When freedom of speech and public health collide over the Covid-19 vaccine

Taranaki’s rate of fully vaccinated people remains the lowest in the country but mass vaccination events are speeding up the roll-out.
Taranaki’s rate of fully vaccinated people remains the lowest in the country but mass vaccination events are speeding up the roll-out.

OPINION: Inside our bodies we host a world one could base a fantasy novel on. Tiny characters in a landscape of blood and tissue fight battles with tactical invaders in a fight between the good and the bad.

This war has been raging since the beginning of time, in a constant battle for homeostasis. When the baddies gather again to mutate for a fresh attack, the good guys are sometimes caught off guard and unable to strategise.

By supplying tools, for example, a vaccine, they can prepare a small but mighty army. Our bodies are remarkably clever.

Unfortunately, the brain's ability to perceive what's happening in our bodies is not straightforward, as we are subject to floods of information and susceptible to persuasion.

* District councillor not stepping down from council, community roles following backlash to vaccine video
* District councillor in region with worst vaccination rates spreads Covid-19 vaccine misinformation
* Explainer: NPDC to consider councillor make-up going forward

Our brain’s ability to extricate good information from bad information is hindered by social factors including but not limited to, literacy, systemic barriers, culture, personal/collective trauma and economic factors.

Social media and technology corporations have reacted to pressure from the public and governments with insipid attempts to temper the deluge of disinformation.

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that when a team of people identified and reported misinformation to social media platforms, only one in 20 posts were dealt with.

Although the best approach will rely on a collaborative, multi-stakeholder response, we are not there yet. Community leaders need to band together to protect citizens from making decisions based on bad information. In this case, life and death decisions.

New Plymouth District Councillor Anneka Carlson posted a 13 minute video about her views on the Covid-19 vaccine.
New Plymouth District Councillor Anneka Carlson posted a 13 minute video about her views on the Covid-19 vaccine.

In a Stuff article last week New Plymouth District Councillor Anneka Carlson was criticised by experts for spreading misinformation about vaccinations.

However, there does not appear to be any follow up from New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) to condemn this behaviour.

In an open letter to NPDC, anti-disinformation campaigners FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories), a group of academics, health professionals, and indigenous rights activist are calling for local government to take a firm stance against dis/misinformation.

According to the Stuff article about the backlash to the post, Mayor Neil Holdom has stated that the council does not share those “views” but has not asked Councillor Carlson to remove her post.

In their open letter, FACT are requesting that NPDC censure Councillor Carlson. FACT spokesperson Dr Frank Kueppers (urologist) makes it clear that this is not an attack on an individual but a show of solidarity for the section of our society who are vulnerable to disease and will potentially be harmed or die from the Delta strain of Covid-19, due to low vaccination rates.

Although the individual councillors’ right to express personal views are protected under the Local Government Act, so too are the rights of the community to live and be healthy under the Human Rights Commission.

When our communities are at risk because even one person with a highly infectious virus can shut down an entire ward or surgical department, resulting in many people who don’t get treatment or become infected, does the right to live and be healthy supersede the right to express an opinion?

Especially when that opinion is based on harmful misinformation, is the right to refuse treatment still valid if information from those qualified to give it has been ignored in favour of poorly sourced, incorrect or misleading misinformation.

Historically, the answer has been technically, yes. The Supreme Court in New Zealand has described the right to refuse medical treatment a fundamental right under common law.

However, evidence provided in the case of New Health v South Taranaki District Council, in which water fluoridation was seen as a breach of the right to refuse treatment (compulsory medical treatment) it was ruled the public health benefits justified the limitation on rights.

FACT members and signatories ask the NPDC to consider the rights of the public when dealing with one of their own who is essentially influencing a low vaccine uptake. Being immunised is a human rights measure.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) the New Zealand government is obliged to protect the public by “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” and recognises the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications”.

The United Nations and the World Health Organisation Committee declare that immunisation is a “core health service that should be prioritised and safeguarded during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Freedom of expression on the other hand, has always been conditional. You are not allowed to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre.

It would be cruel to allow freedom of speech to justify irresponsibility or to ignore the rights and freedoms of others.

Keeping that in mind, FACT suggests that until a collaborative plan is developed to stem the flow of dis/misinformation, the best approach is de-platforming.

Removing peddlers of disinformation from their soapboxes is a highly effective short-term solution to disinformation and online radicalisation.

It is as simple as the two-part treatment of a disease. De-platform: Stop the spread. And educate: Treat the infection.

-Aimee Milne has a background in public health and community nursing.