Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Vax vs anti-vax issue tearing Kiwi families apart

A story this week revealed a woman in the US had been dumped by the man she was dating when he found out she was vaccinated. The man wished her luck in the future with her “mutant children” and that was the end of a blossoming romance.

The story is largely entertaining, but there is something deeper there, something that makes you stop and think. Are we entering a time where couples, families and friends will be separated by one simple question? Are you vaccinated?

The Herald chatted to a range of Kiwis about the unexpected drama that question had brought to their life.

Persuasion and an unvaccinated 91-year-old grandfather

A family divided is the best way to describe Sandra’s relationship with her in-laws at the moment. Her husband, who is fully vaccinated, has a sister who is staunchly opposed. Sandra confesses that the differing stance on vaccination is causing “extreme tension” within the wider family and the back and forth of pro versus anti-vaccination arguments is getting heated.

“My husband is sending his sister really logical things,” shares Sandra, “with facts and resources to back it up and he will get five mad things back.” Sandra’s other big worry is for her elderly father-in-law who has now decided against vaccination, a fact that she attributes to her sister-in-law.

“She [the sister] was talking to him just prior to his first vaccination appointment and then suddenly he had changed his mind and decided not to.” A fact that causes Sandra and her husband a great deal of concern as he is 91.

Sandra is fortunate that so far her husband and his family have been able to keep things civil, but she worries about the future. The reality of vaccination passports soon being required for travel means that they could find themselves divided once again. “‘We have family in the South Island who we are planning to visit next year,” states Sandra. “What if they are not allowed to travel with us. What happens then?”

The long-term relationship rift

Sam’s teenage son has a long-term girlfriend of whom the entire family are fond. Lately, however, issues have arisen as the girlfriend’s mother is vehemently anti-vaccine.

“She says things like ‘there is more to this than you know and it will all come out’,” laughs Sam. What isn’t funny, however, is the fact that his son’s girlfriend shares her mother’s stance and refuses to be vaccinated, an issue that could jeopardise their entire relationship.

“She won’t be able to travel with him when the borders open up,” shares Sam sadly, adding “they both love music, but I had to break it to them that, if there was a concert or festival she won’t be able to go.”

“Kicked out of the family chat”

Isabelle comes from a “wonderfully large family” who, she admits, don’t always see eye to eye at the best of times. The vaccination dilemma has seen tensions within the family boil over to a point that Isabelle is not sure they can come back from.

As someone with type 1 diabetes, it was important to Isabelle that her family get vaccinated and she did everything she could to persuade them.

“I thought it was important that my family was educated to make the best choice,” which, to Isabelle, meant vaccination. “I am at increased risk and it felt like they didn’t seem to care,” she continues.

Both Isabelle’s mother and sister were unwilling to be vaccinated and attempting to convince them led to a “showdown” on WhatsApp messenger. “I was kicked out of the family chat and we haven’t spoken since. It has been about three weeks,” admits Isabelle.

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Barred from visiting baby

It is not only families affected by the divide. Marie, who has a six-month-old baby, recently discovered that a close friend, whom she has known for decades, is against the Covid-19 vaccine. It came as a huge surprise to Marie who describes her friend as fairly “sensible”.

“She’s a practical and sensible person for the most part, so it’s quite surprising for myself and other friends that she has gone down this path.” Marie is quick to state that she doesn’t intend to cut ties with her friend, but with a young baby to worry about, she has to make some tough decisions.

“I don’t intend to end our friendship but I am not comfortable having her get close to my baby son while Covid-19 is in the community,” Marie openly shares. “We’ve yet to have the conversation. I know she will be hurt by my decision but hopefully she will respect it.”

When asked why she feels her friend is against vaccination, Marie points the finger at social media and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. “She believes that Covid isn’t as dangerous as the Government says, that the vaccine is unsafe and the drug companies can’t be trusted and that the Government is using the vaccine to control us”.

A study out of the University of Southern California into the link between social media use and vaccine hesitancy found that anti-vaccine misinformation on platforms such as Facebook was extensive and poorly policed. The 2021 study by Mckinley and Lauby, found that 31 million people belonged to anti-vax groups on Facebook and a further 17m subscribed to anti-vax accounts on YouTube.

How do we move forward?

While the factual nature of the statement – vaccines save lives – cannot be denied, it doesn’t mean that it has to divide families and splinter friendships, no matter where a person may stand on vaccines.

Dr Kyle MacDonald, a licensed psychotherapist based in Auckland, thinks talking about the pro-vaccination versus anti-vaccination divide is important right now. “I think it is coming up all over the place and it’s getting really heated,” says MacDonald. This, he adds, is the crux of the problem.

“I think it is important to slow it down and get the heat out of it,” suggests MacDonald.

“Anger is the natural response, but anger doesn’t help the relationship and it doesn’t help resolve conflict”. Instead, he suggests that by attempting to see the other person’s “truth” we are better able to salvage fractured relationships.

“The reality is that things are going to change,” he says optimistically, implying that when that happens, we don’t want to have said things to each other that can’t be unsaid. “It can be hard for both sides to see how ‘true’ the point of view is for each person,” he admits.

No matter how invested you are in your position on vaccination the person opposite you feels just as strongly. MacDonald reassures us that while establishing “boundaries” with family and friends who stand across the divide from us is healthy, avoid pouring petrol on the entire relationship and lighting a match.

Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the Kiwis who shared their stories with us for this article.

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