The Covid story is rapidly becoming a Maori story as Maori dominate new cases, and vaccination rates among Maori lag well behind the overall population rate.
But there are questions about whether white middle-class Wellington bureaucrats and politicians can really develop solutions for Maori communities.
Working with Maori TV’s Te Ao News, Maori Health Researcher, Dr Rawiri Taonui, said yesterday that Māori were 11 of 24 new Covid cases. This was the highest ethnic figure.
“Māori are the highest ethnicity for cases over six of the last seven days,” he said.
“Māori are 42.1% (125 of 197) of all new cases during Level 3, and they have the highest number of new cases of all ethnicities since September 14.”
Added to the questions about Maori are questions about how the Cabinet has been making Covid policy.
It has now been confirmed that the Government last year was approached by Pfizer in June last year about purchasing then-then still in development Pfizer vaccine but delayed appropriating money to go ahead and order the vaccine until August.
“It is inexcusable that this delay not only occurred but was first kept and delayed from the cabinet,” said NZ First Leader Winston Peters yesterday.
Peters claims Cabinet was never briefed on the Pfizer offer, which adds to an impression that the Prime Minister has kept most major Covid decisions to a small group of Ministers, often working outside conventional public service lines.
The talks with Pfizer were headed by the then General Manager of Science Innovation and International at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Dr Peter Crabtree.
Surprisingly, it seems, the agency charged with buying New Zealand’s pharmaceuticals, PHARMAC, was not given the task of leading the negotiations.
Dr Crabtree is best known as the man behind the Government assistance for Rocket Lab.
But there are other questions about Wellington decision making.
John Tamihere, the Chief Executive of the Waipareira Trust and Male Vice President of the Maori Party, said the Whanau Ora Commissioning Agency had been consistently refused access by Ministry of Health officials to key Maori data, which could be used to support a complete Māori Vaccination roll out strategy.
This is despite Pakeha non-GP health providers like pharmacies getting access to the data.
He said the Whanau-Ora Agency already had access to all the country’s National Health Index numbers.
Tai Tokerau Border Control activist Hone Harawira complained about the same issue.
“You have to understand your communities. You have to have r networks into your community,” he told POLITIK.
“So why have you provided that information to a Pakeha medical organisation?
“How can you provide them with that information?
“How come we’re not even allowed to be at the same table.”
What is driving Tamihere and Harawira is a concern that Maori vaccination rates are low.
Only 57.6 per cent of eligible Maori have received their first dose compared with 74 per cent of Pasifika and 81 per cent of the Pakeha population.
Harawira is worried that this makes Maori in the north vulnerable.
“I’m hugely worried,” he said.
“Tai Tokerau’s Maori population in terms of comorbidities will be the worst region in the whole country, the most unsafe place in the whole country.
“The level of vaccination is critically low.
“In Tai Tokerau, we are a recipe waiting for the disaster to come along.
“Covid is right on our doorstep.
“Even the medical professionals are saying it’s only a matter of time. Prepare for a few cases and prepare for the first mortality. Yeah, it’s just a matter of time.”
Harawira is also furious that his Tai Tokerau Border Control checkpoints have been stopped by the Police from questioning people coming into the north about their reasons for coming and their state of health.
“Last year, there seemed to be a willingness to work together,” he said.
“This year, we’re going back to the same old days of the Police telling everybody, Stand back Maori, we’re in charge, and we can f..k this up as badly as anybody else.”
Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday conceded there was an issue getting Maori vaccinated.
“I think it is true that Covid has taken hold in some of the most disadvantaged parts of our community and around the world,” he said.
“When we look at what’s happening around the world as vaccination rates increase, that is increasingly the pattern in other countries as well.
“Covid finds the most vulnerable people in the community, and it finds people who haven’t been vaccinated and often those two groups are one and the same.
“And that is absolutely our experience of this outbreak here in New Zealand.”
Maori politicians, like Tamihere and Harawira, are ready with solutions. Maori Party MP Rawiri Waititi pointed to the success of the Te Kaha Health Centre, which has vaccinated 90 per cent of the population of Te Whanau a Apanui who live on the East Coast to the east of Opotiki.
“This is what a by Māori, for Māori, to Māori, model looks like,” he said.
“The messengers and the messages are Māori, hence why the successful vaccination strategy for our iwi.”
Part of the Te Kaha approach involved directly approaching patients who had not been vaccinated, but as a medical practice, they had the data to identify those patients which non-medical services like Waipareira’s VaxBux do not.
Our problem is that in a short amount of time, we are going to have to lift Māori Vaccination rates significantly,” said Tamihere.
“It now becomes critical for Māori providers to deploy their resources so that Māori vaccination rates are increased in every suburb where Māori are lagging.
“This means our mobile vaccination vehicles must know where to target populations, streets and suburbs up and down Aotearoa.
“At the moment, the District Health Boards and Ministry of Health know they are sending us out on non-targeted fishing expeditions.”
There are other issues within the Maori community, particularly the presence of gangs.
National Party politicians were quick yesterday to attack the Government for allowing two gang leaders to be declared essential workers and thus allowed in and out of the Auckland border to help with contact tracing.
But Hipkins defended the decision to grant the exemption.
“We are seeing within those communities a disproportionate number of people who don’t trust government generally, and the distrust has built up over generations,” he said.
“And so that means that we have to do different things in order to reach those communities.”
One thing Hipkins did make very clear yesterday was that from now one New Zealanders had to expect to live Covid cases in the community.
POLITIK understands that District Health Boards are currently talking to GPs about how these cases might be managed.
“Our strategy to date of keeping Covid out and vigorously pursuing cases that do emerge has served us very well. But we can’t keep doing that forever, and new challenges like the emergence of the Delta variant has made it harder than it was before,” he said.
“As the Prime Minister said on Monday, getting back to zero cases of Covid in the community is now unlikely.”
It was likely the Government would start a transition to a different way of managing the risks around Covid, and that would happen gradually, he said.
“It won’t be a sudden Big Bang, but it means that Level One, as we knew it previously, will probably look a little different in the context of a highly vaccinated population.
“And our response to individual cases or individual clusters of cases will probably be different as well.
“We’re working our way through that.
“I haven’t got any announcements to make on that today, but there will be more coming and in the coming weeks on a transition away from elimination.”
That, though, is going to depend on the vaccination target being reached, and that is going to largely depend on getting Maori vaccination rates up.