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2022-02-23

Mess of the Demiurge

 
When it all started in March 2020 I was on board with the NZ Government Covid response. I was part of the Team of 5 Million. I was being kind. There was a global pandemic and the solution was a well-informed leadership and a population working together to stop the spread. The first lockdown will always be remembered as a special time in Wellington. The CBD was completely empty, everything was closed, no one was at work, the weather was extraordinarily beautiful and we all walked the streets, parks and beaches, relaxed and unusually friendly, happily keeping our two metre distance. Apart from police harassing people for sitting on benches on Oriental Parade, not considered essential exercise, it all made sense: we have closed the borders, there is very little covid here and if we don't allow it to spread we can eliminate it before it sets in. And it worked. Covid was completely eliminated from Aotearoa for months and life returned to relative normality. We enjoyed our well-earned complacency as Covid swept through much of the rest of the world. It was understood early that in the event of mass acute Covid hospitalisations, the health system would be overwhelmed and not be able to cope. Despite this, and with all that Covid-free time to work with, no serious attempt was made to increase the capacity or efficiency of the health system.


From the very beginning there were two narratives. There was the clear narrative of the Government, reported every day by our charismatic Prime Minister, Jacinda even gave us updates from her own living room with her child running around in the background. Then there was this strange story that I read about only on Facebook from people who proclaimed that Covid was a hoax or that it was caused by 5G. “Let's be honest,” I posted. “You don't really know if that's true or not.” The other story seemed quite unreasonable and unrealistic and I didn't understand why people were asserting it.


The second nationwide lockdown felt banal and irritating. The CBD was no less busy, everyone was wearing masks, less social distancing, disgust and impatience with anyone coming near. It was an unusually unfriendly time. Auckland was in lockdown for three months. I don't claim to be a health expert, to have access to data or to be able to interpret it better than anyone else, but it is an extreme thing for a government to lockdown an entire population. It is not and will never be casual, something you just try to see if it works. I began to doubt whether it was all worthwhile.


At what point does the Covid response become worse than Covid was ever going to be? This to me is a fundamental question, but tends to receive a reactionary response. It does not suggest an answer, that no Covid response would have been better. It simply suggests the consideration, whether it has already happened or may happen in the future, that the response has done more damage than the virus was ever going to. The reactionary response is a result of the fact that there are only two possible stories: either you swallow whole the narrative of the Government and their Experts or you are a Conspiracy Theorist fueled by Fake News. Almost everyone seems content to place themselves in one of these two camps. I prefer to reserve judgement and remain sceptical. From my perspective, it is highly unlikely that either story is completely true.


From the beginning, the Government's messaging has been clear and effective. The signs quickly became ubiquitous and familiar; yellow bars, familiar phrases: “Unite Against Covid”, “Be Kind”. At one point I suggested it was starting to look like propaganda: simple, authoritative, paternalistic, convincing without being informative. It would be condescending if it wasn't so protective. The Government cares only about public health, they are guided entirely by Experts who base their advice on Science, and we simply need to have faith. I remember when not trusting the Government was cool, when it was understood that they are slaves to petty political necessities, ideology and economic interests, but that time has passed. The propaganda was repeated unquestioningly in the Dominion Post and on Radio New Zealand. A friend told me, “It's just good government.” “Maybe,” I responded, “but it's not good journalism. It's not really journalism at all.” Is this unrelenting propaganda responsible for the reactionary responses to questioning blind adherence? Does it establish the binaries of complete agreement vs complete disagreement, compliant citizen vs anti-vaxxer, sole possessor of the truth vs sole possesor of the truth? “You're either with us or you're against us.”


Covid fatigue inevitably set in, the major global crisis became banal. When will this end? The message was that we need a vaccine. When a vaccine is developed and distributed we will have sufficient defence against the virus and we can return to normal life. Multiple vaccines turned up, some developed by huge, ruthless corporations with histories of serious health crimes. All were conflated as being equally safe and effective and whatever ones the NZ Government had access to were the ones we would get. We were told that we would need two jabs, three months apart, and it would protect us from contracting or passing on Covid. I am not a medical scientist and I do not know how to disseminate complex data, but I do possess intelligence. The newspaper, identical to the Government press releases at all times, told us the Science in a way we could understand, with simplistic interpretations of statistics, “1+1=believe us.” Why would I believe that? The alternative line was, “Someone told me this, and they don't have an economic or political agenda, so it must be true.” Why would I believe that? I was given no reason to believe either story, and I felt no urgency, so I naturally hesitated on getting vaccinated. Does that sound reasonable: when in doubt, err on the side of not receiving medical procedures?


I stopped scrolling Facebook because I found the blind adherence to hearsay and Youtube links disturbing. I can see no reason to believe that. At some point I stopped consuming any media: it was toxic and upsetting. There was a decisive moment for me watching coverage of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. There were two shots that permanently changed my attitude to The News: a helicopter shot of a flooded landscape with one human body floating on the water, and a pan across a room full of hundreds of dead human bodies in rows. This event produced the best ratings of the year and filled me with a disgust that has never left me. The (Bad) News reports anomalous events, especially violent anomalies. Things that don't happen very often. It is believed there is some mysterious virtue to following the worst things that happen in the world. Despite largely being removed from our experience and out of our control, it is important that we keep up with the endless tide of negativity. We then see ourselves as informed, believing anomalous events to be the trend, when they absolutely are not. For my own health and sanity I withdrew from following any news media that merely provoked anger. I did not believe what I was told by the arbiters of truth and I did not “do my own research.” “The media is the virus” is a slogan that started to gain some resonance.


I became highly sceptical that the Government's Covid response was reasonable or effective. The policies installed to supposedly protect us were developed in a way that they could be blindly implemented across the entire country without nuance or sophisitication. We did not need to think about or understand why they were happening or whether they worked. The most ridiculous example I encountered was a theatre with two huge marble staircases going up either side of the lobby to the entrance, one marked with a down arrow, the other with an up. Of course with one 800-seat venue everyone is either entering or exiting at the same time, so using one staircase and leaving the other empty does not assist social distancing, though people slavishly followed it. The belief seemed to be that if we simply have enough blind adherence to blanket rules it might be slightly effective at slowing the spread of the virus, if the virus is even present. The interruption to every area of our lives is entirely incidental, and it is petulant to even mention it.


The Government made the vaccine freely and easily available to everyone in waves based on age group. Rumours came that some governments were making vaccines mandatory. When asked about mandates Jacinda was very clear: those who choose to remain unvaccinated will not be penalised. All we need is a 90% vaccination rate to ensure herd immunity. Enough Kiwis will voluntarily choose to get vaccinated with the correct degree of availability, support and information. The Health Minister even claimed that “deliberate misinformation” spread through social media suggested that the Government was going to make vaccines compulsory, but he reassured us that that would go against the Bill of Rights.


The divisive nature of Covid discourse increased significantly with the subject of vaccination. I remained unvaccinated, continued to consider the possibility, but felt increasingly uncomfortable talking about it. We were told that unvaccinated people are irresponsible and are putting other people's lives at risk. In other words, the vaccine only works if everyone gets it. With mass vaccinations delivered around the world it was discovered that the vaccine is less effective at preventing transmission of the virus and most effective at reducing the severity of the symptoms. So why does everyone need to get it then? Apparently the herd immunity theory wasn't so accurate, but everyone still has to be vaccinated otherwise unvaccinated people will overwhelm the health system. Isn't the health system supposed to reduce the suffering of society, not the other way around? But the narrative continued to assert that everyone must be vaccinated for the vaccine to work, despite the fact that other nations were proving this to be inaccurate. This is what George Orwell called “double-think”, believing two contradictory things at the same time.


The Government announced a vaccination mandate, exactly what they said they wouldn't do. This is a violation of the basic medical ethic of informed consent, but no one seems to care. If you choose to remain unvaccinated you will be penalised and excluded from participating in society, you may lose your job and there will be many public places that you will not be allowed to enter. Everyone who runs even the smallest public venue is expected to enforce this, asking every single person who enters to provide a document proving that they have been fully vaccinated. It is a mean-spirited law indeed that expects the public to enforce it or face punishment. So it is primarily vaccinated people asking other vaccinated people for proof of their vaccination status. The purpose, presumably, is to keep vaccinated people safe from unvaccinated people, as if it is no longer the virus that is contagious but the lack of vaccination. Suddenly it is not just venue managers asking for my vaccination status, but supposed friends who don't want to be in my presence if I am unvaccinated.


Many times I have questioned, if what really matters is not spreading the virus, why testing people to see if they have the virus has not been a priority. We now have millions of Kiwis participating in convoluted programs to theoretically reduce the spread of the virus, despite the fact that almost none of those Kiwis even have the virus to spread. Twice I had symptoms and rang Healthline and was told not to bother getting tested, one time even being ridiculed for thinking I needed a test. But then they introduced free and accessible rapid antigen tests into pharmacies, but only for unvaccinated people who were asymptomatic and were planning to travel. Testing negative for Covid allowed me to access certain levels of public transport, but the fact remained that I was unvaccinated and therefore still a threat.


We were told that all we had to do to be allowed to fully participate in society was get fully vaccinated. “Two shots for summer” was the slogan aimed at people looking forward to summer festivals, allowed only for the fully vaccinated. But many festivals were cancelled because either they didn't want to operate under such conditions, or they were unable to under the traffic light system. “Fully vaccinated” meant two jabs with three months gap in between. This gap time was shortened multiple times to ensure people could get fully vaccinated faster, despite it being less effective, as part of the obsession with statistics. A booster jab was subsequently added, again changing the meaning of “fully vaccinated”.


The Government has pushed a single narrative from the beginning. Any doubt or uncertainty, any disagreement with Government policy, any injury or death from receiving a vaccine, any severe consequences of Government policies on people's lives, any intelligent debate about the Covid response, was labelled as a part of the “other” camp: the Anti-Vaxxers, the Conspiracy Theorists, alt-right Nazi propagandists inspired by Russian disinformation campaigns, the people who are completely wrong and therefore not worthy of engagement. It's amazing the new normals we can get used to and accept with resignation: increasingly hysterical media fear-mongering, increasing powers of Government to infiltrate our lives in novel and invasive ways, increasing amounts of enforceable social division, and the corruption of basic health ethics. Some call it repugnant, some call it necessary, all call it banal. In a matter of months we have gone from a benign socialist Government with an absolute majority to a coercive divisive totalitarian Government, and it is already boring.


But some people have been unable to let the Government overreach pass. They may have lost their job, they may know someone who has been injured or killed by the vaccine, they may have a healthy or pathological distrust of governments or drug companies, they may have had their children kicked out of school, they may have lost friends or businesses or somewhere to live, they may just be over it. “I'm exempt from your bullshit,” is a t-shirt I have seen. There was a coordinated effort across the country, across social, political and religious divides, to create a unified protest, a convoy driving from one side of Aotearoa to the other. It has culminated in an occupation on the front lawn of Parliament in Wellington, a protest camp that claims they won't move until meaningful change is implemented by the Government. Unlike protests against climate change, where it is not certain the Government is even capable of doing anything, or lack of suitable housing, where even a concerted effort is complex and time-consuming, this is a case where meaningful change can happen instantly, because the Government itself is the problem.


I received reports from people telling me that thousands of diverse people were coming together peacefully to protest unjust Governmental policies, and I read reports in the media that a small group of misfits with no clear political agenda, but who were evidently neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Trump supporters, were making a mess and abusing people at Parliament. The discrepancy between the reports I was receiving was glaring. I had to be there and find out for myself. I also felt deeply sympathetic, not because I agreed with everything that people were saying, but because I felt that the NZ Government has unambiguously violated acceptable boundaries of their intrusion into our lives.


When I entered the protest for the first time it looked like a festival; people living in vans and tents, socialising or creating their own space. Ironically, of course, I thought of all the summer festivals that were cancelled because of the Covid response, the result of which is a festival happening on the grounds of Parliament. People seemed very diverse, from many different social, ethnic, political and religious groups; they were relaxed and friendly and mainly just hanging out, sharing food, talking and dancing. At the centre of the occupation someone stood up on the microphone with Parliament buildings and a small line of police behind him. He said it was time for the music to end so people can sleep, and suggested we sing a waiata together. As we sang “Purea Nei” the government played a recording saying that we were all trespassing and everyone had to immediately pack up their tents and leave. But the protesters had heard it before and ignored it. As we sang, I was moved by the sincerity and commitment of being present in this place for this purpose.


The Prime Minister is committed to spreading deliberate misinformation about the presence at Parliament, claiming it is not a protest but merely a group of people who are illegally obstructing Wellington from going about their daily lives and abusing people who are trying to go to school or work. Having spent any amount of time at the protest it is abundantly obvious that this is not what is happening. People are unusually friendly and welcoming and the obstruction of the vehicles has been minimised by clearing the most important surrounding roads. She has also condemned the leader of the ACT Party for talking to protesters, which she describes as “irresponsible.”


Despite a bit of variation in detail and some emotional and aggressive overstatement, there is clear agreement that people want an end to the vaccine mandate and a restoration of basic human rights. With Aotearoa at a 95% vaccination rate, the need for vaccine passports and massively restrictive policies seems entirely superfluous. We were promised that when a high level of vaccination was achieved then restrictions would no longer be necessary. Either the vaccines didn't work or the Government don't want to give up their extra power. The Government's single narrative is so ubiquitous that it is politically impossible for any opposition to be given any respect. It is not the Government, or their Experts, that are running this country, it is the Official Narrative that they have been pushing so hard for so long that they totally believe it themselves. It looks to me like the biggest propaganda campaign in this country since World War II. I have watched over the last two years as Aotearoa has been brainwashed in front of my eyes. The reality of the situation is obviously nuanced and much of what the Government has done has significantly mitigated our exposure to the global pandemic. But the propaganda has been so relentless and so uncompromising that all nuance has been erased. The least likely thing possible is that either the Official or the unofficial narrative is completely correct.


Their policy seems to be that Covid is more important than everything else put together and that it must be eliminated by any means necessary. The Official Narrative may in some ways be more factually accurate, but that does not prevent it from being unforgivably delusional in its tunnel-vision. It is not surprising that a disparate group of people with legitimate grievances who do not have access to well-informed professional Experts are going to be ill-informed. If they don't have the ability to change the law to suit their needs, it makes sense that they will have to break some insignificant laws. It is the height of irony that Jacinda is complaining that protesters are preventing businesses from functioning around Parliament when her policies have proven infinitely more disruptive. Her complaint about protesters supposedly abusing people for wearing masks is profoundly hypocritical when her vaccine passport system has inevitably led to the verbal abuse of many innocent staff members coerced into enforcing it for her.


Many Kiwis refer to our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, by her first name. My friends used to semi-ironically refer to Jacinda as the Goddess. She was empathetic, she had integrity, and we were proud of her. We set up a shrine to her in the living room, lighting candles, offering fruits and decorating her image. It was a celebration of a new type of leadership and it was an ironic take-down of the possibility of her getting too much respect, when politicians always need to be held to account. The thought of loving and respecting Jacinda now makes me feel sick. Her Government has stepped beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable. Rather than the Goddess I propose Jacinda as the Demiurge. In Gnostic philosophy the demiurge is considered a false creator god who is actually subordinate to true power and is the originator of material illusion. Another definition is from ancient Greece, meaning public official or magistrate. This is merely a metaphor to explain an infinitely complex situation, it is inherently silly and yet it is meaningful to me. All of our metaphors, all of our slogans, all of the stories we tell ourselves and each other are merely attempts to condense infinitely complex realities down to manageable and communicable pieces. They do not, ever, contain the reality of the situation. If we cannot listen to each other we cannot maintain a healthy and balanced society.


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