As we start to extend bubbles, gather indoors, increase casual connections, the topics of Covid and vaccinations inevitably come up. What do we think about the current approach? Is it OK to mandate vaccinations? Should the borders open?
One of the most polarizing issues, as depicted in the media, and by the government, is the decision to vaccinate or not to vaccinate. The ‘team of 5 million’ no longer seems to ring true. Is this because it no longer feels like a cohesive team, but rather two distinct groups or even clubs; the ‘in group’ who are the 90%ish (vaccinated majority) and the ‘out group’, the unvaccinated numerical minority.
Those who are currently supportive of the vaccination often react to my choice of working with those who are opposed, reluctant or anti vaccination with an awkward smile, or raising of the eyebrows. Above all though they appear genuinely curious. Their questions centre around ‘Why aren’t people getting the vaccination? What is wrong with them? Can’t they see the greater good? Are they stupid?’
When talking with those who are currently feeling vaccine hesitant or anti – vaccine mandates, there are similar wonderings. Why are people following the mandate without question? Can’t they see the greater individual rights issue? Are they stupid by not knowing about the potential negative or unknown long-term impacts?
As with the rest of the world, this is an unprecedented dilemma for New Zealanders. One which Aotearoa is grappling with later than most other parts of the world. Yet despite this, the Delta outbreak had taken some here by surprise. And now we have the potential for another strain Omicron.
Of course, dilemmas relating to issues of individual rights versus public protection / safety are not new and have been around long before Covid. As a simple example; in the forensic setting (where I have worked for most of my working life), questions of whether we prevent an individual from living in the community due to their potential risk to others are commonplace? What threshold of risk is acceptable for the taking away of individual rights and autonomy? Is the ‘greater good’ of public protection worth the loss of a person’s liberty?
Exploring the ‘greater good’ argument is critical to understand the motivations of both viewpoints. A fundamental question is what constitutes the ‘greater good’? For the spectrum of vaccination perspectives this has enmeshed values and ethics. At the same time, it is one thing to have strong beliefs and another to be confident, competent and / or committed enough to align your behaviours accordingly. It’s certainly less taxing to align behaviors to values when it’s easy, there’s not much to lose, the support and resources needed are readily accessible and available. But when we feel the loss is considerable it’s less likely to be something that we are ready, willing or able to pay the price for.
Often, underpinning the ‘greater good’ argument are beliefs relating to fairness, justice and equity. How can it be that someone who chooses not to do something has the potential to cause harm and potentially even death to me or those that I love? “That’s not fair, it’s selfish”; “I have an obligation to keep myself and my whānau safe”.
Let’s take this in the context of the other work I do in the area of inclusion and giving people a ‘fair go’. I have lost count of the people who express appall at the injustices that occur for Māori, Pasifika peoples and other racialized and / or marginalised identities and despite this take no action aligned to these professed values. Covid is amplifying and exposing Aotearoa’s disparities in the areas of housing, education, income, health, employment to name a few. The demand for food banks is, without a doubt on the increase during these Covid times.
Food security is a privilege not afforded to all and those without it include those who do not have right to work, relevant residency status, double income households, high levels of education, stable levels of income during Covid, working from home options, English as a First Language, access to transport, access to wifi and the list continues.
So…. Does the ‘greater good’ mean in the interests of all surviving or does it mean in the interests of ensuring some continue to thrive with daily conveniences? Our actions and behaviour, no matter our underpinning beliefs or values (including the belief the ‘greater good’) require high levels of readiness, willingness and ability.
It is easy to accept difference and support individual rights when we agree; or we are not losing something sacred to us. Sometimes we are not even aware of the immuno-privileges that we have.
During these times, compassion for self and others is critical. This requires us to be conscious of our feelings of righteousness and the associated defensive instinct we can have to shame others.
I remember a real estate agent once telling me ‘a house is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it?’.
What levels of immuno-privilege do you have and what are you willing to pay for the ‘greater good’?