Coronavirus: Mixed feelings on marae as quarantine areas in COVID-19 outbreak

By Leigh-Marama McLachlan for RNZ

Marae could provide valuable support in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus in Aotearoa, an iwi leader says.

Marae have all the essential facilities to accommodate people and have been used in response to civil defence emergencies before.

In 1918, they were used during the influenza pandemic as temporary hospitals for Māori patients.

Ngāti Kahungunu chair Ngahiwi Tomoana said it could happen again.

"It would just rationally flow that if there were quarantine areas, that our marae could be utilised, but not necessarily, we just have to weigh those aspects up," he said.

"We should be lining up with our DHBs to ensure that our marae are not just used as a quarantine area but that our marae can be used proactively in wānanga, in broadcasting in livecasting and livestreaming our messages to our people."

Te Rūnanga o Ngāpuhi chair Mere Mangu recalled marae in the north being used as temporary hospitals before but she is less open to the idea now.

"Right now I don't think that that is a consideration that our marae should be used in any way, any shape or form, to deal with this particular virus because we just don't know what it is exactly," she said.

"I would prefer to leave that in the hands of professionals and not make our marae reservations tapu for reasons that are beyond us.

"We can manaaki their whānau and all that sort of thing but in terms of actually looking after those people who carry the virus - I don't think that's the consideration.

"And that's not manaakitanga, I realise that, but in a funny way it really is manaaki because we are letting the professionals do their thing."

In any case, change could be on the horizon for marae across the country. In Wellington, Te Atiawa has imposed a ban on the hongi during pōhiri to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.

Other iwi are discussing whether further changes to tikanga may be necessary.

Tomoana said people may need to temporarily forego meeting kanohi ki te kanohi, and engage using online technologies.

"We will need to just think about our kawa and our tikanga and do more teleconferences, online hui and online tangi. Those are things we are gearing up for."

University of Waikato associate professor Te Kahautu Maxwell said tikanga was flexible and he recalled changes to tangihanga customs during the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s.

Dr Maxwell said he was increasingly uncomfortable about some practices which could increase the risk of catching COVID-19.

"It's the first week so we have been interacting with our students... so there has been a lot of hongi and a lot of kihi," he said.

"It's not safe right now for us, nor for the students... I am putting myself in a very vulnerable position."

The Ministry of Health said marae offered a self-sufficient space for potential quarantine, but the decision rested with each marae.

It said marae would need to develop contingency plans for other events, such as tangihanga.

However, the ministry maintains the chances of a sustained community outbreak is still low to moderate.