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Thorny conversations are certain to happen at family gatherings this Christmas.
Have you been vaccinated against Covid-19? Why? Why not?
This will be enough to create a minefield where people will tread on explosive subjects such as individual rights, personal responsibility, collective good, fear, selflessness, politics, liberty and matters of conscience. Fallout from such discussions will inevitably include exasperation, indignation and bewilderment.
Yet, we encourage these conversations and suggest it is a good idea to start them before the tinsel is hung, guests arrive and the barbecue is fired up.
It is hard to predict how much damage the stubborn Delta variant of Covid-19 will wreak in the coming weeks. By Christmas, it may well have arrived in the South Island, penetrated southern rural communities and be well placed to find more victims.
Alternatively, the outbreak that has been thriving in Auckland may have been somewhat contained.
What we can be sure of is Covid-19 will remain for some time an ongoing threat requiring a robust response. Lockdowns can only be a short-term solution. The virus has been a nimble foe. It is a common enemy for us all.
By Christmas, many people will have chosen, or essentially been compelled, to arm themselves against the threat by getting vaccinated. Others will have chosen to remain basically defenceless. A question the latter group might be encouraged to ask themselves is whether this could put loved ones in harm’s way. They might further ponder whether holding out against vaccination is helpful for their neighbourhood cafe, church, sports club and nearest hospital.
It should be conceded, however, scepticism is necessary for a healthy democracy. Governments sometimes lie to the people. Conspiracies do happen. More often, politicians will do everything they can to avoid admitting mistakes.
Experts can be wrong. Science has sometimes been slow to catch up with what turns out to be obvious reality.
One big tension aligned to the pandemic response is between public health and individual freedoms. We have, of course, been here before when debating whether people should have to wear seatbelts in cars, cyclists should be required to wear helmets and when water fluoridation is favoured, or smokefree environments.
New Zealand would be a profoundly sick society if military conscription, state use of emergency powers, imposition of lockdowns or bullying teachers and health workers into getting vaccinated were entirely uncontroversial. Conversely, it would be a poorer place if hospital intensive care units were fuller than they needed to be. It is also important to keep in mind high levels of vaccination-induced immunity in the population reduces risks for vulnerable people, such as those with compromised immune systems.
The Government has been pushing to get at least 90% of eligible New Zealanders vaccinated and a national campaign will be prominent tomorrow.
Making sure everyone can get access to the vaccine as easily as possible is one challenge. Wariness of the vaccine, sometimes fuelled by what people have heard or read, is another. Users of social media need to know algorithms are not driven by what is true.
Dr Losa Moata'ane, from the University of Otago, is one healthcare professional who encourages people to consider which sources are trustworthy. Her colleague Prof James Ussher, an immunologist, says time is running out to get vaccinated before the virus circulates more widely.
Pressure on the unvaccinated is necessary, he says.
At the very least, challenging conversations are called for. Some questions are best asked before Christmas. Is it considerate if people turn up to a gathering unvaccinated?
Should our whanau ask people intending to come to consider getting vaccinated to shore up the safety of everyone?
We encourage people who are yet to be vaccinated to consider the magnitude of benefits that flow to a highly vaccinated population. We suggest the science is compelling for anybody prepared to put aside some preconceptions. For those who haven’t quite got around to getting the jab, now is the time.