New Zealand’s pandemic response has been world-leading in many ways. Still, it has room for major improvement regarding its indigenous population. On December 20th, The Waitangi Tribunal released a pre-publication version of their inquiry, titled Haumaru, into aspects of the Crown’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the request of the New Zealand Māori Council. The report highlights the many ways in which the Crowns decisions during the pandemic have negatively affected the health outcomes of Māori and breached the treaty. The report focuses on the Crown’s failure to engage with Māori on key decisions in its pandemic response, their failure to jointly design a framework that respected Tino rangatiratanga, and the disproportionate risk Māori face due to the abrupt transition to the protection framework on December 15th, 2021, from the previous Four-Level system.
This isn’t surprising; the Ministry of Health has a record of dismissing the treaty. In 2006, the Ministry of Health instructed all District Health Boards to make no reference to the treaty in any policy, actions, plans, or contracts due to “government concern of backlash from the general public.” The fact that simply referencing the treaty could cause public backlash shows how uninformed and prejudiced this country can be towards New Zealand’s history and Māori. This is further displayed by the government preferring to turn a blind eye and abandon mention of Māori topics and issues within important healthcare legislation as they favour to appease an anti-Māori population within New Zealand. Never forget that turning a blind eye to oppression and watching from the side-lines is in and of itself, oppression.
At the release of Haumaru, Māori made up 15.6% of the population but comprised more than 50% of Delta cases, 38.6% of Delta hospitalisations, and 45% of Delta deaths. This gaping inequality can be connected to many factors, including lack of equitable education and healthcare access. The numbers do not lie and point to a health, housing, and education system not made for Māori or Pacific people. It displays systems that do not understand our Tikanga, way of life, and our situations amidst an ongoing pandemic. It is not uncommon for Māori and Pacific youth to live with older generations of their family. Because of major land theft, a housing crisis, and Māori culture not conforming to Eurocentric concepts of a “nuclear family”, Māori find themselves in overcrowded homes that limit their ability to self-isolate and increase the likelihood of our whānau catching Covid. We don’t have second homes or holiday batches to run to. Hell, we’re lucky to have a first home to begin with.
The rollout of the vaccine is perhaps where the largest disgrace exists. The decision by cabinet to reject an age adjustment for Māori places our people at a disproportionate risk. The Ministry of Health was informed of the need to account for ethnicity in the vaccine rollout as Māori face many disproportionate health outcomes. Having an adjusted age for the initial vaccine role out would’ve accounted for the large-scale inequities in Māori health outcomes. The report notes that Māori were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalised from COVID-19 compared to non-māori and non-pacific people. It also meant that a 59-year-old Māori patient with Covid had the same risk of hospitalisation as an 80-year-old pakeha.
The country’s transition from the Four-Level Lockdown scheme to the Traffic Light system was sudden and put Māori health providers under extreme pressure. The ministries’ unwillingness and delay in providing vaccination data and framework information inhibited these Māori-led initiatives to deliver equitable and acceptable care. This decision to transition was also made in the face of united opposition from iwi and Māori health leaders. The Ministry knew Māori health providers were essential in ensuring the vaccination programme was successful across Aotearoa but continued to ignore requests for data. The delay inhibited certain providers from engaging with Māori who were vaccine hesitant. It was clear from the initial vaccination rollout that Māori vaccination rates rose when performed by Māori health providers. These providers include the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency and the National Hauora Coalition whose heath serves networks span across the country.
The rejection of an age-adjusted vaccine rollout allowed a narrative to form which placed the blame on Māori for lack of vaccine uptake. It formed the notion that my people were more anti-vax than other ethnicities. While Māori rates were lower than other populations during Delta, it was found that Pākehā doubled the number of Māori who were unvaccinated. I believe that issues such as housing, lack of access to health care, prolonged exposure to misinformation, and a delayed New Zealand’s vaccine rollout were the main contributing factors to low vaccination rates among Māori. Haumaru illustrated the view of Associate Professor Matire Harwood (a South Auckland GP), who noted that the surrounding narrative of Māori being unvaccinated was unfair and empowered a portion of the population to be bolder with their racism.
Daddy Dr. Bloomfield emphasised that very few people are anti-vax and put the percentage at “less than 5%.” Today, the population with at least a first dose sits at 96.5%. An inspiring number shows that while anti-vaxxers are really fucking annoying and disrespect past generations who had no means of disease prevention, they do not represent the majority.
Our elders know too well the horrors of past pandemics that have ravaged our people with no vaccine to prevent death. The influence pandemic of 1918 spawned 500,000 cases, with 9,000 perishing. The European death rate; 5.8 per 1,000. The Māori death rate; 50 per 1,000. The 1897 measles outbreak among East Cape Māori, Typhoid outbreaks within Māori districts in 1911 and 1936. The 1938 measles outbreak caused 163 European and 212 Māori deaths, and the 1959 tuberculosis outbreak where cases for Pākehā were 4.1 per 10,000 while Māori cases equalled 31 per 10,000. The urupā of past generations speak to us and warn us of an unnecessary fate.
While I feel for those leading our countries response and support many aspects of their approach, I stand by the needs of my people. Tino Rangatiratanga and the right to information on how our people perform within an unsuitable health system need to be addressed. Ultimately, I hope the Ministry takes the advice this report has recommended to improve the health outcomes of Māori, but I’ll be holding my breath and sadly, there is no vaccine for asphyxiation.