Hasn't the world been a confusing place lately? There's a global pandemic on; some countries are "opening up" while others remain protective. People flock to cafes to catch up with friends, while in nearby hospitals exhausted doctors intubate and ventilate as they have been doing for months. This last sentence applies to much of the "developed world" - it will be our reality too, soon enough.
The ground is shifting for so many people, through lockdowns, level changes and hope swinging to fear and then back to hope. Even words are affected by seismic shifts. Words like "science", "evidence" and "research' – concepts that underpin my work in healthcare – are now being weaponised. When "doctors speaking out with science" do anything but, I feel the world becoming less stable.
And what about that word "freedom"? If you, like me, watched aghast as maskless crowds invaded parks and squares, waving signs and demanding we set a date for "liberation"; if you've suddenly felt unsure when a colleague starts talking about "my rights"; then you're not alone. We are a team of five million that is fracturing.
At the start of this pandemic (which seems an awfully long time ago but was only last year) it was observed that societies that stuck together and helped the most vulnerable would survive the best. This has turned out to be true. It's not a competition, but Aotearoa's response has shown up more wealthy governments with better-funded healthcare – because we cared enough about each other.
The word "freedom" has always had different meanings for different groups. For some it means a group of people asserting their right to control their own destiny. The fight against slavery, union actions for better working conditions and the Black Lives Matter movement all fall into this category. Closer to home, the New Zealand Wars, the Bastion Point occupation and the Blackball strike are testament that New Zealanders hold the concept of freedom highly. All these movements emphasise a fair deal - for all, not just for the group protesting. They also push for equitable representation in government as a means to maintain freedom.
In contrast, there are those for whom "freedom" means their individual right to enjoy their personal lives and belongings. For these people, any organisation which curtails this - especially the Government – is to be resisted. Throughout history these individual beliefs, quite reasonable on their own, have been harnessed into movements that actually work to curb rights overall. When people fear loss of individual freedoms, it's easy to scare them into protecting the positions of businesses or specialised political interests. Spoiler: we're in the middle of one such period in history.
It can be confusing when concepts initiated by one movement are captured by an opposing one and used to fortify their position, much like my children building pillow forts. Last weekend, for example, we were treated to the edifying sight of a mostly Pākehā, straw boater-wearing crowd picnicking on the grounds of Waitangi, having posted a press release (completely devoid of irony) stating they were taking back their rights under the principles of Māori sovereignty.
This prompted a collective chunder. Genuine Māori civil rights leaders such as Dame Naida Glavish minced no words, saying, "Any hikoi in this lockdown puts in jeopardy the mahi [work] Ngāti Whātua are currently undertaking. Have your hoo-ha when this is done and dusted, right now the hoo-ha is hōhā [crazy]."
Ngāpuhi representatives posted a statement saying (I paraphrase) it was very nice that people suddenly cared about He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene (the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand, signed in 1835), but they had work to do getting their own people vaccinated and could the antivaxxers please keep out for now. Hone Harawira was more direct, labelling the "hikoi" a scam.
This story highlights the difference between the two ideas of freedom: one centred on the needs of others, and the other centred on individuals. There's a relation here to the idea of rights versus obligations. When someone states "I have rights", they are focusing on themselves; when they say, "I have obligations", they are choosing to focus on others.
Freedom is relative. Who is centred? It depends on who you are and your cultural roots. There's nothing wrong with looking after your needs first: what's less okay is when doing that impinges on the needs of others. But who's impinging on whom?
Most people get that vaccination reduces infection and hospitalisation rates and therefore saves lives. But for some, recently introduced measures to push the vaccination rate up, such as vaccination passports and vaccination mandates for certain groups, are a step too far. Words like "oppression", "apartheid", "medical discrimination" and "dictatorship" are being muttered darkly, even on wholesome forums such as mummy coffee groups.
Here's the thing. Most people who use these words are not from historically marginalised groups. Most have never known genuine oppression, and to use terms like "apartheid" disrespects the people who have come from countries where this occurs. Discrimination for the colour of your skin does occur in New Zealand – just ask any brown person who shops in a mall. But no one's calling it apartheid.
Medical discrimination is a thing too, just not in the way that you think. Studies have shown – yes, proper research – that doctors are pretty discriminatory in who they refer for medical care, with Māori and Pacific people being offered less care than Pākehā and Asian people. None of these issues can be blamed on the virus.
We're pretty lucky in New Zealand. To understand what real oppression is, we don't need to travel very far at all. Just a quick peek into our own not-very-distant past – land grabs and underhanded law changes, anyone? – will reveal plenty of examples.
These historical actions have led directly to the situation we find ourselves in today: an inequitable landscape, with pockets of unvaccinated people in which Covid is spreading fast. Many of these people are not to blame for being slow to access the vaccine. Instead, a combination of poor access to healthcare, lack of good information and a well-founded distrust of government actions (see above) have stymied efforts. Throw in factors like shelter and food insecurity and it's a situation that has been brewing for generations.
Here's where I pull out one of my medical terms: duty of care. It's the doctor version of saying freedom for all. It's also a way to remind me of my obligations to look after everyone, equitably.
We can all have this duty of care. By getting vaccinated, by limiting the speed of spread of the virus with social distancing, masks and temporarily changing how we live, we make opportunity. We buy time for people, such as Ngāpuhi healthcare workers and many others working within their own communities, to reach everyone that wants the vaccine or who is vaccine hesitant. We can all save lives. Truly.
Maybe it's time to reclaim that word freedom. People have told me that getting the Covid vaccine brings relief. There is freedom from the worry that comes from not knowing where the virus is and how far it's spread.
Where to get a vaccination in Auckland - without a booking
For those who worried about getting the vaccine, there is often pride that they overcame their personal fears. For those people, there is the freedom to acknowledge others' worries and to sympathise with them.
One day soon we'll get back the freedom to travel, to hug everyone we know and have ragey parties that we later cringe at the memory of. We'll enjoy our freedom all together, and with no one left behind.
It'll be worth it.
Renee Liang MNZM is a paediatrician, writer, theatre producer and medical researcher.