Experts are now speculating about a permanent pandemic. It may therefore seem premature to start thinking about a post-pandemic New Zealand. But it’s important that we do so. Even if we are in a permanent pandemic we need to find a way to collectively move on.
In her work on why we don’t worry enough about climate change, the American psychologist Elke Weber proposes that we have a “finite pool of worry” to divide among all our concerns. Right now Covid-19 is draining too much of our worry.
An Aotearoa that never moves on from the pandemic is an Aotearoa that doesn’t make enough room for climate change, Treaty issues, wealth inequality, and our many other challenges.
Before we can move on we need to address the differences that sundered the Team of Five Million. High on this list are differences that separated us over vaccines.
Disagreements about vaccines
Aotearoa is now a highly vaccinated nation. According to the WHO almost 85 percent of us are “fully vaccinated with last dose of primary series”. But 30 percent of New Zealanders were vaccine sceptics in December 2020.
Some were genuinely convinced by arguments that vaccines are safe. But many felt bullied. What others viewed as protection against a potentially lethal virus they viewed as violations of their bodily integrity. Some are still smarting at how they were coerced into accepting the needle.
The effects of this split range from the 23-day occupation of Parliament to board-gaming groups destroyed because former friends found that their differences about vaccines were such that they could no longer sit down together over a game of Settlers of Catan.
Every nation has vaccine sceptics. But I think that there is hope that Aotearoa can move on better that other nations.
The partnership between two peoples represented by the Treaty requires ongoing negotiation. Our history of injustice means that these conversations are never easy. But they are happening.
They suggest a future in which we really can move on from lesser differences over mRNA vaccines.
From crisis thinking to turn-taking
In times of crisis we need all hands to the pump. It’s treachery to declare your sympathy for the enemy during time of war. During the height of the pandemic it was important to emphasise that rare side effects don’t stop a Covid vaccine from being safe.
When a scientific expert offers advice the channel of information is typically one way. It was important to swiftly suppress dissenting views. New Zealand could have ended up like Serbia, which got a fast start on vaccines, but allowed anti-vaxx views to take root in rural areas leaving it stalled at a vaccination rate of just under 48 percent even with a variety of widely available vaccines and payments to take them.
Peace demands different forms of communication. We need to find ways to talk about vaccines that have the potential to bring people together again. Good conversations are characterised by turn-taking. Participants in a good conversation are not only speaking, they are listening too. They make concessions to each other.
Psychologists have described the phenomenon of concurrence seeking – “striving to avoid disagreements and debates within a group”. There are significant downsides to concurrence-seeking. It can lead to groupthink in which we converge too quickly on a mistaken single view. Groupthink led American planners to overestimate the chances of a successful invasion of Cuba in 1961. But the same psychological trait as a positive side. It can help heal Aotearoa’s rifts.
If you are trying to bring people together you can’t locate all the truths on one side. The good news is that concurrence-seeking can enable people to moderate their demands. If people on the other side make concessions they will too.
Vaccines surely work. But there are concessions that can be made to vaccine sceptics. Vaccines were also oversold. Remember the excitement of US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci as he spent November 2020 enthusiastically proclaiming “The cavalry is on the way” after clinical trials suggested that mRNA vaccines could be over 90 percent effective against Covid-19. In Fauci’s metaphor the mRNA cavalry turns up, shoos the viral hostiles away, and life promptly gets back to normal. In a permanent pandemic we instead seem to be besieged by fast-evolving variants that deftly dodge Fauci’s mRNA cavalry. mRNA definitely didn’t magic us all back to 2019.
Perhaps acknowledging that vaccines were oversold may be part of the post-pandemic settlement that New Zealand needs to move on.
The role of universities
A lasting settlement and preparation for the unexpected shocks of the future will require input from Aotearoa’s universities. We need new courses and teaching that reach beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. If mRNA had been the simple solution to the pandemic then we could restrict that new learning to the medical sciences. But we’ve been forced to explore our strengths as peoples joined by the Treaty. Our post-pandemic universities need courses that focus on that.