John Roughan on the year of the vaccine – how Kiwi is the mandate?


The spirit of Christmas can soften hard hearts. I wonder if it can soften something we have done this year that is really against our better nature. Somehow the “year of the vaccine” turned into the year of the vaccine mandate.

Long ago in the mists of time, early 2021, I faintly remember Jacinda gently rejecting mandatory vaccination, saying it was not the New Zealand way. And she was right. From time to time it has been suggested children’s vaccination should be a condition of eligibility for welfare benefits but it has always been a step too far.

We arrived at Christmas, though, with vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory for about 40 per cent of jobs, and certificates required to sit in restaurants, enter a bar, get a haircut, go to a major event or even a family Christmas if more than 10 of the whānau turned up.

We wondered if there would be awkwardness at dinner tables in private homes yesterday if a guest had not been vaccinated. Surely not, we’re Kiwis.

Sadly, though, I could believe it. Authoritarianism is transmissible, some people take rules to extremes. A few Auckland tennis clubs have barred unvaccinated players not just from the interior of their clubhouses this summer but from their courts. They refuse to play with them out in the fresh air.

How did this happen? Delta obviously. Before Delta, the Government believed the virus could be eliminated by short and sharp lockdowns like the one in February. It was taking its time to buy vaccines and organise a rollout. After Delta, vaccination became the nation’s primary defence.

It became urgent and herd immunity, previously said to be possibly not possible against this virus, became a thing again. Meanwhile, Auckland was still in lockdown against the Delta variant and mass vaccination became the only escape offered to us.

We turned on those who refused to take it. I was as guilty as anyone. I can’t begin to understand anti-vaxxers. This is not some theoretical modelled science, it has been working for generations. I’ve read the pamphlets anti-vaxxers put in my mailbox and concede all their points but don’t care. I’d trade this freedom of choice to recover all the daily choices we’re denied in lockdowns.

In one column I praised a High Court judge who upheld a workplace mandate on the argument people were not really being deprived of a choice, they simply faced a consequence of their choice. Impeccable logic, I thought. But as time went by, it nagged at me. Was that really fair? Was it true?

Freedom of choice can be removed by imposed consequences. That is how criminal law works. Mandatory prison sentences are intended to remove the choice to kill or steal. To threaten someone with the loss of their job is about as severe as non-criminal penalties can be.

One day when this pandemic has passed we may look back and shudder at the liberties we surrendered to it. At least, I hope we do, but we might not. Having once accepted unprecedented restrictions on freedom for the sake of public health, we might be conditioned to accept them. They might be part of the “new normal” social reformers have been hailing since the virus arrived.

But most New Zealanders probably would say the pandemic we face is a special case, in which the end justifies the means. That is always a dangerous principle but if we accept the end justifies the suspension of choice, have we achieved the end now?

To have more than 90 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated is phenomenal, better than just about any other country in the world. It might not have been achieved entirely voluntarily but it is cause for celebration.

If this is not the end that justified the means, where is the end? Must we maintain mandates and restrictions and checks of the vaccination status of everyone taking a seat in coffee bar, until every district and ethnic division of the population has reached 90 per cent?

Some people are immune to the consequences. They’re unemployed or self-employed, don’t travel much, don’t dine out, party among themselves with liquor from an off-licence. They’ve had four months to get vaccinated and haven’t bothered.

Other people disbelieve everything governments and media tell them on this subject. We have all tried reasoning with them and mandates just make them more stubborn.

With a new variant of the virus around and a booster programme beginning, not to mention children to vaccinate, the Government is unlikely to relax its mandates yet. But if the rest of us encounter the unvaxxed this festive season, let’s relax and remember: she’ll be right.

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