The 1918 influenza tore through Māori communities. Anti-vaxxers risk this again | Morgan Godfery

Some of New Zealand’s anti-vaxxers say that the Covid vaccine is a form of 21st-century colonialism – it’s not

One thing that characterises the typical anti-vaxxer, other than being wrong, is their short attention span.

In the space of a single conversation the enemy can range from 5G, the electromagnetic spectrum that can apparently spread biological matter as well as a phone signal, to Bill Gates, the Microsoft (“microchip”) billionaire allegedly at the centre of a nexus to command and control the world populace. In New Zealand, anti-vaxxers take this shopping list of modern hazards and foreign enemies and add their own local products. In one conspiracy prime minister Jacinda Ardern is part of an international plot to microchip New Zealanders using the Pfizer vaccine as the vector. Her reward? The UN secretary generalship.

This logical leap – from mobile phone towers to “Secretary General Ardern” – is so transparently stupid it’s scarcely worth engaging with. But one argument New Zealand’s anti-vaxxers deploy is worth discrediting: that the vaccine is a form of 21st-century colonialism. In one anti-vax protest this week, where a small mob of protesters were gathering in Whanganui to seemingly run the prime minister out of town, tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flags were flying from the front. In a similar protest in Waitangi the week before some participants were flying the He Whakaputanga flag, the country’s pre-colonial banner. The implication was that opposing the vaccine is somehow an expression of Māori sovereignty.

It’s not. What was striking about the “protest” at Waitangi was that, at the same time as anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown types were gathering to share their grievances, one of the great veterans of the struggle for Māori sovereignty – Hone Harawira – was manning the Northland borders to prevent the protesters from breaching Ngapuhi territory and putting its people at risk. That same night Harawira was online with another of the great veterans of the sovereignty struggle, Tame Iti, to encourage Māori to get vaccinated. Tina Ngata from the East Coast, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer from the West Coast, and the vast majority of Māori sovereignty activists in between are pro-vaccination.

What, then, does this make a Māori anti-vaxxer when the vast majority of Māori sovereignty activists oppose you?

Anti-vaxxers – whether Māori or non-Māori – often fall back on their “individual right to choose”. That makes modest sense. Of course it’s your choice whether to take the vaccine or take your chances with the virus. But that language – individual right to choose – strikes as foreign to the Māori world.

We derive our personhood from our whakapapa – ancestry – and the complex web of privileges and obligations it confers. We owe obligations, for example, to our ancestors. If we are to claim mana tupuna – authority deriving from our ancestors – we must discharge our obligations to care for their land and waterways. That can, in turn, confer the privileges of mana whenua – the authority to make collective decisions in the use and care of land – and mana moana – the authority to make collective decisions in the use and care of water.

Close readers might note the particular terms in the preceding sentence: mana whenua and mana moana don’t confer the right to make an “individual” decision “over” land or water. In the western philosophical tradition rights are often inherent to the individual. But in Māori philosophies rights are derived from our collective relationships. We inherit rights from our ancestors – and in many cases our land and waterways – but with those same rights come obligations. Chief among those obligations is the care and protection of children. For whakapapa to survive and thrive it requires the young.

This is where anti-vaxxers are, to frame it as bluntly, anti-Māori. The 1918 influenza pandemic ripped through Māori communities. According to one estimate Māori were eight times more likely to contract and die from the virus as Pakeha. The anti-vaxxers who in 2021 discourage Māori from taking the vaccine risk repeating this history. If Māori vaccination rates remain as low as they are, and vaccination rates for other groups rapidly approach 90% and above, Covid-19 will become a virus for brown people. In particular, brown children who – in this moment – cannot get the vaccine. In the United States children’s hospitals and paediatric intensive care units are overwhelmed as the virus spreads rapidly through the unvaccinated.

This is inconsistent with the obligation to care for and protect children. And it makes a mockery of the tino rangatiratanga and He Whakaputanga flags. The surest, and the safest, way to stop the spread of Covid-19 is for eligible adults to get the vaccine.

Anti-vaxxers often fancy themselves as the only people who see the world for what it is. A scam, a conspiracy. But, in truth, they are the scammers and the conspiracists. And in time, the last vectors left for the virus to spread.


Morgan Godfery

The GuardianTramp

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