A few thoughts on that Covid-19 Vaxathon.
First, it was a public relations triumph. Mainstream media obligingly gave it saturation coverage all weekend, unblushingly functioning as cheerleaders for the government’s attempt to make up some of the ground it had lost through complacency, poor or non-existent planning and incompetent management.
Whoever dreamed up the idea of invoking the spirit of Telethon, the televised money-raising extravaganzas of the 1970s, is a marketing genius. It was a case of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Those old enough to recall the Telethon phenomenon would have been smitten by nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time when New Zealanders loved to unite behind a worthy cause. For the majority of the population with no memories of that era, the event would have seemed a captivating novelty. For one day, the country was able to live out the fantasy that we really are a team of five million, united in pursuit of a common goal, rather than a polarised society in which minority interests are encouraged to compete for political favour and influence.
Suddenly the focus was conveniently shifted from the multiple failings of the government’s Covid-19 strategy – the delayed vaccine rollout, the MIQ fiascos, the mulish refusal to use GPs and pharmacies to accelerate the vaccination programme, the inexplicable reluctance to approve rapid testing – to the carnival-like atmosphere of the Vaxathon. Almost literally overnight, a cause of national anxiety became something to celebrate.
The record vaccination figure for the day was the subject of admiring headlines in left-leaning media (notably the Guardian and New York Times) around the world, reinforcing Jacinda Ardern’s global image as a politician who can do no wrong. But the headline figure of a triumphant 130,000 jabs disguised a more telling statistic.
I had to search hard in media reports to find any breakdown of the figures, but I eventually came across one in a Newshub report, tucked underneath a breathless list of all the “influencers” – such as Lorde, Taika Waititi, Patrick Gower, Jason Gunn, Robyn Malcolm and Benee – who turned out to amplify the vaccination message (and, it must be said, to burnish their own images in the process).
According to Newshub, by 5.30pm on Saturday a total of 124,117 jabs had been administered. But of those, 87,106 were second doses. Only 37,011 recipients – roughly one-third of the total – received their first injection.
I’m no epidemiologist, but it seems to me that this rather underwhelming figure suggests that while the Vaxathon was highly successful in reaching people who were already convinced of the need for the Pfizer jab (and were further incentivised by free food, entertainment and other treats), it was significantly less effective in immunising the substantial segment of the population that has been slow to come forward.
To put it another way, the cheerleaders and teams of vaxxers on Saturday were largely preaching to the converted – people whom it can be assumed were likely to get their second dose anyway. What should have been the priority target group appears to remain stubbornly vaccine-hesitant. That rather diminishes the Vaxathon’s effectiveness, but don’t expect to see that deflating statistic highlighted in any of the rah-rah news stories.
By pointing this out, I probably risk being dismissed as a churl, a killjoy and a party-pooper, but that’s only partly true. Of course it’s a good thing that all those people got vaccinated - but no one should be in any doubt that the Vaxathon was a giant PR stunt as well as a public health initiative.
Meanwhile, other issues continue to simmer away on the periphery of the Covid-19 crisis. Such as:
■ We still don’t know the identity of the two Auckland women who used false papers to break lockdown rules and visit multiple locations in Northland, and then compounded the offence by refusing to provide information on their movements, even after both tested positive for Covid-19.
Calls for them to be named and shamed have been disregarded by police and health authorities, in stark contrast to the treatment of (1) the privileged Auckland couple who incurred the fury of the nation when they flew to Wanaka, and (2) the two Auckland sex workers who went to Blenheim and were named when they appeared in court (one was even shown on national TV).
Neither do we know whether the Northland rule-breakers will be charged with any offence, as the accused were in both other cases. Why the discrepancies?
According to the Northern Advocate, police say it could be several weeks before a decision is made on whether to lay charges against the two. Police showed no such hesitancy in the other cases, which inevitably leads to the suspicion that they’re playing for time in the hope that public interest in the case of the Northland pair will abate. If so, why?
Ardern, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and health authorities have been evasive when asked about the Northland women. Meanwhile, persistent rumours continue to circulate about their supposed gang connections and their reason for travelling north. Inevitably, questions arise: are the women being protected? Again, if so, why? Such suspicions are bound to arise when the women's behaviour is hidden behind a dense smokescreen.
A quid-pro-quo kicks in when the government appeals to New Zealanders for their co-operation in fighting Covid-19. In return for its goodwill and not-inconsiderable sacrifice (especially in the case of locked-down Aucklanders), the public is entitled to be told the truth and to be assured that the rules are being applied consistently, even-handedly and transparently. That certainly can’t be said of the Northland case.
■ Speaking of inconsistency in the enforcement of the rules, why do gang funerals appear to be exempt from any form of control? Twice recently, gangs have brazenly flouted Covid-19 regulations relating to large gatherings. In one case, police belatedly took what looks like token action, making two arrests and impounding four vehicles after a procession of more than 120 cars travelled from Porirua to Plimmerton, with gang members hanging out of car windows and travelling illegally on the backs of utes. The local police commander, presumably trying to excuse his officers’ failure to enforce the law, lamely said that the majority of those taking part in the procession behaved within the rules. I’m left wondering whether the police would have acted at all had their hand not been forced by publicity.
In the other case, at Onehunga, police were nowhere to be seen, although they must have known the event was in progress. The noise from the motorbikes and cars taking part in the funeral procession was deafening. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the police made a considered decision to stay away. Too hard.
News coverage of both funerals was relatively low-key too, leading to the suspicion that media as well as the police are more comfortable going after soft targets – for example, Brian Tamaki and a house-full of idiotic North Shore party-goers – than the Mongrel Mob or the Head Hunters.
The gangs have decided, quite rationally, that they can defy the law with impunity, secure in the knowledge that if it comes to a show of strength, the police will blink first. The consequences hardly need to be spelled out. Public confidence in law enforcement will be undermined – and the longer police and the government allow the gangs to get away with it, the harder it will be to re-assert the rule of law.