By Chris Trotter*
The beating of the Delta variant of Covid-19 and the issuing of “vaccination passports” are about to become mutually reinforcing. Leastways, that is how the proposition will be framed by the Government and its expert advisers. How will it go down with the voters? Like a treat! New Zealanders want out of their Covid nightmare. Accordingly, there will be precious little tolerance for any person or group perceived to be obstructing the exit.
The practical necessity for a vaccination passport has already been recognised by the airlines. As the world gradually opens up to international travel, purchase of air-tickets will be conditional on presenting proof of both vaccination and non-infection. Nobody expects to get on a plane without a government-issued Passport. Nobody should expect to get on a plane without a vaccination passport.
After all, tourists travelling to parts of the world where dangerous diseases are endemic are required to produce evidence of vaccination. Without such evidence they are simply not permitted to fly. International travellers have accepted these rules without demur for decades. That a vocal minority are now making a fuss over an identical requirement to present proof of vaccination against Covid-19 – condemning it as an unconscionable infringement of their personal liberty – demonstrates just how weirdly Covid is making some people think and act.
Others, even more out of sync with logic and ethics, are shrugging-off the international “No Jab-No Fly” rules, but objecting fiercely to the idea of having to present a vaccination passport domestically. The idea that citizens unable to present a valid vaccination passport might be refused entry to shops and offices, factories and sports stadia, strikes these Covid dissidents as entirely unacceptable.
That the introduction of domestic vaccination passports poses challenges is indisputable, but the suggestion that the rationales for mandating the vaccination of international travellers, and ordinary citizens, differ in any substantial way, is risible. Why are foreign governments insisting that people wishing to enter their country must present proof of vaccination and non-infection? Because they are committed to keeping their people safe. Why will your own government soon be requiring you to present a vaccination passport before entering a pub or a restaurant? The answer is exactly the same. Because it, too, is committed to keeping its citizens safe.
What these Covid dissidents should be required to explain is why they refuse to be vaccinated. Epidemiologists are united in their advice that the larger the percentage of vaccinated persons becomes, the greater the probability that, even in the unlikely event of becoming infected, a vaccinated person’s chances of becoming seriously ill are extremely low. What credible explanation for not being vaccinated could they possible offer?
They certainly cannot advance the idea that the vaccine (especially the Pfizer vaccine used in New Zealand) is unsafe. Tens-of-millions of doses have been administered worldwide without incident. The number of adverse reactions is so tiny that the English language struggles to produce the right word. Infinitesimal is a good start, but a better way to put it is to say that a person is much more likely to be struck several times by lightening than they are to experience serious negative side-effects from a Covid-19 jab.
At this point Covid dissidents could start mumbling about microchips, 5G and Bill Gates’ diabolical plans for world domination – thereby ruling themselves out of contention as persons whose objections warrant serious consideration. Or, they could simply assert their rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990). Section 11 of the Act clearly states that: “Everyone has the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment.”
This is an important human right and the New Zealand Government is bound to uphold it. The problem for the Covid dissidents, however, is that no one – least of all the Government – is proposing to seize them by force, strap them to a chair, and inject them with a double-dose of the Pfizer vaccine. By issuing vaccination passports the state is merely declaring that if an individual asserts his or her right to refuse to accept this particular form of medical treatment, then the community will be empowered to assert its right to protect itself from those who refuse to take the fight against Covid-19 seriously.
On a personal note, and as someone heavily invested ideologically in the NZ Bill of Rights Act – most particularly its guarantees of freedom of thought and freedom of expression – my stance on vaccination passports stands open to challenge. By way of rejoinder, I would argue that no human right is absolute. As the familiar adage goes: “Freedom of Speech does not give one the right to cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre.” Those who refuse to be vaccinated in the midst of a global pandemic may, in my opinion, reasonably be accused of behaving with the same reckless disregard for the welfare (and rights) of others as the reprobate who shouts ‘Fire!’
It is possible, of course, that Covid dissidents may also have heavy ideological investments. Given that New Zealand is in the grip of an epidemiological crisis which can be ameliorated to a considerable degree by as many people as possible being vaccinated, it is difficult to conceive of any ethical ideological argument that could be mounted against vaccination. The only ideological system which fits the bill is Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” – the extreme libertarian doctrine which repudiates entirely the notion that human-beings are obligated to help one another. Perhaps the most that can be said for these Objectivist objections is that although Rand’s followers are free to think such thoughts, the rest of humanity is equally free to protect themselves from their practical expression.
The only serious objection offered against the introduction of vaccination passports is that it could lead to a dangerous worsening in race relations. While Māori vaccination rates (particularly those of young Māori) lag behind the rest of the New Zealand population, the situation could easily arise of a big majority of the population happily flashing their vaccination passports at their places of work (“No Jab, No Job!”) and recreation – not to mention pharmacies and supermarkets – while young, unvaccinated Māori, lacking passports, are denied entry. That would be a recipe for real injustice – and big trouble.
A concerted effort must, therefore, be made by the Government, the Ministry of Health and Iwi service organisations of all kinds, to lift the rate of Māori vaccination as swiftly as possible. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that until this huge potential difficulty has been resolved – along with the problem of finding an effective means of addressing the needs of those with medical conditions that preclude vaccination – the roll out of vaccination passports should be delayed.
But, any delay cannot afford to be a long one. New Zealanders won’t stand for it. The Delta variant of Covid-19 has thrown the country’s hitherto highly effective “Elimination Strategy” into doubt. Aucklanders are wearying rapidly of Level 4 Lockdown. More and more, Kiwis are looking to vaccination for salvation. Realistically, that means 90% to 95% of the adult population (at the very least) getting the double (or triple) jab.
Moreover, once they’ve got it, and the vaccination passport to prove it, they will not want to see free-riders making a mockery of their public-spirited contribution to the general welfare. Aotearoa-New Zealand has never been a libertarian nation. Politically, Kiwis are much more likely to echo the words of the Roman statesman, Cicero, who famously declared:
Salus populi suprema lex esto
The safety of the people shall be the highest law.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.