Kai Schwoerer / Getty Images
New Zealand Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the country’s new COVID-19 strategy amounts to a “death warrant” for indigenous communities.
Earlier in October, the country announced it was easing restrictions on coronaviruses in Auckland’s largest city. The move was widely seen as moving away from a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic, where a single coronavirus infection could trigger severe restrictions on public life. To date, only 28 New Zealanders have died from COVID-19.
But battling the Delta variant turned out to be more difficult. A seven-week lockdown in Auckland has failed to reduce cases from the latest outbreak to zero.
“With this epidemic and Delta, going back to zero is incredibly difficult,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in an October 4 speech. “But that’s okay… elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do. So we can start to change the way we do things.”
Auckland’s relaxed restrictions are still much stricter than most Americans are used to, and 83% of New Zealand’s population aged 12 and over have now received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Yet vaccination rates among Indigenous Maori are well below national averages. Rates for New Zealand’s Pacific peoples, who trace their heritage back to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, are higher – but also still below the national average.
Ngarewa-Packer, who is also a member of the New Zealand parliament, said the plan showed “Maori are still consumable.”
“When a majority of Maori are not vaccinated, it is effectively seen by us on the ground as signing a death warrant,” she told NPR’s All Things Considered. “We are an indigenous people who survived colonization and all that came with it, unfortunately we have some of the worst health statistics.”
A study by the New Zealand Medical Journal found that due to increased rates of co-morbidities in Maori and Pacific Island communities, as well as “structural biases and systemic racism” in the healthcare system, a white New Zealander from 80 years old had the same prediction. risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19 as Maori patient around 60 years old and Pacific patient around 55 years old.
Indigenous Maori make up 16.5% of the country’s estimated 5 million people, and Pacific peoples 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 Pacific peoples and 83% of the general population. Those 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 were not to blame for their below-average vaccination rates.
“It basically starts with a great distrust of government and authority,” Ngarewa-Packer said, adding that the vaccination campaign was designed with the general population in mind.
“So [the vaccination campaign] started at 65 and over … but in the Maori population 70% of us are under 40 [and] 25% of Maori are under the age of 20, “she said.” So you have this complete chance with the public health system and the role of the immunization program. “
Ngarewa-Packer noted that during the initial outbreak, Maori communities were able to “set up their own responses” in the form of checkpoints to control movement and additional resources for disadvantaged citizens.
“This time around, there has been a much more centralized approach, less support for the Maori to make their own ground resistance to COVID,” Ngarewa-Packer said.
Asked at a Maori Party press conference calling the easing of COVID-19 restrictions a “modern form of genocide,” Prime Minister Ardern replied, “I don’t agree with that.”
She noted that vaccination rates were very high for Maori over the age of 50, but added: “We have to see these [vaccination] the rates are going up… and we’re working tremendously on that, and so are our Maori suppliers as we speak. “
Collin Tukuitonga, associate professor of public health at the University of Auckland of Pacific origin, told NPR that most public health experts had always thought the government would end up relaxing the restrictions, “but not so much as we will not have better vaccination rates for the groups most at risk. ”
Tukuitonga noted that the majority of cases in the most recent outbreak were in Maori and Pacific communities.
“People are concerned that this will continue to affect mainly Maori and the people of the Pacific,” he said. “And they will bear the full brunt of the government’s decision to exit the elimination strategy.”
Along with Ngarewa-Packer, Tukuitonga believes the responsibility for the low vaccination rates of Maori and the Pacific lies with the New Zealand government. However, he said the government had taken a step forward in its vaccination strategy by targeting marginalized communities.
“Finally, the government has given (…) Maori community providers, Maori community leaders, the resources and support to deliver immunization services to their own communities,” Tukuitonga said.
He said there were now more immunization options, including mobile buses dispatched to immunize members of communities with low immunization rates.
“The criticism we have is that we should have done it from the start,” he said.