By Chris Ford*
Opinion - In my time, I've participated in a number of protests. I have done so around issues of social injustice such as user-pays tertiary education, climate change, employment law reforms, disability rights and threats to public health services, to name a few.
Never though have I and other New Zealanders seen or witnessed anything like the right-wing inspired, influenced and led occupation that has paralysed our nation's capital for almost a fortnight now. They have been supported by a range of people from alt right and far right causes whom, in their wake, have drawn a considerable number of otherwise previously apathetic or even some otherwise progressive people in with their nonsensical and dangerous anti-vaccination theories.
Despite the range of causes that have brought this otherwise disparate group of people together - leading to some perturbing and confusing messaging along the way - the one thing they seemingly want is freedom from the government's Covid-19 rules.
For disabled people like myself, this freedom would mean the end of reasonable restrictions which have saved potentially not only my life but the lives of thousands of disabled people and people with health conditions nationwide who would otherwise have succumbed to Covid-19.
These restrictions have been sometimes frustrating and created difficulties for disabled people due to barriers being created by them, including access to support services being restricted during lockdowns and issues around accessing vaccinations. This all pales into comparison when, on balance, the restrictions and vaccinations have been a godsend to the disability and immunocompromised communities.
I hope that anyone who has been on the protest (or is still planted there), if they are reading this, will take note of the fact that overseas a high proportion of Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths (particularly prior to the arrival of vaccines) were of disabled people or people with health conditions.
However, that won't worry some of the protesters, particularly those of a white supremacist/neo-Nazi persuasion who simply believe in no vaccination mandates due to the fact that Māori, Pacific, ethnic community and disabled people will all be able to just die off more easily in their view. Despite the messaging of some that the vaccination mandates are merely Nazism in disguise, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, in fact, did not believe in vaccination mandates at all (which had been applied in Germany during the mid-1870s), believing that a more voluntaristic approach would lead to people who were viewed as enemies of Aryan racial purity - and this included disabled people and people with health conditions - dying off in greater numbers. So the Nazis ended all vaccine mandates from the mid-1930s onwards in line with their eugenic driven racial policies.
For the more traditional Christian social conservative elements who are participating, it all comes down to the false belief that all it will take is for people to be spiritually healed of Covid-19. In terms of the libertarians and neo-liberals who are either participating in or funding the occupation, it all comes down to just selfishness as epitomised by the millionaire's wife who was photographed in huge designer green gumboots on the grounds of Parliament last week.
Therefore, what I say to those participants is that to the Christian conservatives, many disabled people (and this includes many I know who are practising disabled Christians) don't subscribe to the simple prayer over the don't take the vaccine mantra. And as for the neo-liberals and libertarians among you, my guess is that you will be largely well-off and therefore don't give a damn about those who are marginalised and oppressed within our society, such as disabled people.
And what of the disabled and older residents of Central Wellington who have had to wade through this protest? What of the people who have had to endure either being attacked or harassed for simply wearing a face covering? In this, I was drawn to the words of Rae Julian, a central Wellington resident and older person with health conditions who last week talked about the frustrations of having to navigate around a small but still vociferous and un-vaccinated band of protesters as well as some new access barriers which have been created due to the detritus strewn around the parliamentary precincts by the occupation.
Talking of these new access barriers, I was enraged at the entitled arrogance of the woman who parked on a mobility access car park and told 1 News that she was 'happy to move if someone needed the park'. Believe me, I and many other disabled people have heard that excuse frequently from non-disabled people but given that this was done in the context of the occupation, it has simply made my and other disabled people's blood boil.
I have to say, though, that my guess is that some disabled people will have been drawn to the protest as well. Unsurprisingly, given the oppressive history of disability and associated denial of human rights, the siren cry of freedom would no doubt appeal to those who see the mandates as yet another denial of our freedom - when it really isn't. I know from personal experience that some disabled people (especially those who experience mental distress) would have been sadly drawn towards the protests and occupations by the preceding (and continuing) vaccination disinformation being spread through social media.
Lastly, I want to say a few words to those anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers at the occupation and elsewhere whom have made it harder for people who have genuinely needed facial coverings/mask exemptions to be believed. I say to the anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers who have gone about falsely claiming their 'right' to coverings exemptions and not wearing masks that you have caused acts of discrimination against disabled people and people with health conditions who really cannot wear masks for medical reasons nationwide. Your actions have sown confusion and distrust where there should not have been and this has been at the expense of disabled people and people with health conditions - many, if not all of whom would wear a mask if they could do so. All I can say is if you can genuinely wear a mask, then do so and help protect those who really can't!
Ultimately, I want the end of all Covid-19 restrictions and mandates too - but only when it's safe to do so and, scientifically speaking, this isn't the right time. At the end of the day, when the last restrictions are dropped, I and thousands of other disabled people will be there to celebrate alongside everyone else as we will have survived thanks to, albeit, imperfect but much needed government action - and just surviving will be the disability community's answer to the occupiers and protesters, many of whom really just want 'freedom' for themselves and no one else.