Branko Marcetic: Lessons from the anti-vaccine protests

Branko Marcetic: Lessons from the anti-vaccine protests

For those on the left and also distrustful of authority, how do we deal with the rising protests against Covid measures? Branko Marcetic has studied the dynamics of what’s going on in numerous countries and says we’ve got a number of important lessons to learn to combat worrying developments.


Thanks to the disruptions of the last year and a half, I’ve had the debatable fortune to experience the pandemic in several different countries, some of it home in New Zealand, some of it in Canada and the United States. So it’s with some dismay I’ve watched as trends I’ve seen in North America have percolated to our shores, embodied by this past week’s anti-vaccine-and-lockdown protests at the Beehive.

Our geographic position means global trends usually take a little while to get to New Zealand at the best of times, and the government’s up-to-now capable handling of the pandemic has made that even more true for some of the conflicts and controversies that European and American societies have already had to navigate. As New Zealand continues sailing into uncharted waters in the weeks and months ahead, here are some lessons, for both right and left, I’ve taken away from covering this stuff overseas. First, for the right:

  1. Vaccine mandates are an appropriate emergency measure

As a staunch advocate for civil liberties, I’m broadly sympathetic to the objections of some of the anti-mandate protesters and those Kiwis more quietly grumbling about being forced to vaccinate. Bodily integrity — the right not to have something foreign stuck into your body against your will — is fundamental in a free society. I find the drug-testing of welfare beneficiaries and job-seekers outrageous, not to mention the horror of medical experimentation, which we know all too well in New Zealand. Should it come, we should all vehemently oppose any attempt to use the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic as a precedent to erode Kiwis’ right to their bodily autonomy in the future.

But we also already accept a variety of arguably worse government violations of our civil liberties to combat things that are far, far less deadly than the coronavirus. Remember that since last decade, our MPs have taken the extraordinary step of letting the GCSB — the spy agency meant to target foreigners, but had illegally spied on Kiwis over the course of a decade — spy on New Zealanders, making it even easier in 2017 with little to no controversy. Beyond this, as we speak, every Kiwi’s online activities are being hoovered up and stored by the NSA’s XKeyscore program, which are then made available for access to the entire Five Eyes spy network — with our government being one of those “eyes.”

Besides this, Parliament has also given the SIS, our domestic spy agency, the power to spy on people without a warrant, we know that the agency takes data from banks, Auckland CCTV cameras, and Customs (having illegally accessed this data for 19 years), and there’s talk of handing the agency even more power to mine and access our intimate personal data. Meanwhile, the government has sicced Facebook spying technology on visitors to government websites, and our police have been illegally taking photos of young Maori kids, and taking over people’s social media and email accounts to gather personal information. That last story came out the same week of these protests.

Almost all of this has been done to combat terrorism, even though its success rate has been mixed at best. But aside from the horrific Christchurch attack — which was only as deadly as it was because inadequate gun laws — the handful of terrorist attacks in New Zealand over the past 70 years have killed next to no one. Covid, by contrast, has already killed 33 Kiwis, including five in the last week alone, and we’ve seen in countries like the US what can happen if it spreads through an unvaccinated or semi-vaccinated population: thousands of thousands of deaths, and an overwhelmed health sector, leading to yet more deaths for those who can’t get treatment.

If you’re willing to accept all manner of invasive measures curbing civil liberties to combat terrorism, why object only to this one, which is combating a vastly greater threat to life, is only being rolled out in a once-in-a-century emergency, and is actually successful at defusing the threat it’s aimed against?

  1. Vaccine mandates are not a Nazi policy — they’re the opposite

Besides being offensive, the comparisons of pandemic-fighting measures like vaccine mandates to the policies of Nazi Germany are also just plain historically wrong. Hitler and the Nazis were the ones who repealed compulsory vaccination in Germany.

The historical record is very clear, as outlined by Malte Thiessen, head of the LWL Institute for Westphalian Regional History. After decades of compulsory vaccination for babies and men entering the military, and regular re-vaccination for kids, the German people increasingly tired of the idea, and while the law was still on the books when Hitler came to power, the previous Weimar government hadn’t pursued it in practice for years.

Rather than get the programme going again, as you’d assume he would’ve from the signs and rhetoric of protesters on Wednesday, Hitler moved to get rid of the policy entirely. The Nazis at first kept the Weimar government’s inconsistent enforcement of the law, then through the 1930s got rid of various vaccine requirements, such as for kids entering school, finally changing the law in 1940 to make “elasticity” the official policy. “The ‘Third Reich’ heralded the transition from coercion to voluntary action,” Thiessen writes.

In fact, while Hitler and the Nazis were avidly pro-vaccine for Germans, relying on propaganda and public education to persuade people into getting vaccinated instead, they were also passionately anti-vaccine when it came to the foreigners they wanted to exterminate. Hitler told his top Nazis in 1942 that “compulsory vaccination will be confined to Germans alone” in territories they conquered, because it was “stupid to thrust happiness upon people against their wishes,” and because implementing it would mean “an enormous increase in local populations.” One of those top-ranking Nazis, Martin Bormann, explained the same year:

The Slavs are to work for us. Insofar as we don’t need them, they may die. Therefore compulsory vaccination and German health services are superfluous. The fertility of the Slavs is undesirable.

In other words, anti-vaccination was central to the evil plans of the Nazis, because they understood an unvaccinated population was one that would die more easily.

Anyone is free, of course, to continue protesting the vaccines. But if you’re going to take a stance on vaccine mandates based on what Hitler did or didn’t do, you should probably be aware his policy was precisely the one Wednesday’s protesters were demanding.

There’s food for thought for Kiwis who lean liberal or further left, too, and who were understandably horrified by what they saw this week:

3. Keep things in perspective

The prime minister’s been right to remind people that the crowd of thousands of protesters, while larger than any of the earlier protests against pandemic measures, are a small but loud blip in New Zealand society. Just under 80 percent of Kiwis are now fully vaccinated, and nearly 90 percent have gotten at least one shot, with the country making slow but steady progress on crossing the threshold of 90 percent fully vaccinated. Most Kiwis are happy to go along with the government’s policy if it means safety for them and their loved ones, and the return to a pre-pandemic normal.

Remember, too, the context for this eruption of anger against pandemic measures. Lockdowns are a necessary evil that have been unpleasant to endure everywhere they’ve been introduced, and that’s even more so in New Zealand, where they’ve tended to be especially strict. Besides financial stresses, lockdowns tend to exacerbate mental health and addiction crises, as well as increase suicidal feelings and family violence, all of which we’ve seen happen in New Zealand.

Then consider the fact that the country spent weeks on end in in this uniquely strict lockdown, with Aucklanders under stay-at-home orders for a staggering nearly three months. It’s little wonder frustrations are coming to a boil. Remember, too, that all of this is not new. You can find fear of and misinformation about vaccines, as well as opposition to compulsory vaccines, a long way back in New Zealand history.

Finally, it’s important to avoid fear-mongering and panic. Few Kiwis will feel good reading some of the vile messages directed at the prime minister by those who took part in the protest, or protesters making ugly threats, verbal and physical, against the media and MPs with ambitions to break into Parliament. But to the extent that these were representative of the entire 3,000-strong crowd, it’s useful to bear in mind talk doesn’t often translate into intent, especially when it comes to overheated political rhetoric, and even intent doesn’t translate into capability. And sure enough, for all the talk, there was no storming of Parliament — protesters even famously picked up a barricade they’d knocked over — and security was well prepared if anything of the sort did happen.

Those rushing to compare Wednesday to the US Capitol riot would do well to remember that event was a massive and avoidable security failure, with the US police ignoring repeated warnings and lacking the manpower and even working equipment to exercise proper crowd-control. There’s no reason that failure would or should be repeated here. A crowd showing up to the Beehive is by itself not enough to lead to its doors being breached, let alone the toppling of the government. New Zealand’s streets and Parliament itself have been the site of many an angry protest in the past and the country’s still standing.

4. Get at the root causes of people’s anger and confusion

As the news of the government’s plans to finally repeal the horrid three-strikes law reminds us, New Zealand has a tendency to sometimes import foolish and failed ideas from overseas. We saw this clearly in the protesters themselves, who wielded slogans and delusions ripped straight from their counterparts in the US. But we’re also seeing some of it in the liberal response to the event, which risks importing the most damaging aspects of the US culture war into New Zealand.

You can disagree with the protesters, even find their beliefs bizarre and concerning, without giving them the blanket mis-designation of white supremacists and terrorists. While some of the former were in attendance that day, it’s clear most of the protesters are simply politically confused and misinformed. (That label might also come as a surprise to the not-insignificant number of non-Pākehā who showed up).

The urge to label activists we disagree with “terrorists” is an unfortunate one that’s metastasised in US political discourse since the George W. Bush years, and which we should avoid poisoning our own with. If we’re going to take cues from events in the US, then we should look at what the result of this kind of overheated rhetoric has been there since January 6: the start of a domestic “war on terror” that’s been targeted at left-leaning protesters, sometimes purely over social media posts. We’ve hopefully not already forgotten which groups an enlarged national security state would target in New Zealand.

Left-leaning individuals typically take the correct position that people, including their beliefs and actions, are shaped and driven by their surroundings. Rather than simply demonise the people who came out on Wednesday, we should apply that thinking to them. There’s been a lot of discussion in the wake of the event about the role of misinformation in steering these people, another tendency largely imported from overseas. But misinformation has always been with us, and was arguably much worse in the past. The better question is what’s causing people to believe this misinformation, when millions of others don’t?

Sadly, with little data, we can’t say for sure, and so neither can we come up with a solution. Is it the harsh experience of the past months of lockdown? A collapse of trust in institutions among some? Socioeconomic factors? We know from studies of those arrested at the US Capitol riot that, alongside the members of Trump’s wealthy voter base, the attendees had a higher unemployment rate than the national figure at the time, and histories of debt, bankruptcy and other financial trouble. Could similar factors have played a role here? Unfortunately, we lack the data to say.

Despite the relative tranquillity of New Zealand’s pandemic experience, the country clearly isn’t immune from the issues the pandemic has laid bare everywhere else in the world. But New Zealand’s isolation did buy it time to learn some lessons from events overseas. Hopefully, we learn the right ones.


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.