Leading NZ newspaper warns nation against complacency over covid

NZ covid vaccination centre at the Atrium, Auckland
A New Zealand covid vaccination centre at the Atrium in downtown Auckland ... government criticised over its communication strategy and failure to counter a disinformation campaign. Image: David Robie/APR

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

New Zealand’s leading daily newspaper has warned the country against complacency over the covid-19 pandemic and to look to Fiji for an example of how things can easily go wrong.

In an editorial today, The New Zealand Herald has also criticised the government over its communication strategy and failure to counter a disinformation campaign threatening the national vaccination rollout.

“Complacency is our greatest enemy, particularly while the director-general of health continues to report no community transmissions in his regular briefings and with just 5 percent of the population having received a second vaccine shot,” said the Herald.

“Fiji has discovered geographical isolation is not enough to avoid the increased transmissible variants of covid. Vigilance and adherence to official advice remains crucial as the best mechanism we have to the defeating this damned thing.

“Raising our prevention and contact tracing game after it has arrived is too late.”

From early on in the covid-19 pandemic, it was obvious that consistent communication was essential for New Zealanders to maintain compliance with key measures to limit transmission of the virus, said the newspaper.

“Now we know ‘influencers’ were deployed in Auckland’s March [2020] lockdown to push messages into social media as the government fretted about online posts undermining the pandemic response,” the Herald said.

Jeopardising NZ’s response
“It appears it was thought overly harsh critics condemning infected people for not self-isolating could truly jeopardise the country’s response. A newly released Cabinet paper said ‘social licence’ was crucial to a strong covid-19 response.

“Such hostility could undermine the overall pandemic response, wrote covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. ‘Public reaction to particular individuals who have not used the covid-19 Tracer app or otherwise failed to follow good practices suggests a possible erosion of this.’

“So, the Government sought help from social media figures who were deemed to have sway in Māori, Pacific, Indian and youth communities. Hosts from radio stations Tarana, Flava, The Edge and Hauraki subsequently posted reassuring photos and messages, using the campaign’s hashtag #stayinforit.

“Contrast this social media influencing tactic with the lack of action around countering misinformation on the vaccine.

“Most will have by now seen or heard of the leaflets put in mailboxes in a concerted campaign to raise unfounded fears about the vaccine and undermine the protection offered by mass immunity.

“The flyer was produced and distributed by a group called Voices for Freedom. Co-founder Claire Deeks ran as a candidate for Advance New Zealand at the last election, and was third on the party list.

“The group claimed to be putting out two million flyers to coincide with the government’s vaccine campaign.”

"Voices of Freedom" disinformation flyer
The New Zealand Herald editorial condemns covid disinformation undermining the NZ vaccine rollout such as this flyer from the so-called “Voices of Freedom” movement widely distributed to homes. Image: David Robie/APR

Information investigation
The Herald noted how investigative journalist David Fisher had sought any communications about what government agencies might do to address the false claims being disseminated about the vaccine and was told “the information does not exist”.

“For all its efforts and expense, Voices for Freedom failed to register as a threat.”

The government itself had not always been clear in all its communications, with some “casual contacts” of positive cases being upgraded to “casual plus” without announcement or explanation in March this year, the newspaper said.

“The Prime Minister was also accused of neglecting her own advice to ‘be kind’ when she publicly criticised a covid-infected person who continued to work at a KFC store.

“Ultimately, the government is well aware the greatest risk is the public passively drifting off the necessary precautions rather than active resistance.”

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