pass on the disease. A vaccine mandate is not a guarantee of you not catching COVID-19, but it does significantly reduce the risk of developing a severe reaction to the disease and it will reduce the strain on the healthcare system. The main benefit of vaccination is for our own protection. In The United States about 99.5% of all COVID-19 deaths were in the unvaccinated.
FORTRESS NEW ZEALAND IS NO MORE
Aside from vaccination, the biggest development in this country in le deuxième année of the pandemic was reluctantly jointing the rest of the world in having cases of the disease spreading to our cities and towns. New Zealand has up until very recently, been one of the few holdouts of COVID-19. After over a year without any community transmission of COVID-19, the delta variant of the virus has now firmly taken root.
For the majority of the pandemic, New Zealand and Australia were the two best countries in the world to be in. Two Outbreaks in Auckland were stamped out with “short sharp” lockdowns, and this was seen as a reasonable price to pay for life without restrictions. A much longer lockdown was endured by the residents of Melbourne who had to endure six different lockdowns until got down to zero. Still, in both corners of the South Pacific, life was largely disease free and pretty good.
However we were warned that the Delta Variant, which was first detected in India, was much more transmissible than the original variant, and it proved to be uncontainable. Australia was first to go. In June 2021, a limo driver became the index case for an outbreak in New South Wales. Even when Sydney knew the index case, the now ousted Premier Gladys Berejiklian refused to impose significant restrictions.
Understandably, the virus got out of control and daily cases rose to 1,533 at the height of the outbreak.
The pro-business (and pro-cronyism) Liberal Party government of Scott Morrison had long wanted to do away with the restrictions. The original outbreak in 2020 would have likely led to the disease becoming widespread throughout the country if policy was set at the federal level. However, it was the state governments which set policies, and which forced his hand.
Most Australian States in 2020 were led by a Labour Premiere, which favoured a very hands-on approach to tackling the disease, particularly Western Australia where Premiere Mark McGowan was known for having one of the strictest COVID-19 responses in the world. It also meant for one of the first times in history that the country had internal border controls enacted. In towns close to state borders, Australians were cut off from their friends and family. In the case of the small town of Mugindi which straddled the line between Queensland and New South Wales, the town was literally cut in two.
We looked on in New Zealand with a mixture of horror and bemusement, thinking we were better. Thinking we were special. Then just two months later on 17th August, a man in his 50s tested positive for the Delta Variant in Auckland, and the country locked down again. When the lockdown broke out, I headed to supermarket, stocked up and assumed that we would stamp this one out. After all, it had worked before, hadn’t it? Spoiler Alert….Yeah it didn’t.
The reason we “kept Covid out” as is oft repeated last time, wasn’t just due to the first lockdown being good policy, but also luck. Lockdown 2.0 did not have the political capital behind it as Lockdown 1.0. There are a number of reasons why it wasn’t contained. Firstly the delta variant is simply more transmissible. There was always going to be further spread. Secondly, there were cases amongst gang members and the criminal underworld, the majority of whom were needless to say, not transparent or co-operative with the authorities. It turned out that we weren’t quite as special as we thought on these little islands, because after a few weeks being shut up at home, New Zealanders behaved the same as everywhere else in the world.
The Government’s response was essentially to ringfence in Auckland. A few cases had popped up in Wellington and the border region, but they got them under control. Auckland though was no longer containable. 1/3 of the population spend the next 100+ days isolated, locked down in their own city. On December 15th they finally re-opened the border, perhaps knowing that killing Christmas for Aucklanders would lead to a very swift change of government in the next election. Still, they did hope they would contain the disease but after several weeks, they announced the end of New Zealand’s elimination strategy.
We essentially have spent the majority of the pandemic so far, in a bubble. Life was normal, with concerts, domestic tourism and restaurants open with no restrictions. It is a difficult sell to tell people to give up on that, but ultimately it was no longer their decision to make.
The Government’s Plan B for failing to contain the disease, was simply to copy Australia and push hard on the vaccination drive. It has been holding “Vaxathons” and doing all it can to increase uptake in less vaccinated areas like those in rural regions and amongst Maori.
Vaccinations of course are the only way out for the rest of the world, but until the latest outbreak New Zealand had been lagging well behind The EU, UK etc. The vaccine rollout has largely been a success and the country reached 90% of those eligible to be vaccinated on 16th December 2021. The Government likes to use the ‘eligible’ unit of measurement, because 75% of total population isn’t quite so impressive.
The most noticeable change has been mask wearing. While the rest of the world was used to wearing them for some time, New Zealand was a maskless society. Outside of flights and public transport (when restrictions were imposed), nobody bothered. Apathy is New Zealand’s defining character trait, together with NIMBYism, small minded thinking, lack of ambition and associated crab-in-bucket mentality (also known as “tall poppy syndrome”), chronic car dependency while simultaneously being god awful drivers, general laziness and a “she’ll be right” mentality even when things are clearly broken, short term planning and underinvestment in critical infrastructure, holding a generation ransom to housing, over reliance on immigration and hiring your mates for jobs and/or keeping Dorothy and Bill employed at the company into their late 70s instead of hiring young graduates…..
Phew….where was I? Oh ‘masks’ right. When lockdown restrictions were removed for the rest of the country on 7th September, prominent signage on all shop frontages advised ‘Face Masks Must be Worn’. Some people of course resisted this supposed infringement on their freedoms, but most begrudgingly wore a face mask and complied, dusting off their old masks they hadn’t used since early 2020. Life hasn’t been “back to normal” for the rest of the country. We’re in a state of unease, waiting for cases to rise.
Essentially for most of the pandemic, you wouldn’t have known one was going on. We liked it that way, but of course it was never going to last. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s Government did not plan for a future with COVID-19 in the community, hoping it would stay out until later in 2022. It has spent the latter quarter of 2021 ramping up the vaccine rollout and scurrying to make plans.
With the ‘Omicron’ variant, the government decided to backtrack on its plans to re-open the border. Not only is this immensely frustrating for the thousands who booked flights, but it gives the public little certainty. Of course it pays to be cautious, but ‘Omicron’ will be supplanted by another variant in time. It was revealed that back on 4th October 2021, when the government announced it was abandoning its elimination strategy via press conference, it had no backup plan.
Which begs the question – when were we going to put the drawbridge back down? 2024? 2030? Perhaps if elimination had actually worked we would have had another few months of maskless bliss until shutting everything down for Omicron again.
Most countries with strict COVID-19 measures have accepted that the virus is a part of life for the forseeeable future. While some countries are still locking down amid winter surges of the disease, these lockdowns aren’t done to eliminate the disease entirely. After New Zealand abandoned elimination, only China and Taiwan are still pursing a ‘zero COVID’ strategy. H
I don’t mean to sound callous or be ungrateful with what this country has done. There has been nowhere better to be in the world throughout the last year. I would have been terrified of catching COVID-19 if I was unvaccinated, but thankfully we have been given protection until the disease spread through the country. Recent modelling has estimated thousands of lives were saved by New Zealand’s first lockdown in March 2020, and likely the avoidance of the collapse of the country’s healthcare system. As I mentioned in my blog last year, it really never felt like we were so close to the abyss. Shutting everything down felt like an overreaction, but presumably the same was thought elsewhere at the time.
And while the vaccine rollout began at a crawl, the government did a great job in the latter part of the year once the elimination strategy was abandoned, butin 2021, with widespread availability of vaccines, there is no need for further nationwide lockdowns or strict quarantine measures. Indeed, there will be no need for any sizeable restrictions if people just get vaccinated. While I might dislike the stick, it does seem much more effective than the carrot in this instance.
In other news, 2021 marked two particularly grim anniversaries. 2021 was the tenth anniversary of the Christchurch Earthquakes, a particularly significant occasion for my hometown. Aside from the 185 lives tragically lost, it was a constant reminder of 10 seconds which destroyed so much. I still somewhat regret not leaving to study elsewhere, as for the next half decade it was a mess of construction noise and a largely broken city centre.
In the last few years, the city has certainly improved. Central Christchurch no longer seems desolate or grim, and actually compares quite highly against other New Zealand cities. I’ll still miss some of the old institutions like Science Alive (probably best described as “a theme park for nerds”), Fazzazz and the Old City Library. There were so many heritage buildings lost as well. Some didn’t need to go. The Catholic Basilica was sadly torn down instead of being restored.
It’s really only cities which have lived through great triumph or disaster that become truly unrecognizable from their former selves, and Christchurch is one of those cities. It’s not the same as it once was, but it will forever be a different city.
The other grim anniversary that was marked this year was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent NATO invasion of Afghanistan. I came of age in the early 2000s, and the ‘war on terror’ was always in the background. There was always something in the news about a suicide bombing or another tragedy going on in a distant land.
Netflix’s recent documentary ‘Turning Point’ was very good, but I also highly rate the book ‘The Looming Tower’ by Lawrence Wright which went into great detail of the rise of Al Qaeda and gave inside accounts from within the CIA as to how the 9/11 attacks was missed.
America had of course long since abandoned their most unpopular war in Iraq (Perhaps North Korea would have been a better place to find Weapons of Mass Destruction than in the streets of Baghdad.), but a small contingent remained in Afghanistan – mostly just to keep the peace and assist with training the Afghan Army. Former Reality TV Host, Porn Star Cavorter, Steak Salesman, The Man who financially ruined his own Casino and also One Time U.S President Donald Trump negotiated a terrific withdrawal deal, which gave the Taliban most of what they wanted and left the Afghan government with no assurances.
In fairness to the former president, Joe Biden decided to stick with the former administration’s withdrawal deal instead of opting to renegotiate a new one. He called it the ‘Forever War’ and believed that the US public were tied of the decades of interventionism, and throwing money into a sinking pit. It was likely an uncomfortable reminder to him so many years after 9/11 having troops in Afghanistan, seeing the fruits of a war that had never really been won.
Still despite the talk of wanting to leave, few Americans were quite prepared for the footage of Afghans clinging to the sides of airplanes in the hope of escaping a Taliban led country. Few of the public, as well as supposedly within US intelligence had any idea the country would fall to the Taliban within such a short space of time.
Afghanistan was not an easy place for any group to govern. The country is less united than a group of mutually hostile tribes who have experienced centuries of conflict and no end of changing rulers. Out of the trillions spent, progress was very slow. Still – when the US inherited Afghanistan it inherited a country which was something out of the medieval era. Corruption in the Afghan government was rife with ‘Ghost Soldiers’ being paid, and prominent ministers in the government and their families pocketing a significant chunk of the aid and development money.
The problem with viewing the situation in hindsight and only focusing on ‘sunk costs’ is that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Money shouldn’t continue to be thrown into an endeavour wrecklessly, but if you abandon the entire mission, then everything has been wasted. That was the fate of Afghanistan in 2021. Twenty years and trillions spent were wasted in the space of weeks, and any progress made was thrown away.
Should the US have left Afghanistan? Probably not entirely. Nearly seventy years after World War Two, The US still maintains a presence of 35,000 troops in Germany. They have around 750 military bases around the world with hundreds and thousands of military personnel. The force in Afghanistan supporting the peace keeping effort numberd only 13,000 troops in 2020, and could have been reduced to a small peacekeeping force. You can’t invade countries at your leisure, act like an empire and then simply decide it doesn’t suit you. Power incurs great responsibility – the might of a superpower even more so.
The situation today is grim. Statistics do not convey just how horrible life in Afghanistan is for the majority of the public. The country is on the brink of complete starvation come winter.
“According to the Disasters Emergency Committee, 8 million people are on the brink of famine in Afghanistan, while 95% of the entire population does not have enough to eat.
The situation has been compounded by the Covid pandemic and the worst drought in 27 years – and is expected to get worse through the winter as temperatures drop.” Gordon Brown: west is sleepwalking into Afghanistan disaster | Afghanistan | The Guardian
Despite the hope of The U.S Government, Afghanistan will not be out of the news for some time. Indeed we must wonder, if leaving the country has condemned people to such a fate, whether it was the right choice, or just the most expedient one.
It has been a very long year dear reader, and I thank you for making it this far.
As for me, I’m looking forward to a break in Wellington over the summer holidays. It will be nice to venture elsewhere when the border re-opens.
I’ll be entering into the last year of my twenties next year, and I’m not ready for it! Its not so much that I’ll be growing old that is painful, as much as that I won’t be growing any younger.
I’m certainly hoping for more changes next year. My long dormant novel – ‘A Life Indoors’ is finally nearing completion, and will be published next year. I can’t wait to share it with you all next year. It deals with a lot of issues in modern society, and I hope it will at least be read than a wider readership than my friends and family.
I had of course hoped to write more regularly, but honestly there hasn’t been anything remotely interesting enough to blog about – really mostly just family stuff and personal matters. I did make a trip down to Stewart Island, the tiny bottom island in New Zealand last Summer. It was a nice getaway, and seeing wild Kiwis was also a great highlight. (Shameless plug for my instagram – @heydonmcintosh). Life has just been dominated by my legal job, but hopefully next year change will occur in my worklife as well.
2022 – the year of change. Let’s hope it’s change for the better.