Consider the following interlinked propositions. Rising vaccination rates will reduce the growth of Covid-19 patient numbers. Most of these will be unvaccinated, as is the case already. Individuals without vaccine protection will spread the virus more efficiently than those with a double jab (given two weeks previously). As the unvaccinated inevitably become Covid-infected, many will need hospital care. Some will die. Hospitals and the health system can only cope if unvaccinated numbers decline further. In Auckland and Waikato, this eventuality will ease lockdown restrictions under the new ‘traffic lights’ system if vaccination thresholds are met. I can’t verify the preceding propositions here. However, they comport with the research findings of virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists and statistical modellers.
Clearly, our national health depends upon the number and behaviour of unvaccinated individuals. How, then, do we confront them without condescension, anger or vilification? My answer rests on two observations. First, one must distinguish between non-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. The former include those who are drug-addicted, mentally unstable, transient, desperately poor and suspicious of legal authority (criminals, overstayers). Individuals who inhabit one or more of these categories are immune to official health messages, government announcements and vaxathon initiatives. Second, anti-vaxxers are diverse and fragmented. If there was no pandemic and no vaccination campaign, they would have little in common. What follows is a selection of anti-vaxxer archetypes. I may have missed some. If so, send them in, our national health depends on it. Bear in mind though that there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between each archetype and a given person. Some anti-vaxxers may exhibit a combination of archetypes. Let us proceed.
The libertarian anti-vaxxer. No room for nuance here. They profess an absolute commitment to individual rights and a virulent distrust of the state. Government-facilitated vaccination campaigns should be opposed on principle, even during a pandemic. This overlooks the fact that rights are inseparable from social context. Covid 19 infections attack the very interdependence of human life, scientifically based vaccination initiatives protect this interdependence. Libertarian anti- vaxxers don’t get this. Deep down, they are solipsists incapable of recognising social obligations and responsibilities. If you dislike sneering aggression, leave these people alone.
The wellness anti-vaxxer. This archetype descends from 1960s and 1970s counter-culture (think Nambassa), human potential movement (think Centrepoint) and 1990s new-agers (think crystals). Most recently, extreme proponents of ‘wellness’ reject most medical science and embrace ‘holistic’ alternative therapies. Vaccines are seen as pollutants which disrupt chakras and damage human wellbeing. Such beliefs are expressed in terms of quiet conviction rather than loud declaration. They can be found in Coromandel, Hokianga, Tasman and other such locations. This archetype appears among teachers, midwives and yoga instructors. ‘Wellness’ militancy is gender neutral, although women have had greater media prominence.
The religious anti-vaxxer. I refer here to Christian anti-vaxxers, but all religions have them. If a theistic, omnipotent God loves and protects believers, then they don’t need vaccines. If theocratic authority trumps scientific validity, then appeals to reason fall on deaf ears. The local religious leader knows more about viruses than Ashley Bloomfield or Michael Baker. Within Christianity, this mindset is found among sectarian Protestants. If a plausible con man with a bible can persuade a congregation or prayer meeting that they are receiving the word of God, then any theological statement can be invented. Local interpreters of God’s word may regard Covid-19 as divine punishment for human wickedness. Official proponents of vaccination may appear as agents of Satan. On this view, mandatory vaccination edicts from medical professionals, employers or education authorities are signs of persecution rather than public health concern. Best known examples of this archetype are male and patriarchal with staunch female allies. To the extent that Christian anti-vaxxers are Māori or Pasifika, the legacy of colonialism remains strong. For anti-vaxx churches, lockdowns reduce tithe revenue. Instead of admitting this truth, they resort to religious dogma and even libertarian precepts, if it is convenient to do so.
The f—k you anti-vaxxer. Among the marginalised and politically disengaged, resentment of authority is instinctive. A typical refrain might be “don’t try and jab me shithead, you can stick it up your arse.” Special pleading won’t work—“if this is so important to you then guess what, I won’t do it.” Those within this archetype don’t really oppose vaccination; they just hate the entire political class of pro-vaccinators. F—k you anti-vaxxers are hard to dig out but are more numerous than you might think. Just ask vaccination workers in South Auckland, West Auckland, East Cape, rural Northland and South Island’s west coast. Although male cohorts predominate, hatred for authority is common to all demographics within marginalised groups. Class is the great unifier here. After 35 plus years of neoliberalism, our poorest citizens are economically excluded and tuned out of public life.
The conspiracy-afflicted anti-vaxxer. Belief in conspiracies correlates with indiscriminate social media use. Facebook and Google algorithms introduce the vulnerable to conspiracy sites and networks. The shares, dislikes and downloads which they are generate are sold to advertisers. This business model nurtures the following anti-vaxxer mindset. A cabal of (choose one) paedophiles/telecommunication executives/UN plutocrats/Jewish financiers/woke cultural Marxists/Chinese party officials have created the pandemic and/or pushed vaccines with horrific side effects. Many individuals access anti-vaxx conspiracy content and pass it on without thinking. Some may be amenable to the messaging. The afflicted anti-vaxxer archetype is different. It suggests a condition whereby s/he is possessed by conspiracy beliefs which are endlessly recited among the like-minded. Beyond these generalities, participant-observer research is scarce. Infiltrating anti-vaxxer conspiracy sects is not easy.
The bullet-proof anti-vaxxer. You know the sort—“fight for your right to party.” Recent video footage from a late-night Albany gathering revealed snippets of this archetype. To be fair, most would have taken their vaccines and partied on. Others, however, would feel no need for the jab—“How could I possibly be badly infected?” For the healthy, fit and strong, Covid-19 is merely a passing flu. “Why social distance and spoil the fun?” “Dancing, snogging and twerking is fine…for f–ksake, open the French doors then… or do it on the deck.” Outdoors, bullet-proof antivaxxers reserve the right to surf, ski, fly, tramp and/or hunt whenever and wherever they choose. The archetype is young, male, charismatic and full of brio. They can be won over if a close friend ends up on a ventilator.
The quack anti-vaxxer. Here is the strangest and most perplexing archetype of all. Won’t accept the tested vaccines on offer, but willing to try other untested vaccine medication, e.g., Ivermectin, Novavax. Thankfully, in Aotearoa, there are no bleach enthusiasts. Other anti-vaxx mindsets have a weird internal coherence. Their premises are wrong and the reasoning faulty, but you can see a belief system. By contrast, quack anti-vaxxers exemplify cognitive dissonance. Each one is idiosyncratic and appears immersed in their own private world.
To reiterate, these are archetypes, not singular individuals. Thus, certain anti-vaxxers may exhibit both libertarian and wellness beliefs. Adherence to conspiracies may complement religious and f—k you anti-vaxx convictions. The rest of us are exasperated with all of them—anti-vaxx proselytisers endanger public health and the viability of hospital care. Maybe we should appeal to their self-interest—change your mind before you become ill.