As the world grapples to find a vaccination sweet spot, New Zealand contemplates the same menu of imperfect options.
In time, anthropologists will revel in a bonanza of new information about the distinctive characteristics of countries, based on how they handled the pandemic.
It’s already clear how New Zealanders will measure up: Pollyannaish self-love bombers, now with added schadenfreude at seeing large parts of our frenemy, Australia, back in lockdown.
Much of the rest of the world is now in uproar about whether and how to enforce restrictions and vaccinations. Here, the question has barely arisen because, while the vaccine campaign remains embarrassingly slow, most people are still being relatively compliant. And the latter really is the defining word here: transpose two vowels and you have the prevailing tenet of the world outside New Zealand: complaint.
Even Australians, to whom we are as good as blood-related, have produced a horse-slugging anti-lockdown protester and his heaving, droplet-hoiking cohort, for which we have no equivalent.
There has been the odd pandemic-denial rally here, but no actual biffo. The Advance Party, which tried to ride the chem trails of glory atop Covid indignation, has given up in defeat, and now just publishes a free magazine.
We do have Covid sceptics. Former prime minister Sir John Key said he was shocked to find that some of his – presumably well-educated – golf buddies were among them. But, somehow, New Zealand has created a climate where it’s such a social faux pas to have these views, people rarely seek to impose them on others.
Anthropologists will find the general population here shared some global manias and delusions, but none more serious than loo-paper stockpiling and exhibitionist baking on social media.
New Zealand’s sunny social cohesion in the face of the pandemic is undeniably a source of pride. But the Government has yet to even start to raise the really hard choices about what comes next, and what price for progress is tolerable.
The rest of the world is grappling with how to get their populations to the sweet spot of vaccination so they’re Covid-resilient. From compliance and complaint, other countries are increasingly moving to the ultimate c-word, compulsion.
Experiment in faith
Rather as we gawped in appalled awe to see some Chinese physically welded into their homes during lockdown, we still imagine voluntary compliance will be enough for us to get sufficient vaccination uptake.
It hasn’t been for Indonesia, which has now mourned enough infant deaths and orphaned children to be moved to clamp down hard on vaccine refusers. It’s making them do punitive manual labour, including digging the graves of coronavirus dead, and refusing them state benefits.
France is sending its vaccine refuseniks for time-out in their room, like a wits’-end parent. “I’m sick of the sight of you, and don’t come out till you can behave like a civilised human being.” (The climatological effect of the sudden withdrawal of all those sun-reflective gilets jaunes is as yet unknown.)
Fiji remains in a fugue of denial, its elites seeming to believe its backbone of army machismo will see the coronavirus off. So far, so deadly.
But it’s Britain that’s most beadily watched by the Covid-researching firmament – and all because it couldn’t achieve a viable consensus about compulsion. It’s still far from having an optimal proportion of its people vaccinated. But after 18 months of rolling lockdowns, it’s now trying the Swedish approach of trusting people to be grown-ups. The fact that this didn’t work in Sweden, despite Swedes being famously rational and considerate, makes this a white-knuckle experiment.
Britons are still supposed to self-isolate if they’ve been exposed to risk, but after all that captivity, the UK is now one vast paint chart of furious lockdown pastiness: 50 shades of beige rage. Such has been the whingeing about restrictions that a much-ballyhooed new TV current affairs channel, GB News, has been subsumed into 24/7 complaining about pandemic rules. Seemingly every contribution started, “It’s appalling”, and continued with meltdowns about persecution-by-mask, overseas-holiday bans and unhugged grannies until the Government simply couldn’t take it any longer. Since Freedom Day, infection rates are in tentative slight decline, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now wheeling out deflection tactics designed to take people’s minds off Covid altogether. (He has even taken to brushing his hair.)
Gaping from afar
These decoy policies merit a brief diversion. Thrillingly, given that in this country we’re so forgiving as to fund the gangs who got people on to drugs to get them off them, these new British measures include the mandatory GPS-tagging of paroled burglars, and making crims do community work outdoors so the public can see them atoning. Johnson is also reintroducing untrammelled stop-and-search powers to combat knife crime. Considering we allow this only to find fruit at the airport – and even then we feel a bit sorry for the baffled inadvertent-banana-smuggling tourists – these are policies of a boldness we can only gape at from afar.
Will they work? There will be no diverting attention if Covid continues to spread, however many hi-vis-labelled villains are picking up dog poo in the park. If infections continue to abate and new mutations fizzle, the UK will be the new Sweden, and geographers will join anthropologists in boggling.
Whichever way it goes, New Zealand faces the same menu of imperfect options: to punish or accommodate those who refuse vaccination; to restrict them a bit or a lot; to extend vaccination to children – a virtual riot-trigger in the US – and, the biggy, to live with a certain amount of Covid or stick with our officially avowed elimination strategy.
Our handling of the measles-vax refusal fad of 2019-20 was a sort of primer. Plummeting immunity caused sizeable outbreaks around the world, but it was especially tragic in our region, killing 83 people in Samoa, most of them babies. Australia swiftly opted to withhold benefits from its refusenik parents and some states banned unjabbed children from facilities. New Zealand, while nagging and hand-wringing at mulish parents, put up with the avoidable risk of growing numbers of unvaccinated children.
Covid is about to rerun this dilemma for us on a giant scale. Can we confront the case for a degree of vaccine compulsion and/or restrictions on the unvaccinated without having a national nervous breakdown? One certainty: this debate will break our run as the world’s perky-pigtailed Pollyanna.
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