Pro-vaccine vs anti-vaccine: it’s a source of division and fury. Nicholas Agar looks at the anger and disappointment on both sides.

There’s been much discussion about the anger of anti-vaxxers. They’re too repelled by the very idea of injecting mRNA to listen to arguments for its safety. It’s time to consider a keenly felt emotion on the other side of the vaccination ledger. This is anger bred of disappointment about the way vaccines were marketed at us.

In a piece for CNN, I wrote about the excitement of US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci in November 2020 when clinical trials confirmed that mRNA vaccines were over 90 percent effective against Covid-19. “The cavalry is on the way” he exclaimed. In this metaphor, the cavalry turns up, shoos the hostiles away, and life promptly gets back to normal.

November 2020 seems an eternity ago.

A variety of factors including uneven distribution of vaccines encouraged the virus to evolve to evade our vaccines. The same ingenuity that gave us mRNA is driving the search for still better vaccines. But one thing we should expect is that patchy distribution of even a 95 percent effective vaccine will prompt the virus to evolve, infect and occasionally kill us.

Anti-vaxxers are angry about vaccine mandates. But the rest of us are annoyed because we were encouraged to view vaccines as our salvation. When the promised end of the pandemic doesn’t arrive in time for Christmas you’re disappointed and when it continues to delay its arrival, frustration deepens into anger.

One way past this is to question our faith in simple tech fixes. Vaccines surely work. But there’s a problem when we rely on them too heavily.

We see an over-reliance on simple tech fixes in the climate debate too. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison went to COP26 promising future tech fixes for climate change. This is all well and good if in 2030 we discover the cheap efficient Direct Air Capture devices imagined in Bill Gates’ 2021 book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. If we get them in 2030 we can keep burning coal confident that DAC will always clean up after us. The problem comes when these tech fixes, like so many promised cures for cancer, don’t arrive on schedule.

We placed too much faith in vaccines as the tech fix for the pandemic. Perhaps DAC is the tech fix for climate change. But if it doesn’t arrive we need a Plan B. Where might we find that?

We need an ethical reset

I think there’s an answer that New Zealanders have better access to than nations like the US that seem to have relied too heavily on vaccines and other tech fixes. Aotearoa’s advantage during the pandemic is that we are geographically and culturally quite distant from the epicentres of tech and less likely to instinctively reach for quick tech fixes during times of crisis.

In a much discussed 2019 ranking of preparedness for epidemics or pandemics, the United States ranked first with a score of 83.5. New Zealand ranked 35th with a score 54.0.

This index measured tangible things like the techs and systems available to public health officials in the event of a pandemic. But it seems to have looked past the factors that explain New Zealand’s successes against Covid-19.

In an earlier piece I credited Māori ideas for New Zealand’s successes against the pandemic. As Fauci struggled to explain why so many Americans reject vaccines proven effective against a killer virus, he pointed to his people’s individualism. This individualism empowers Americans to make up their own minds about vaccines and to resist the tyranny of unwanted scientific advice. The idea of getting vaccinated for others is alien to this individualistic way of thinking. Concepts like whakapapa give Māori easier access to ethical thinking that reaches beyond individuals.

Vaccination rates among Māori are lagging. But when away from social media they have access to thinking that is an antidote to the individualism that denies the importance of others. Māori have always been avid inventors and users of technology. But Aotearoa is far from the global epicentres of tech and less likely to put too much faith in easy tech fixes.

These are certainly not my ideas – I’m Pākehā. But if we let them, good ethical ideas can be as infectious as a virus. A lifetime’s exposure to talk about whakapapa has familiarised me with ethical thinking that reaches beyond individuals. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an authority on Māori ethical concepts. But by an osmotic process they have left their mark on my thinking.

The Māori proverb He aha te mea nui o te ao – What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata – It is the people, it is the people, it is the people – points to the way we should look back on the pandemic. Who will we thank when we eventually get through this? The investors in Pfizer and Moderna – the companies that brought us mRNA vaccines – will be happy if we grant their techs the lion’s share of credit for ending the pandemic. But we as a people might do better if we remember the proverb and give most of the credit to our people.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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