Opinion: Coronavirus is much worse for Māori, but it shouldn't be

Opinion: During the 1918 influenza epidemic, Māori accounted for about a third of all deaths in New Zealand.

While living standards are better now, Māori are still not as safe as the general population in a pandemic. Modelling released last week by Te Pūnaha Matatini shows that because of underlying health conditions, socioeconomic disadvantage and structural racism, the death rate for COVID-19 could be 2.5 times higher for Māori. 

This is a fast-moving virus. Clusters in communities with existing health problems or inadequate access to healthcare can be lethal. Māori are 1.5 times more likely to experience unmet health needs due to cost, and lack of sufficient transport is twice as likely to be a barrier to accessing health services. 

Two years ago, Ashley Bloomfield appeared before a Waitangi Tribunal about health inequities for Māori, arguing that Māori health outcomes are unacceptably bad, and must be addressed by the health system. The current vulnerability of Māori to this pandemic demonstrates that not nearly enough has been done.  

Poverty also plays a key role during a pandemic. Māori unemployment is double that of non-Māori, and the majority of those employed are in insecure roles. On top of this, they are most likely to be working in high-risk roles on the front line during the pandemic.

These inequalities will hit young Māori hardest: youth is a predictor of unemployment. Young people lack the experience and skills to find employment in a tough market. As businesses swing into survival mode, it’s the young, and those on casual contracts, who will suffer.  

When school began under lockdown, Newshub Nation reported that at Mangere College in Auckland, 550 out of 700 students don't have a device at home. Ninety-four percent of Mangere College students are Māori and Pacifika. While the Ministry of Education had committed to providing devices, a week into the school term they hadn't arrived. Digital poverty is widening the education gap between Māori and non-Māori. For many secondary school students, falling behind now has the potential to shape their futures.

The implementation of a lockdown has also involved an expansion of police power but, historically, police power hasn’t been applied proportionally to Māori. We must make sure careful scrutiny is applied to their new powers when the immediate issue of the pandemic is resolved.

The COVID-19 pandemic is already likely to create an historic recession, with a depression increasingly likely. In New Zealand, the brunt of this will be borne by Māori, who are already over-represented in negative poverty indicators. 

But, it doesn't have to be this way. New Zealand doesn’t have to accept that inequality and poverty disproportionately affects one part of our society. New Zealand has shown its ability to collectively respond, and there has been an incredible amount of leadership shown by Māori communities. To name a few, the distribution of food packages in the Manawatū, or community checkpoints ensuring lockdown is followed in the Far North. The COVID-19 recovery presents an opportunity at both the highest levels of Government, and in our communities for a radical reset. 

Pearl Little is a producer for Newshub Nation and wrote her dissertation on Māori politics and the MMP system.