A lot has changed since we first went into lockdown in 2020. Jokes about sourdough baking and crackly zoom calls are getting stale. And while some regions are on track to hit 90 percent of the population doubled-vaxxed, vaccine rollout has also shown a failure to accommodate our Māori and Pasifika whānau, highlighting existing health inequities.
Given these difficult times, it can be frustrating when brands and influencers do the complete opposite to help. Could we forget the embarrassing North Shore influencer party?
Brands and influencers are notorious for jumping on the bandwagon to virtue signal the newest social issue: a black square and #BLM, pride filter and #loveislove, all tied together with a touch of greenwashing. Yet when it comes to public health messaging and a global pandemic, it’s been pretty quiet.
Then there are the influencers milking the situation, posting about their ‘adverse reaction’ to the vaccine, then plugging their supplement/IV drip/pine bark extract/fairy dust as a cure-all (journalist David Farrier’s got all the receipts on his blog).
At the far end of the scale, there’s outright violent messaging from anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown groups. Te Pūnaha Matatini, a research centre at the University of Auckland, found that lockdown protests often hijack Māori kupu, symbols and motifs such as the ‘Sovereign Hīkoi of Truth’ and the United Tribes flag. Yet, white supremacists are often linked to these movements, focused on forwarding their agenda.
There are plenty of helpful, positive takes though: lead investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, Kate Hannah, has shared some helpful tips on how to talk to loved ones who are vaccine hesitant, while a few badass Māori and Pasifika community groups are doing the hard yards creating safe spaces for whānau to ask questions around the vaccine. And several Pasifika doctors are mixing TikTok dances and debunking Covid vaccine myths to reach our younger generation.
In the influencer and lifestyle space, it’s a mixed bag. What happens when you are vocal in your support of vaccines? We talked to four pro-vaccine content creators and activists about how they’re using social media to encourage more korero around vaccines and debunking misconceptions, plus local business owner Emily Miller-Sharma, the GM of Ruby, on how they’re dealing with this strange new world.
Emily Writes (She/her)
Emily Writes is a best-selling author with blog posts on motherhood and raising young children that tend to go viral. She’s got 15.9k followers on Instagram, and at one stage her bio stated, “No anti-vaxxers!”
Emily’s seen first-hand how GPs dismiss mothers for being ‘hysterical’. So she isn’t surprised why many pregnant people and new parents turn to Facebook for their medical information instead.
“A lot of mothers spend time on Facebook, exhausted in the wee small hours trying to get their baby to sleep. It’s the perfect breeding ground to get sucked in.”
There’s a lot of mis- and dis-information around fertility, miscarriage and risks to pregnant people with medical and scientific data cherry-picked to support these claims.
Even before Covid-19, Emily’s been outspoken about the importance of vaccines: her child has complex medical issues. Because of this, she’s also experienced her fair share of online abuse.
“Everyday, I’m blown away by the casual cruelty of anti-vaxxers. They dehumanise my family and me. Because to humanise means their choice [not to be vaccinated] puts families like us at risk.”
She snorts when I ask why influencers are suddenly quiet on getting the Covid-19 vaccine. “They say they don't know enough to comment, but their entire career is built on having thoughts on things they don’t know anything about. It’s 100 percent because they don’t want to lose money.”
Quack Pirihi (They/them), Ngati Porou, Ngāti Wai, Ngāpuhi
Quack Pirihi is 19-years-old and currently studying to be a teacher. Pirihi’s video on Tik Tok discussing the rise of racist vaccination posts has around 26k views.
“Kei te pai, I’m pro-vaccine. But social media posts from Pākeha lead health organisations on vaccines aren't holding space for Māori and Pasifika to talk about their distrust of the government.”
Pirihi says it’s racist to assume Māori and Pasifika don’t want to get vaccinated because they lack motivation or think a free coffee at the clinic is enough. “Being anti-vax in our Māori and Pasifika community is an outcome of being neglected, forgotten and abused by Western medicine.
“There's a lot of distrust. We’re constantly let down by the government in employment relations, justice, in the education sector and health services.”
Speaking up has brought racist comments onto their Instagram and their private Facebook. Some have even screenshotted Pirihi’s family photos. Pirihi goes through and manually deletes all these comments.
“As a Māori storyteller, I must keep my comments a safe space for other Māori who want to come and express their whakaaro.” They’re not interested in any mana munchers, those who drain the wairua of their space or expect Māori to do the cultural labour when it comes to educating Pakeha and Tauiwi on the ongoing impacts of colonisation.
Pirihi deals with racist and harmful comments by controlling who sees their content: “I ask new followers, Do you think Maori should get land back? Do you think Pasifika people need reparations for the Dawn Raids? Anyone who says no, I just block.”
Shaneel Lal (they/them)
With 59.4k followers on Instagram and 5.7k on Twitter, you’ve probably seen Shaneel’s infographics. They’re also known for their mahi on the conversion therapy ban.
In the activist space, Shaneel says they’ve received so many threats that they’ve become numb to it. “Anti-vaxxers aren't interested in protecting your freedom of speech or choice; they’re interested in shutting you down. For example, they’ve gone out of their way to smash down vaccination centres.”
Many leaders of these movements also put their bank account numbers on their social media to ask for donations. “They benefit from people believing in anti-vax narratives.” This includes Te-Moana-Nui-A-Kiwi, who sell ‘diplomatic immunity’ passports.
A few of Shaneel’s posts focus on how you can be pro-vaccine and not pro-government. They emphasise that researchers and experts, not the government, are behind the vaccine. “The people who make the vaccines are not invested in whether or not the Labour Party will win the next election.”
Shaneel is also not impressed by the ways anti-vaxxers have exploited the colonial trauma and distrust in Māori and Pasifika communities. “Colonisation tried to wipe out our population, and it failed.” But they fear these anti-vax narratives continue the work of colonisation.
As for the silence from influencers and brands who were so vocal in social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, Shaneel reckons that no one is holding them accountable for not speaking up. “So they think, not taking a stance doesn’t hurt us, taking a stance might hurt us. So let’s just quietly disappear from the conversation.”
Ana McAllister (She/her, They/them), Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Ngāti Porou
“Vaccine hesitancy has exposed how necessary it is for the sciences and academia to get off their high horses.”
Activist and writer Ana McAllister opened up her Instagram DMs for questions on the vaccine. She then collated many resources from scientists, read through the dense research, and helped debunk some of the misconceptions. These are posted on her Instagram highlights reel.
McAllister says it’s important to remember that the majority of unvaccinated people are still Pākeha. “You see all these brown faces at protests in the media because Māori are the ones showing up. Protests are a very normal part of being Māori when you are living in colonial space.”
She’s found it easier to communicate to Māori audiences on her social media because of whakawhanaungatanga and a basic level of respect, though it has also brought its own difficulties. “I’m trying to do it with compassion because I understand where these people are coming from and what they’re feeling.”
It’s essential for her not to dismiss fears around the government, western science and medicine. “Because in terms of whakapapa for Māori, it’s not that long ago when the government was performing acts of genocide against us.”
McAllister says it’s interesting the anti-vaccine movement has co-opted language such as pro-freedom. “I wonder how many of these people are also okay with abortion or trans rights?” She explains how it’s more palatable to frame it as ‘pro-freedom’ rather than address how these freedoms impact vulnerable communities.
However, McAllister reminds us, “and activists working in the dirt all the time,’ to take note that even though it feels overwhelming at times, the people who are anti-vax are a small but vocal minority.
Her brilliant piece published on the Pantograph Punch, “Kete o ngā Vax,” explores that in more detail; for even more resources, Ana points to science communicators like Siouxsie Wiles and activists like Tina Ngata.
Emily Miller Sharma, general manager of Ruby (She/her)
In the fashion/lifestyle space, a few influencers and brands have been visibly pro-vaccine like Meagan Kerr, Danni Duncan, Bonnie Brown aka Studio Bon, Zeenat Wilkinson, Sammy Salsa and Chloe Hill. Jess Molina has re-shared slides from sociologist Tarapuhi Vaeau on privilege, while designer Karen Walker posted a video of her getting the vaccine.
Emily Miller-Sharma, general manager of the NZ clothing label Ruby, has actively encouraged vaccinations on the brand’s social media and in newsletters to their audience.
Miller-Sharma says talking about social issues has also been a core part of their branding. “We see it our responsibility to use a reasonably large platform to help educate people on issues we think are important.”
She is grateful for clarity around the vaccine mandate in protecting their team and customers as an employer. But she also knows they’re lucky. “We don’t have that question mark some business might have with regards to a team member that chooses not to be vaccinated.”
Ensemble editor Zoe Walker Ahwa responded to the NZ Herald’s recent article with local designer Maggie Marilyn’s unnecessary hot takes, such as framing public health restrictions (the same ones that protect children, eldery, immunocompromised, Māori, Pasifika and other vulnerable communities) as ‘us’ vs ‘them’ segregation.
I asked Miller-Sharma what kind of korero she’s picked up from the local fashion industry. “I can’t read the mind of everyone in the industry, but it is a fraught time to be in business,” she responds. “There’s nervousness to wade into something that feels so vicious. Some aspects of conversation have turned into quite racist dialogues.”
In the traditionally apathetic lifestyle/fashion industry, Miller-Sharma fights back against those who think it’s shallow or frivolous. “Clothing is intrinsically part of the culture. It can be about you signalling your identity or being part of a certain group. And because of that, you can help shape culture.”
Miller-Sharma emphasises the privileges she holds. “I’m white, I’m educated, and I have a good job. For some people who are in positions of privilege, I'm not sure they know how to interrogate themselves to operate in that uncomfortable space.
“Humans have created the solution. But we’ve also created a climate in which all do not accept that solution,” says Miller-Sharma. In some ways, vaccine rollout is one of the most challenging marketing strategies we’ve had to roll out.
“Even though it’s challenging, it's important to hold love in your hearts if someone you know is vaccine-hesitant, even if you think they’re deliberately misleading.”