Kiwis need to get stuck into COVID-19 vaccine

24 March 2021

By Dr Bryan Betty, College Medical Director

Originally published on Stuff

When significant worldwide events happen, there’s often a memory marker created. A ‘where were you when’ moment that you never forget. I know exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, when Princess Diana died, and when New Zealand went into Level Four lockdown. That last one was a few days after a hive of activity for New Zealand’s GPs as my colleague Dr Samantha Murton and I had asked our co-workers – all 5,500 of them – to begin remote consultations in the name of keeping our patients distanced, and therefore safer. 

A year on, we’re making sustained strides in our fight against COVID-19. But we’ve also learnt, as a nation, what it’s like to have some of our freedoms, like our love for international travel and adventure, quickly taken away. A lot has changed in 12 months. We now live our lives at the beck and call of a disease that nobody had heard of a year ago and phrases like ‘managed isolation’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘contact-tracing’ that were once strings of random words, now have meaning and have joined the everyday Kiwi vernacular.

We’ve also come to appreciate how modern medicine had mostly protected us from pandemics and epidemics, where disease would periodically run rampant, like the bubonic plague, syphilis, and Spanish Flu. Until COVID-19 (and acknowledging HIV/AIDS) New Zealand had been insulated from many of the world’s pandemics of the last 20 years. MERS in the Middle East, Ebola in Africa, and SARS in Asia had not grabbed hold and become pervasive like COVID-19 has.

Despite doctors and scientists having warned us for years of a potential pandemic breaking out or an antibiotic resistance taking hold, it’s COVID-19 that has truly demonstrated how precious our collective health is. I suspect that from now on, things that have been developed in general practices across the country, such as screening when you ring the receptionist, separating patients with respiratory symptoms away from non-respiratory patients, and wearing masks will become common place. I often think of the 400 to 600 people who die each year in New Zealand from influenza (in 2020 nobody died from the ‘flu) and wonder how many more might have survived if we’d put such measures in place long ago.

Three things have led to the increase in life expectancy that we saw last century; sewerage systems and clean water (Wellington, take note), the development of antibiotics, and immunisation programs. It’s now our collective responsibility to get vaccinated, when the time comes, to ensure New Zealand can have the best change to continue to battle this pandemic. 

Listening to some of the rhetoric from people who choose not to vaccinate you realise that they’ve never encountered polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, or the kind of measles epidemic we saw in the South Pacific in 2019. I understand that people have greater access to information now and that social media sharing and influencing is rife but for the good of the country the vaccination information needs to be left to the experts, not the ‘worried well’ who know how to use Google. 

COVID-19 has given has a sharp wake up call. We’ve been pretty good at keeping the disease in check and need to keep that ‘greater good’ enthusiasm as we line up for vaccination. It really is the best shot we have at ending the isolation New Zealand is now experiencing. We need to be tolerant and accept we need to adapt. However, we’re in a good position as a country and now we all have a part of play in helping regain the freedoms that we once took for granted.