Coronavirus: COVID-19 outbreak 'impossible' to stop if it hits Māori in overcrowded housing - expert

A leading Māori health expert says it will be "impossible" to stop COVID-19 from devastating Māori and Pacific Island communities if outbreaks aren't nipped in the bud. 

Rawiri Jansen, a clinical director of Māori health, says new research suggesting Māori face death rates 50 to 150 percent higher than other ethnicities is "confirmation really of a concern that we've had for a long time - that if COVID gets into Māori communities, it will be devastating".

Researchers at the University of Canterbury and Te Pūnaha Matatini looked at data on outbreaks of COVID-19 overseas, specifically at how it's affected disadvantaged and minority communities, and applied it to New Zealand - and the results were sobering.

"At-risk communities typically have higher prevalence of underlying health conditions, are more likely to live in overcrowded and multi-generational households, and have relatively young populations," the study, published on Friday in the New Zealand Medical Journal, said.

"Similar factors apply to Māori in New Zealand."

Dr Jansen said despite New Zealand's success at controlling the pandemic so far, we have to remain ultra-vigilant.

"We've got inequities in our wider society - way more overcrowding for Māori and Pacific families - it's going to travel further and faster... The underlying reason is unequal access to resources in our society - let's call it racism. We've got to address those sorts of things. 

"As we go through this pandemic, we have to be mindful the COVID crisis is coming on top of the housing crisis, it's coming on top of years of neglect for Māori. Way more unmet healthcare needs. 

"We have to understand that, we have to recognise that as we prepare our response to COVID. The community has less resources to fight this. If you're overcrowded, if you've got two or three families in one house, it's impossible to manage COVID." 

When COVID-19 first arrived here, fewer Māori were infected than their proportion of population would suggest - only 9 percent. 

"Mostly that first wave was affecting people who were returning, so young, fit, healthy," said Dr Jansen.

The current outbreak has hit Pacific Island communities though, but was caught early thanks to the "fantastic response" from health officials and the community, he said. 

Rawiri Jansen.
Rawiri Jansen. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Jansen said he expects the COVID threat to be around for up to at least three years.

"We've really got to hunker down and get this right." 

When to shift levels?

No one has yet died in the latest outbreak of COVID-19. With the daily number of new cases detected in the community trending downwards, Cabinet will meet on Monday to discuss the possibility of the country dropping down an alert level

"The epidemic curve peaked about two weeks ago, it is undulating downwards," Auckland Regional Public Health Service's Dr William Rainger told The AM Show.

"We have had the Mt Roskill church congregation, which has given it a little spike, but the direction of travel is downwards."

Auckland shifted from level 3 to a modified level 2 - widely referred to as level 2.5 - on Monday. It could take a couple of weeks to determine whether the looser restrictions of level 2 have resulted in a resurgence of the virus.

"We can't really move down a level yet because we are still seeing cases at the moment, things that happened 10 days ago because we are always looking backwards," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show, saying he'd want days of zero new cases before moving down, like we did earlier this year. 

"We need at least another week at this level 2.5 in Auckland."

Te Pūnaha Matatini's Shaun Hendy, who contributed to the research mentioned earlier, agreed.

"I think it would be wise to figure out how well the current settings have worked before we change them. That is the challenge in managing this disease, you do have to wait a while to understand if the measures you are taking are being effective. I think you just have to move at this sort of fortnight to fortnight pace."

Almost every case picked up in the community recently has been linked back to the single cluster.