Experts on misinformation have repeatedly called for the Government to proactively prepare for a contentious vaccine rollout, but will it listen? Marc Daalder reports

The rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine in New Zealand could turn into a social and political flashpoint over misinformation, community engagement and conspiracy theories, but experts are concerned the Government isn’t ready for that.

A survey released in September by Massey University shows that hesitancy around a Covid-19 vaccine extends far beyond the usual opposition to vaccination in New Zealand. Generally, just 3 to 5 percent of the population actively refuse basic vaccines like the Measles, Mumps and Rubella shot.

The survey found 29 percent of New Zealanders were uncomfortable about getting a coronavirus vaccine and 13 percent outright planned not to. Another 22 percent said they weren’t sure.

Woods dismissive

At least part of this hesitancy is rooted in false information. For example, 10 percent of those surveyed said they were concerned about getting infected by the coronavirus as a result of taking a vaccine, but none of the serious vaccine candidates use live SARS-CoV-2 virus. A similar proportion say they don’t need a vaccine because they are not sick with Covid-19, but a vaccine would prevent people from contracting the virus in the first place, not treat those who are ill.

Despite this, when speaking on the interim vaccine results released by Pfizer last week, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods dismissed concerns about misinformation or vaccine hesitancy.

“As part of the immunisation strategy, as there is with any immunisation strategy, part of that will be an education process around the benefits of immunisation. I think when we’re seeing 90 percent effectiveness against contracting the disease, I think there will be a lot of people that want access to this vaccine,” she said.

Experts on misinformation like Jess Berentson-Shaw have previously called on the Government to proactively “prebunk” or inoculate against vaccine-related misinformation, well before any potential vaccine rollout. Berentson-Shaw is a co-director at The Workshop and author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World.

“It’s utterly predictable that we are going to get an upswell in false information about vaccinations to do with Covid. We need to be looking forward and thinking about what are the aspects of that and how might we get in front of that?” she told Newsroom in September.

Now, she says Woods’ comments were disappointing.

“It’s a bit of a glib throwaway comment, I imagine. But, if it is what she genuinely believes, then it does show that there perhaps is a misunderstanding about the way in which people think about vaccinations, the Government, Covid,” she said.

The idea that people would get the vaccine just because it is effective doesn’t gel with what we understand about what motivates anti-vaccination sentiment, she said.

“Logically of course you would get a vaccination if it’s 90 percent effective, but the assumption that people are making these decisions on the basis of logic is itself a flawed one. That is not how and why people make decisions about these sorts of things. Certain types of people, like Megan Woods, they make decisions because they trust science, they trust government, they’ve had positive experiences with it.

“But not everybody is like that. I think, in a best case scenario, lots of people are. But if we do nothing and assume that everybody will want the vaccine, I wouldn’t call that great planning.”

Community engagement

A 2019 review of New Zealand’s readiness for pandemics and other global health emergencies by the World Health Organisation gave us a score of three out of five – the lowest in any category – for “communication engagement with affected communities” and “addressing perceptions, risky behaviours and misinformation”.

“The capacity of the MOH and DHBs to identify, triage and manage misinformation in a systematic way would benefit from agreed procedures, shared training and exercises rather than relying on the expertise of individuals,” the auditors wrote.

Berentson-Shaw was also critical of a response provided by the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for creating the national immunisation strategy for Covid-19. Responding to a request for comment by Newsroom, the Ministry’s Chief Science Advisor Ian Town said, “The WHO and OECD have shared a range of research papers and strategies that we are drawing on to inform our approach.

“We are also reviewing a number of resources that have been developed internationally that which focus on helping build people’s media literacy. People should only go to trusted sources for their information and should carefully consider what they pass on,” Town said.

Berentson-Shaw said many populations that are susceptible to misinformation might not trust official sources, so that sort of messaging can be ineffective.

“I would also say that international evidence is not going to give them what they need to work with Māori, so would hope they had a strategy in play there,” she added.

“The challenges for Māori communities are, perhaps, a greater vulnerability and propensity around false information combined with government responses, if they don’t account for low levels of trust in government. There’s also this thing that goes on, I see it so much, where senior figures or govenrment talk about people who believe false information like they’re idiots.”

Indeed, the Massey University study found that 36 percent of Māori would turn down the vaccine, compared to 24 percent of European New Zealanders and 30 percent of Pasifika and 19 percent of Asians and Others (a census category, the researchers note).

“There are different needs for different communities,” Berenston-Shaw said.

Evolving conspiracies

At the same time, other aspects of the Ministry’s response were heartening.

Berentson-Shaw said the Ministry’s focus “on providing clear, consistent access to trusted and transparent information – rather than addressing misinformation directly” follows best practice and seeking to construct an evidence-based approach shows officials are taking the issue seriously.

In particular, she expects to see flash points around the safety of the vaccine and the possibility of opening the borders. However, she says that anti-vaccination sentiment under Covid-19 might be a different beast than what she has studied in the past.

Researchers from Te Pūnaha Matatini have previously found that the tenor of conspiracy theories about the virus has changed over the course of the pandemic.

Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists joined in a “Human Rights Violations’ rally at Parliament in August. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“It was really interesting to see more of that discourse around distrust in government coming through in New Zealand as we have seen now. Digging down into it further, I hypothesise that what we saw earlier in the pandemic will be lack of trust in those inter- and intra-government organisations [like the World Health Organisation or China’s role in the outbreak]. But now it’s coming to a New Zealand context,” study author Kate Hannah said in September.

Berentson-Shaw said it was possible that Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy comes from a different place than hesitancy around flu shots or the MMR vaccine.

“Much of the vaccine hesitancy and then strong anti-vaccination sentiment are held more generally by women. I think it might be different in Covid, I wonder if it’s more men in the Covid space,” she said.

“It’s different from childhood vaccination and it there is more belief around some of these bigger conspiracies around plandemics and stuff like that, then possibly it looks like a different demographic and a different set of beliefs as well. But I don’t have enough data to really know.”

In the end, Berentson-Shaw wants to see a specific and intentional focus in the planning stages on misinformation.

“I would want to see that they had a strategy, basically. One of the main challenges in this space is that a reactive response to false information is not the most pragmatic and effective way to deal with it. You need to be proactive,” she said.

“That requires that you’ve actually got a bit of a plan and a bit of a strategy about how you’re going to get in front of it.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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