The Front Page: The coming Covid 19 Omicron vaccination mandate, masking tension

As Covid-19 restrictions drop on Monday next week, New Zealanders will not only have to learn to live with the virus, but also each other.

The removal of vaccine and mandate requirements means that anti-vaxxers and vaxxers, mask wearers and anti-maskers will start to occupy the same spaces.

This all comes at a time when New Zealand’s mortality rate has surpassed that of the United States for the first time since the pandemic began – setting the scene for tense interactions in the coming weeks and months.

Senior Herald writer Simon Wilson tells the Front Page podcast today that while it’s tempting to dismiss the unvaxxed as a small group of outliers, this doesn’t stack up in reality.

“It’s easy to think that the divide between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed is misrepresented because one greatly outnumbers the other, but there are a vast number of people who haven’t had their booster,” he says.

“One of the problems I think we have is that we’ve used this phrase ‘fully vaxxed’ to mean twice vaccinated when it’s very obvious that fully vaxxed means boosted. That’s what we should be counting, putting the priority on and that’s what our vaccine passes should show as well.”

Much like the epidemiologist Rod Jackson, Wilson believes vaccine passes could still be used to give the triple vaxxed access to events, but concedes this is a hard sell to the public.

“The fundamental issue for the Government is that they’ve got to take the mass of popular will with them.We have to buy into the plan or it’s just not going to work… If we had the tighter restrictions that [Rod] is calling for and people ignore them, then that creates a worse outcome.”

The messaging has now shifted to focus on personal responsibility, placing the onus of New Zealanders to take steps to protect the most vulnerable among us – and this is really where the tension will arise.

There are those in society who will now prioritise social distancing, mask-wearing and other steps to limit the spread – but there are also others who won’t do that.

“I went to a political event on Sunday evening held at an indoor-outdoor venue,” says Wilson.

“It was really interesting to see the media were the only people wearing masks there, and we got sneered at. I just thought, well, we’re going to have to keep doing this and we’re going to have to get used to it.”

This divide isn’t only going to affect the media. Wilson also captures the complexity of the tension in an anecdote about recently attending a rugby match, where only some of the attendees were wearing masks.

Sporting events, supermarkets, restaurants and concerts are all venues now where this uneasy tension has the potential of pitting opposing political narratives against each.

Which is all to say that learning to live with Covid is set to be a messy journey for all of us.

The Front Page is a new daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald,available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

• You can follow the podcast at nzherald.co.nz, iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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