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Covid 19 coronavirus: Misinformation on vaccines dropped in letterboxes

By Katie Doyle of RNZ

A group who previously advertised in a conspiracy ridden Covid-19 magazine is back again, this time organising a massive leaflet drop.

Up to two million flyers containing allegations about the vaccine, from the group Voices For Freedom, have been turning up in letterboxes throughout the country.

Despite a clear “no junk mail” sign, one ended up in a Wellington letterbox, but RNZ agreed not to name its owner.

The man was very unimpressed by the flyer, as he suffered from respiratory issues, meaning Covid-19 posed a high risk.

He also worried about other people who may have been affected by Covid-19.

“It’s stuffed in your letterbox, and they don’t know the circumstances of your family, you know, they don’t know whether there might be a trigger point,” he said.

“You might have a relative who is in India or in the UK or in the US who has had Covid, somebody who has died and this gets stuffed in your letterbox.”

The Advertising Standards Authority has received four complaints about the flyer.

In a statement, chief executive Hilary Souter said those had been accepted and the authority has asked for a response from the advertiser.

The flyer came from a group called Voices for Freedom.

Co-founder Claire Deeks ran as a candidate for Advance New Zealand at the last election, and was third on the party list.

“Voices For Freedom ran a specific fundraiser outreach for printing flyers to its thousands of supporters a fortnight ago,” said the group in a statement.

“This had been planned in advance and was well timed to coincide with the Government’s new vaccine campaign. The resulting funds enabled the printing and distribution of two million flyers nationwide.”

Earlier this year, Voices for Freedom took out a full-page advertisement in a magazine promoting conspiracy theories and health misinformation.

At the time, Advance New Zealand was promoting the magazine on its website and was fundraising to produce and distribute it.

Voices for Freedom said it was not in any way connected with Advance New Zealand.

In Auckland, one of the flyers turned up in the mailbox of Kate Hannah.

She is a research fellow at the University of Auckland who is leading a Covid-19 disinformation project at Te Pūnaha Matatini.

“I was quite distressed that it had arrived at the same time it felt as, or looked like, the official Unite Against Covid-19 vaccination flyer that is also being distributed widely by the Ministry of Health.”

Her team have heard of the flyers turning up in Dunedin, Wellington, Nelson, Marlborough and Gisborne.

Hannah said some conspiracy groups were becoming highly adept at presenting statements in a way that appeared like public health information.

While most New Zealanders could tell the difference, she said it was still a worry.

That was because it showed how co-ordinated the groups could be, and how they were attempting to interfere with New Zealand’s response to Covid-19.

A Professor of Medicine at the University of Auckland, Des Gorman, said flyers like this could create vaccine hesitancy.

“New Zealand is stuck. We had no choice but to go for an elimination strategy because our health system simply couldn’t accommodate any additional disease burden,” he said.

“So we’re isolated at the bottom of the world and our way of reintegrating really does depend upon mass vaccination, because the only way we can reintegrate with the planet is if we actually have a very high level of herd immunity.”

“Vaccination really matters for us. It’s critical both for our health and wellbeing and also for our economics and livelihood.”

Professor Gorman said if people were worried about getting the vaccine they needed to talk to their GP.

In a statement, The Ministry of Health said people could report misinformation to CERT NZ.

It said people should carefully consider what information they pass on, or share online with their friends and whānau.

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