The risks of creating a two-tier society

It's time we had some debate about the division that's being created between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated

New Zealand is becoming a class-based society, and no-one seems to be blinking an eyelid. The Prime Minister accepted serenely that her Government’s policies were creating “two different classes of people”, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. “That is what it is,” she agreed. But there’s very little commentary or public concern about this. Even the Opposition’s rumblings have been muted. Maybe most people are so sick of the costs and uncertainty of lockdowns that they don’t want to think about the collateral damage of creating a two-tier society. But creating division is a fraught proposition even if you think it’s justified. We cannot take this so lightly. It’s time we had some debate.

Ring-fencing our unvaccinated neighbours and excluding them from swathes of our common life will create fault-lines running through families, communities, and the nation. The Government’s vaccination mandates are already seeing people lose their livelihoods, and its traffic light scheme limits their freedoms at all levels. Together, they are a large stick to prod the hesitant into vaccination and marginalise the non-compliant. Others’ decisions will have an effect too, like the University of Auckland’s intention to close its campus to anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated. The impacts will be uneven; as many have pointed out, Māori will be disproportionately affected.

There seems to be a general acceptance that “to the vaccinated will go the spoils but for the unvaccinated life will be very miserable indeed”, as one senior commentator put it. But societies only hang together if we believe that we’re all connected and that we owe each other something. Without this belief there is no “we”, only “us” and “them”.

The effects of this approach will be long-lasting. First, because they’re dehumanising. People are more than their vaccination status, but a two-tier system strips them of that dignity and makes their medical history the primary fact about them. Ugly comments on the article about the University of Auckland illustrate this already: “The Government should mandate vaccinations for all beneficiaries.” “I don’t want to come into contact with antivaxers.” Second, because the effects will be intergenerational. Imagine the children of a teacher who lost her job under the vaccination mandate. Their prospects could be poorer, economically and socially, thanks to their family’s loss of income and sense of exclusion.

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Of course, the Government and other public voices have a difficult line to walk and a responsibility to promote health and safety. They’ll want to avoid the social and economic costs of other pandemic responses like lockdowns, and they might argue that anyone choosing to be unvaccinated has to take personal responsibility for that choice. But their strategy’s emphasis on vaccination is blunt and heavy-handed, and it would be easier for all of us to have confidence in it if it seemed they’d weighed other, less restrictive measures like rapid antigen testing more carefully. However, their own independent review described the Government’s approach to testing as “reactive and conservative”, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the concerns and interests of anyone who’s unvaccinated have been airbrushed out of the official response.

This isn’t an anti-vaxxer’s argument—I’m double-jabbed with no hesitancy or scepticism—but it is a plea for more respect and more balance. Respect means listening to the interests, fears, and decisions of our unvaccinated neighbours and trying to give them genuine answers instead of dismissing them or consigning them to some excluded zone. It means accepting that vaccination decisions involve trade-offs that each of us might legitimately make differently, and that pressuring people to act against their deeply and sincerely held beliefs is dangerous territory especially when it involves unwanted medical treatments. Balance means weighing up the long-term costs of our short-term response, and asking whether the desire to be physically safe now will make all of us and our children socially unsafe later. It means identifying the social and emotional costs and treating them as real costs alongside the health and economic ones. It means being realistic about the risks involved—not underplaying or overplaying them—and the consequences we’re willing to accept.

Unless we have some credible, responsible voices doing this, then the fringe and the extremes, the kind of people who organize protest marches in the middle of a lockdown, will continue to lead the debate. We have to be willing to ask whether creating a two-tier society based on vaccination is genuinely the right response, or if we can make other choices. More than that, we have to ask if we really want to put our nation on a new, class-based foundation. People who choose not to be vaccinated are not our enemy. They are our friends, our customers, our employers, our family. Let’s start treating them that way.

Originally published as a guest post at Kiwiblog on 9 November 2021.