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COMMENTARY: Tongan online Covid-19 conspiracy theorists changing their tune over flu vaccination

COMMENTARY: Pacific Island communities in New Zealand have been badly affected by conspiracy theories about Covid-19 ever since the pandemic struck in 2020.

Investigations by Kaniva News into the phenomenon show that the Tongan community in New Zealand is also vulnerable to such anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

Recent research has highlighted the presence of a core of anti-vaccination campaigners and right wing conspiracy theorists in New Zealand. Their conspiracy theories are shared by some Pacific Island communities.

Similar ideas have been taken up and used in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. They have also been taken up by Islander communities in Australia.

There are number of reasons for the spread of these conspiracies in the Pacific communities. Research by the New Zealand Ministry of Health and others suggests this may be because of education, mistrust of government sources, uncertainty and cultural isolation.

For many people the Covid-19 epidemic has simply been too large to comprehend. When that happens they may seek simpler or simplistic solutions for what is happening. Some of the solutions are far out on the edge.

Research in the United States has shown a strong link between conspiracy theories and fundamentalist Christianity. This has been reflected in New Zealand by the behaviour of Bishop Brian Tamaki and his followers.

However, a number of Tongan online communities that have promoted conspiracy theories are now saying very different things about the winter flu jab.

Some Facebook groups which opposed Covid vaccines and promoted extremist ideas to support their misleading arguments, have now supported the flu vaccine.

They have told people flu vaccines are perfect, unlike Covid vaccines. The fact is that flu vaccines, like the Covid-19 vaccine, are tested, verified and follow the advice and guidelines of the World Health Organisation. Logically, if the flu vaccine is acceptable, there can be nothing wrong with the Covid-19 vaccine.

The WHO has been collaborating with scientists and policy makers around the world for the past 50 years to develop a unified approach to manufacturing, testing and regulatory oversight of influenza vaccine development as well as their efficient use and distribution.

The fact that these online communities are supporting the flu vaccination is a good sign.

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection and severe outcomes caused by influenza viruses. Getting a flu vaccine helps reduce your risk of getting really sick or having to go to hospital. About 500 New Zealanders die from the flu each year.

The goals of this year’s vaccination campaign include vaccinating 75% of Māori and Pacific people aged 55 and over.

According to the Ministry of Health, 47% of Pasifika peoples over 65 in the Auckland region had received the flu jab by the week ending June 9. The vaccination rate for Pasifika peoples in Auckland aged 55-64 or the same period was 29%. For those aged six months to 12 years in Auckland it is five percent.

The flu vaccine is free for people aged 65 years and over, Māori and Pacific people aged 55 years and over, pregnant people, and people who have long-term conditions like diabetes, asthma, or heart conditions, children aged six months to 12 years old, and people with mental health and addiction issues. 

The flu vaccine can be booked through