Dr Liz Gordon: The psychology of Covid myths


I have written before about how people come to believe ‘fake news’, even if such beliefs are counter to all evidence and more, importantly, harmful to the believer.  I think my first foray down this road was Kangen water. The claim is that when water is given an alkaline, rather than an acidic, profile, it has huge health benefits.  It can cure cancer, certainly measles (no need for a jab), causes weight loss and all around good health.  To get your own Kangen water, which you can then sell on via a Tupperware model, all you need to do is invest around $4500 in your own flash-looking electrolysis machine.

The trouble with it is that it is totally fake news. Everything is acidified when it hits the stomach, whether it starts out alkaline or not.  There is no science supporting any health benefits.  It was a big thing among poor Pacific communities a few years ago, people searching for a leg up out of their difficult lives.

Covid jab myths are exactly the same as Kangen water myths, but there are more of them.  Oh my goodness, there are so many! Starting with the fake news view that Covid 19 does not exist, or is just flu, that the injection will harm you or kill you, will give you cancer, contains a microchip so that Google can control you, is not safe, is worse than the disease, negates your life insurance if you die and yadda, yadda, yadda. If God wants you to be protected, he will provide.

We have known all along that 20% of people are likely to be vaccine hesitant.  Some time ago the numbers were higher.  Oddly enough, the reality that your government is now going to let the virus into the community has sharpened some minds to the likelihood and a portion of refusers have now changed their minds.  I particularly enjoyed some of these people being interviewed on super vax Saturday, recounting how when they saw that others around them were not getting sick from the jab, they felt it might be safe for them. Good deduction!

The incentives got lots of people over the line. Free food, good music, a brief sit-down in business class on a plane.  More particularly, I think some of the telethon-type atmosphere did turn around the fear into something better.

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There are three matters which are going to make problematic much in the way of further progress.  The first is that the least successful part of the vax weekend was enrolling first-jab people. The primary goal was to get people into the system with their first jab, but two out of three who turned up were second-jabbers.  The now leaves a residue of around 15% of eligible people (around 600,000 people) with no jab. That’s a lot of vulnerable people, and Māori appear to lag behind, and yet are most vulnerable to the virus.

The second issue with super weekend was that the most deprived and most rural areas were, by and large, at the bottom of the ‘success’ list. Tairawhiti, Whanganui, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Waikato in particular were particular targets that failed to fire. The MOH is not so good at regional responses, but it is clear they are needed, in those areas and others.

The third point is reaching the hard core of opposition. Mostly this is people who believe that their ‘freedom’ is being impinged by Covid in general, and the vaccination, mask and other mandates aimed at preventing the spread of the disease, in particular. I wrote about these freedom protestors three blogs ago, and will not repeat myself.

I am tempted to say put a vaccine station and lots of (contingent on vaccine) free food at the next protest, but that won’t work.  People motivated enough to come to a protest will not be swayed by the delectable smells of street food.  There could be violence: the burger battle, the charge of the fish and chip brigade, bacon buttie biffing.  (Sorry, strayed from the point a little, imagining culinary conflicts).

To get to the 90%, which will give us reasonable protection against what appears to be the inevitable opening up before Christmas, at least 200,000 more first doses need to be given pronto.  Ideally, two more super Saturdays worth of jabbing, incentives and promotion, focused on the most deprived areas and bringing it to the people. I don’t know if it can be done, but it is definitely worth the effort trying.

That leaves 400,000, probably among our most vulnerable citizens, undefended when the virus is unleashed on the country. It may only be 10% of the eligible population but the numbers are shockingly high.

Let’s hope the government is well geared up with good plans when it unveils the rest of the roadmap on Friday.


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.


  1. I’ve got no issues with even paying people to vaccinate if that’s what it takes BUT… at some point in the very near future, i.e. next week, the brakes must come off because the rest of the country, that is the vast majority, cannot sit frozen until one day in the never never, these people who through ignorance, fear, stupidity or bloody mindedness decide they just might get a vaccination. It simply is not going to happen.

    They, for now, can sit safely in the bubble of lockdowns not having to decide. There is no negative consequences for holding the country to ransom for their ignorance.

    The no vax option cannot continue because the rest of us people will just do what we need to do in defiance of any rules. Economically we can’t sustain locking the country down, most especially Auckland and politically, these restrictions are on borrowed time as it is.

    But after yesterday’s bumbling announcement of an announcement I worry our government doesn’t have a plan, rather a fatalistic approach of taking us where what has already occurred sends us.

  2. The Labour Caucus was actually “playing against type” when for a few glorious weeks during 2020 with COVID 1, Public Health was put before private profit. NZ actually beat COVID for a brief period until travel bubbles, essential workers, right to returns, and MIQ entered the equation.

    Grant Robertson never went whole hog against capital, feeding billions of dollars through employers on a high trust model rather than direct to workers bank accounts via IRD, even instituting a second tier benefit for poor wee middle class lambs so they did not have to encounter the sadistic reality of WINZ/MSD as working class people do.

    Push back from corporates is one thing, but the whinging from SMEs, small business and self employed–basically the sizeable NZ petit bourgeiousie–has been unrelenting and has obviously finally had an effect. The poor and alienated stories have been largely buried until the disparity in vaccination rates became clear and then they get demonised! Yes the children of Roger’n’Ruth, from the generation discarded by macro economic decisions beyond their control in the 80s & 90s, are copping it yet again.

    In reality a number of people will just live a personal Level 4 kind of life, rarely going out and being hyper vigilant with their contacts.

  3. Vaccines are supposedly taken to prevent someone from contracting a disease. Therefore if you have had your covid-19 vaccine then it is none of your business if another person, a stranger, has had it. That is their personal and private choice and the risks are to themselves alone. Real doctors know this and accept they cannot ethically force procedures onto patients. The unvaccinated are not a threat to the public as some degenerates are insisting and in fact the double (triple, quadruple) jabbed are equally as likely to spread any disease, not just this particular coronavirus they are supposedly now immune to. The bigger point is that health and government officials continue to play this ridiculous game of trying to treat every new mutation and strain of disease as an end of days event (New Zealand has now taken over Australia as the most totalitarian society in the world; Victoria will suddenly cease to be a dictatorship after an arbitrary 70% vaccination rate, New Zealand continues to hold on to a fantasy that more than 90% is realistic). This virtuous derangement turned hysteria has got nothing to do will public health, it is political, as in the case of helicopter mummy Jacinda Ardern holding Auckland to ransom over a mild threat that passed nearly two years ago (more disgustingly using medicine as an excuse to turn people on each other in order to increase vaccination numbers, declaring that increasing the proportion of vaccinated people increases our civil liberties, or that segregating the population according to their private medical status so that those who take an arbitrary inoculation for a legacy disease which only affects the elderly are assured freedoms), or it is ideological, where a large swath of the population have declared themselves Covid overlords and try to win a stupid Covid debate by denigrating, harassing, propagandising and coercing their fellow citizens into being injected by someone dressed in a clown suit in a suburban carpark. The vaccinated have played their hand, they are now part of the chosen ones with their public health status, identity cards, open air medical procedures and miniscule freedoms. Their government now owns them and can implement vaccine orders on behalf of big pharma whenever they want. At least those who choose not to get vaccinated for this strain of disease, this one viral species which will keep mutating forever, have still got their freedom of choice. And considering the utter pseudoscience spewing forth daily from these doomsday tele-evangelist epidemiologists, they still have their integrity as well.

    • Your comment reads like you’re a bit grumpy Ethan. I guess you’re not vaccinated and I certainly don’t care what you do. The Government doesn’t particularly care about you or the unvaccinated either, but they do care and are worried about Hospitals not being able to cope as has been shown overseas. I guess if you do get really ill and require a hospital bed you’ll turn it down then.

      • Exactly! I tuned out at “personal choice”. Problem is the health system won’t discriminate on vax status. Stay healthy!

    • Good luck with that approach–and keep out of my residential property–I ask all persons now, friend, foe or unknown, their vaccination status.

    • I didn’t mind one little bit when certain media hosts in the US ranted their anti-vax gospel and freedom of choice and died from Covid. They enthusiastically embraced that freedom of choice and were quite entitled to it. The same as those who lived by every precious words they heard over their radios or on their tv form those hosts and also succumbed.

    • Try using real evidence instead of making things up if you want people to believe you. Just because you think something or there is a group on the internet saying something is not evidence that it is true.

    • The epitaph says it all and reminds me of a similar one Spike Milligan had on his headstone…” I told you I was ill”.
      Sadly Ethan is woke.

  4. A timely piece Liz – ang good to remind readers that fake news, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, the infodemic, the whole post-truth thing, has been a part of the wider Covid-19 discourse for some time.

    Here’s something to add from an interdisciplinary research team associated with The Disinformation Project (University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Matatini). Pre vaccination data collection and analysis.


    It’s pleasing to see some ‘science’ behind the exposure of fake news and the like, but no doubt some will say it’s simply part of the ‘dominant’ discourse. I don’t think so but I suspect, using a different lens, other researchers /other investigations on the discourse / narratives surrounding Covid-19 (in particular AO/NZ) might well come up with different findings, different conclusions. But a pretty good beginning I thought. And more to come I suspect.

  5. Masks work/don’t work. We won’t see a vaccine for 10 years. 2 weeks to flatten the curve. We won’t force vaccines. Efficacy 98%, oh wait 90%, we actually mean much less. No, no take a booster. Double jabbed now means unvaccinated. Double jabbed posing risks to triple jabbed. We actually meant all along that jabbed means you can transmit and get but it’s not as bad. War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Pangolins. It’s in the ice cream, the zoo animals. Horse toothpaste. Censor dissent. Unperson disagreeable doctors and scientists. Take big pharma advertising dollars. Operation warp speed. Don’t question.

  6. Advice changes as we learn more during an evolving situation. That is the very nature of science. Observations inform decisions. Vaccine efficacy may change as more is learnt about it, but any efficacy is better than no vaccine. Boosters may or may not be needed, we’re finding that out as observations are made, but that doesn’t mean the vaccine is not working or effective currently. It was made clear very early on that nobody knew if vaccinated people could transmit or not, but that doesn’t invalidate the effectiveness of the vaccine for the vaxinated person. People should understand the reasoning behind these changes rather than just reading headlines. Or listen to someone that is an expert and does understand these things.

    • Some people don’t understand Brad and sadly like the comment above you some don’t want too due their style of hard right politics. If this was a right wing government they’d be arguing profoundly for the vaccine and the covid response message would be smooth as a babies bottom…place tui ad here.

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