The ‘team of five million’ is an important concept for getting Aotearoa through the pandemic. It implies that we are all in this together, and together we can fix it. The team approach is a strong statement of both political leadership and social cohesion.
We have seen what has happened in other countries when the political leadership has failed to articulate a clear approach that prioritises the wellbeing of the people over competing aims. Donald Trump’s complete failure of leadership led to a situation where many more people died than would otherwise have been necessary. It was recently calculated that the Covid pandemic knocked a whole year off the life expectancy of Americans in 2020. There are still 2-3,000 deaths from Covid each day in the States.
Bolsonaro In Brazil has overseen the deaths of a quarter of a million of his compatriots from the disease, all the time denying its existence. The virus still rages there, with around 1,500 deaths per day.
New Zealand’s approach has been widely praised internationally, and rightly so. Yet our team of five million is by no means a cohesive whole. We see the gaps everywhere. Last week, the site of the first vaccines being delivered to border workers in Aotearoa was picketed by a group of about 100 people. As well as anti-vaxxers, there are Covid deniers, the racist and Islamophobic right, Incels, and a range of other movement. Paul Spoonley, who studies far right groups in New Zealand for years, noted this week that the internet was influencing a “small but growing” group in the community.
And such a story it tells. These non-team players have been programmed on a different channel to the rest of us. They have been taught that the virus does not exist but is merely an establishment tool to reduce our human freedoms. The virus will kill our babies and contains a microchip to control us. Women are out to subjugate men, Islam people to replace white people, Jewish people to take everything we have, various international organisations to put their own agendas in place and oh yes, left wing people are running paedophile rings.
Most of these conspiracy theories do not originate from Aotearoa but this does not make them less real for their believers. And they have their local slants, humans being so readily inventive. Siouxsie Wiles, communicator extraordinaire (and, I hope, awarded New Zealander of the Year next month) is loved by many for her fantastic work but has also spoken of the death threats she has received. And one death threat trumps quite a lot of accolades. Same for Jacinda Ardern, who is subject to significant hate speech.
We cannot pretend these people do not matter. Many are programmed to fight for what they believe in, and that it is their very human freedoms that are at risk. Nobody wants to be slaves. We must not forget that the Mosque shootings were carried out by a lone individual. We can expect more social harm over time, even if it is a simple refusal to have the vaccine.
None of us know the world exactly as it is. We all see it through the lens of our preconceptions, beliefs and knowledge forms. And external forces such as the media and communications, of course. These radicalised groups hold some beliefs but can take on others. As Chris Trotter points out, they have no clear leadership and direction in Aotearoa at present. Come the leader, come the day, this growing group is potentially an army for some integrated purpose, yet to be unfolded. And there, as Hamlet is wont to say, is the rub.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.