The question isn’t WHO, it’s why?
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has called it “incomprehensible” and “cringeworthy”. The first is because it appears to not make any sense. The second is because of what it says about New Zealand on the world stage.
Clark was referring to the new Government’s decision to “reserve against” proposed amendments to World Health Organisation (WHO) regulations that are known as the International Health Regulations (IHR).
In plain language, this means that New Zealand has pressed pause on accepting new WHO regulations designed to coordinate responses to infectious diseases and other health emergencies. There was a tight deadline, as withdrawal had to be signalled by December 1.
This sudden decision emerged from National’s coalition agreement with NZ First. The smaller party persuaded the larger one to agree that national interest tests must be met before New Zealand signs up to WHO amendments or future agreements with the United Nations. Critics of NZ First say such tests are already applied.
While it sounds dry, the agreement points to an ideological win for NZ First and its newfound following among those who could be called antivaccine and anti-mandate activists. A less polite term would be conspiracy theorists.
Many activists or theorists are convinced the WHO intends to put new controls on member states, including an ability to override the sovereignty of national governments, impose lockdowns and suppress or censor dissenting information. These and other claims are not true.
NZ First has had a political interest in this area for some time. A press release from leader Winston Peters in May claimed “New Zealanders will be highly concerned that WHO proposes to effectively take control of independent decisionmaking away from sovereign countries and place control with the Director General”.
Peters described the imaginary threat as “globalism gone mad”.
His deputy leader, Shane Jones, used more florid language. He warned about “an unheralded cabal of Ministry of Health officials, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) and the PM’s office”.
An “unheralded cabal” is a nice way of describing a small group with a secret agenda, which is classic conspiratorial thinking.
Jones added that Mfat were “multilateral Pharisees” and put his opposition to the WHO in a wider political context, saying that “Brexit, Make America Great Again, and collapsed supply chains showed globalisation has passed its hightide mark”.
Brexit and Make America Great Again were expressions of a wave of nationalist populism that has also found a home in Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. Such movements tend to come with a distrust of those believed to be elites, including the mainstream media, the universityeducated and other such “Pharisees”.
Of course, this general area has been Peters’ political hunting ground for decades. But it has been updated for the age of Covid-19 conspiracies and social media.
Another one of Peters’ 2023 candidates, Kirsten Murfitt, who was ranked at 11 on the party list, had submitted a petition against the IHR to Parliament.
It claimed “individual nations would surrender their sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats with discretionary powers to lock down their citizens and economy for any international public health emergency”. But the WHO could not force countries like New Zealand to lock down citizens.
Similarly, groups such as the World Council for Health, New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out With Science (NZDSOS) and Voices for Freedom, all of which could be described as sceptical about the Covid response, have pushed for NZ First’s position on the amendments.
A NZDSOS spokesperson claims that “people are dead, dying and severely disabled as a result of the Covid-19 vaccine and boosters”. That belief continues to circulate in the conspiracy community.
Four deaths have been possibly linked to the Covid vaccine in New Zealand. More than 12 million doses have been administered.
Everyone remembers how Covid-19 became bitterly political in New Zealand, and it seems NZ First is keen to continue the politics of the Covid era. That means we must turn again to experts with reliable knowledge. Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker, so familiar from 2020, is back in the news debunking fanciful claims about the WHO.
Clark has been drawn into the debate because she co-chaired a panel that reviewed the WHO’s response, seen as slow and under-resourced. One of its findings was that the WHO needs stronger leadership, better co-ordination and more preparedness before there is another pandemic.
People are, of course, free to believe whatever they wish, even when it clashes with reality. But we will need to understand how and why a party that won just 6% of the vote is having such a surprising level of influence.