Coronavirus: How a vaccine sceptic turned advocate

A woman who managed to climb out of a rabbit-hole of misinformation and conspiracy theories is now encouraging others to get vaccinated against COVID-19 so they can protect their families and visit relatives still in the islands.

Halaevalu Tongauiha says she's not an anti-vaxxer, but was sucked in by false information on social media.

"There were multiple stories, conspiracies and rumours circulating on social media at the time, and it made me feel afraid for myself and especially for my children because of what I'd seen and heard," she told The AM Show on Friday.

Doctors say Māori and Pasifika, due to a confluence of socio-economic and health factors, are at more risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious illness. Despite this, their uptake of the vaccine - which is free and just as safe as any other - has been lower than Pākehā and people of Asian descent. Just 29.1 percent of eligible Māori have had their first dose, and 40.6 percent of Pasifika, behind the nationwide figure of 45 percent. 

While prior existing health inequities have contributed to this low uptake, there have been reports of misinformation spreading quickly through Pasifika communities via social media and church congregations

"Just random people that would pop up on the newsfeed and threads - I'd play them and watch it and I'd be like 'ooh - that's kind of scary'," said Tongauiha. "It kind of sunk into me and gave me that second thought of 'should I go ahead with this or not? Videos saying it's got a chip in it, or if you don't get your second shot you'll pass away. That kind of gave me the question - should I or not?" 

Other fake claims she's come across on social media include that the vaccine alters your DNA, contains animal genes and is "satanic". 

While most major social media platforms have talked up steps they've taken to stem the firehose of nonsense, it's still rife. 

While the message from most authorities - political, scientific and religious - has been to get vaccinated as soon as possible, not everyone trusts, or even listens to, them. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins basically admitted as much on The AM Show on Thursday, saying a cross-party press conference to urge Kiwis to get vaccinated wouldn't achieve much.

"That's not going to reach the group of people that we know we are really needing to reach for first doses - they are people who are under the age of 35, they are people who are not watching the six o'clock news, they're not reading the newspaper."

It took a chat with her husband for Tongauiha to come around. 

"He said to me, 'We've got to look ahead to the future. We never know when New Zealand or the world would be able to eliminate this virus.' 

"His parents are still in the islands, in Tonga. He usually goes every second year to see his parents - he said it would be good we get vaccinated too so that when it does come to a time when the borders do open, he doesn't have to go through that MIQ wait and can just go straight home and see his parents, spend time with them then come back to New Zealand." 

After she got the first dose and realised she wasn't going to turn magnetic, Tongauiha was happy to get her second.

She's now encouraging others to get vaccinated too - but has a long way to go, struggling to get even some of her own family on board.

"I've managed to convince some. Only me and my baby brother are the siblings that are fully vaccinated in my immediate family - I'm still trying to convince and persuade my mum and my two little sisters and my other little brother to go ahead and do it." 

The Pfizer vaccine, after two doses, significantly reduces the likelihood of infection, serious illness and death. Its potential side effects are similar to those other vaccines - muscle pain and fatigue the most common - but are brief. Serious side effects are incredibly rare. 

"The only people who shouldn't take this vaccine are those who are allergic to the ingredients on the vaccine," Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, told The Project on Wednesday. "It's safe to take this vaccine if you have other allergies - like food allergies and things."

So far, just one death in New Zealand has been potentially causally linked to the vaccine - it is still under investigation. The number of post-dose deaths recorded so far is actually fewer than would be expected by chance, Medsafe says

At present, 83 percent of Aucklanders have had at least the first dose. The Government has said over 90 percent would be needed to cut back on lockdowns.