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New Zealand Maori Party co-chair Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says the country’s new COVID-19 strategy amounts to a “death sentence” for indigenous communities.
In early October, the country announced it would ease coronavirus restrictions in the largest city, Auckland. The decision was widely viewed as a departure from a zero tolerance approach to the pandemic, where a single coronavirus infection could create severe restrictions on public life. So far, only 28 New Zealanders have died from COVID-19.
However, fighting the Delta variant has proven to be more difficult. A seven-week lockdown in Auckland failed to bring cases to zero in the recent outbreak.
“With this outbreak and Delta, going back to zero is incredibly difficult,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in an October 4 speech. “But that’s fine … the elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we have it. So we can start changing the way we do things.”
The eased restrictions in Auckland are still much tighter than most Americans are used to, and 83% of New Zealand’s 12+ population have now received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Nevertheless, the vaccination rates among indigenous Maori are well below the national average. The rates for New Zealand’s Pacific peoples who trace their heritage back to islands in the Pacific Ocean are higher – but also still below the national average.
Ngarewa-Packer, who is also a member of New Zealand’s parliament, said the plan shows that “Maori have always been dispensable”.
“If the majority of Maori are not vaccinated, it will effectively be viewed by us locally as a death warrant,” she told MediaFrolic All Things Considered. “We are an indigenous people who survived colonization and everything that came with it. Unfortunately, we have some of the worst health statistics.”
A study in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that an 80-year-old white New Zealander had predicted the same risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 due to increased rates of comorbidity in Maori and Pacific Islander communities, as well as “structural bias and systemic racism” in the health system as an approximately 60-year-old Maori patient and an approximately 55-year-old Pacific patient.
Indigenous Maori make up 16.5% of the country’s roughly 5 million people, and the Pacific peoples make up another 8.1%.
According to the latest government data, 62% of eligible Maori have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 77% of the Pacific peoples and 83% of the general population. These numbers drop to 39% of Eligible Maori and 53% of Eligible Pacific Peoples with a second dose, compared to 59% of the general Eligible Population.
Ngarewa-Packer said Maori communities are not responsible for their below-average vaccination rates.
“It basically starts with a high level of distrust of government and authority,” said Ngarewa-Packer, adding that the vaccination campaign was only designed with the general population in mind.
“So [the vaccination campaign] started at 65-plus … but in the Maori population, 70% of us are under 40 years of age [and] 25% of Maori are under 20, “she said.” So you have this complete hit and miss with the public health system and the role of the vaccination program. “
Ngarewa-Packer noted that during the initial outbreak, Maori communities were able to “collect their own responses in the form of checkpoints” to control movement and additional resources for disadvantaged citizens.
“This time there was a much more central approach and less support for Maori to do their own ground resistance against COVID,” said Ngarewa-Packer.
When asked at a press conference that the Maori Party describes the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions as a “modern form of genocide”, Prime Minister Ardern replied: “I do not agree.”
She noted that vaccination rates for Maori over 50 were very high, but added, “We have to see [vaccination] The prices are rising … and we are working hard on it, as are our Maori vendors, as we speak. “
Collin Tukuitonga, associate professor of public health at the University of Auckland of Pacific, told MediaFrolic that most public health experts have always believed the government would relax restrictions at some point, “but not until we get better vaccination rates for them most vulnerable groups have. ”
Tukuitonga noted that the majority of cases in the recent outbreak were among Māori and Pacific communities.
“People are concerned that it will continue to affect mostly Maori and Pacific residents,” he said. “And they will bear the brunt of the government’s decision to get out of the elimination strategy.”
Along with Ngarewa-Packer, Tukuitonga believes that the New Zealand government is responsible for the low Maori and Pacific vaccination rates. However, he said the government had targeted its vaccination strategy through marginalized communities.
“After all, the government has given … Maori community providers, Maori community leaders the resources and support to provide vaccination services to their own communities,” Tukuitonga said.
He said there are now more vaccination options, including mobile buses that are sent to vaccinate members of communities with low receptivity.
“The criticism we have is that we should have done that from the start,” he said.