Coronavirus: How a past pandemic is helping East Coast locals protect its community from COVID-19

Despite being a remote and isolated settlement at the top of the East Coast, the people of Wharekahika were not spared from the influenza epidemic of 1918 that ravaged the country.

Whanau in Te Tairāwhiti are haunted by the similarities that outbreak has with the COVID pandemic and are looking to the past to inform their response to this modern health crisis. 

"We saw that what happened was that the Government spent so much time talking and debating and considering issues. It wasn't mobilising fast enough to protect those who were most vulnerable, and we paid the price for that," Ngāti Porou's Tina Ngata told The Hui.

"I think there's definitely some similarities from that situation to this, especially in the context of the Delta variant and the protection of our children here."

Matukuhau urupā in Matakaoa is testament to the mamae still felt here. Māori had a death rate eight times that of Pākehā, and amongst the 9000 casualties were many children.

"I think those are stories that call to us to think really deeply around protecting our vulnerable, protecting our whakapapa, and protecting our future," Ngata said.

Almost 50,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been given out in Te Tairāwhiti. To reach this widespread community, marae like Parihimanihi Marae near Gisborne have been set up outside of the normal vaccination clinics in town.

"The important thing for us is manaaki and making sure that their experience when they came to have a vaccination was a memorable one," said Ngāti Porou Hauora's Cara-Lee Pewhairangi-Lawton.

"Coming here, to places that we're comfortable with makes it easy to access information and make a decision to get it if you choose to," Kennzy Hotene added.

Health workers in Te Tairāwhiti have been united in their effort to immunise as many people in the region, with Tairāwhiti District Health Board working alongside Māori health providers like Ngāti Porou Hauora and Turanga Health, as well as iwi and hapū representatives.

"I think it's probably the first time we've worked so well together, collectively and I believe the reason for that is because we were all very concerned that we want the best outcome for everyone in Tairāwhiti," said Ngāti Porou Hauora CEO Rose Kahaki.

"Long are the days gone that people stand alone and work alone, especially when it comes to Māori providers trying very hard to impact alone on Māori health outcomes."

When vaccinations first opened to the over-65 age group in July, Māori health providers in Te Tairāwhiti adopted a different strategy, one that better suited their whanau living.

"We didn't roll out in accordance with the tiers because we decided that everyone on the East Coast is vulnerable in some way," said Pewhairangi-Lawton.

Coronavirus: How a past pandemic is helping East Coast locals protect its community from COVID-19
Photo credit: The Hui

Kahaki said often families live with more than two generations, so people can travel together - especially if it's a far distance.

"There's often grandchildren, parents and grandparents in the one home or very close to each other. So travelling a long distance to the local town to the clinic, often everyone comes together and so, therefore, it's much easier for the whole whanau to come in and get their vaccines, or receive support and information from their local team of health workers.

"We didn't plan to go against the rules of what the Government was setting, you just tend to move along and learn with your community as health workers."

Tairāwhiti has the highest proportion of under 25-year-olds in the country, and it's the 20-34 age group that health workers are now focusing on to ramp up immunisation rates.

"It's about us maybe incentivising a bit more for those hard-to-reach age groups, changing our language to suit what our rangatahi understand. We're not all scientists so it is about speaking at that grassroots level," Pewhairangi-Lawton explained.

Ngata added she doesn't blame people who don't trust the system.

"I don't trust the system, but my decisions aren't based upon trust in the system, my decisions are based on the relationships of trust that I have with Māori providers, Māori experts, Māori doctors and people who have put in the time to understand what's going on, and also even when it comes to non-Māori - strong, independent people who have been allies to us.

"It's much easier, I think, and much faster and more reasonable for us to look to the relationships that we do trust and have the fullness of the discussion there."

Ninety percent of Matakaoa's kaumatua have now been vaccinated, and while there are no cases of Delta in Te Tairāwhiti so far this outbreak, locals want to keep it that way.

"Come summertime, come Labour Weekend, we're going to have a lot of whanau who will rightfully be wanting to come home to Matakaoa as they do every year, and many of them won't be vaccinated," Ngata said.

"So we really want to encourage that to be as safe as possible as well, for people to normalise getting tested before they get home, for whanau to engage in the conversations, to feel safe about getting vaccinated as well. There's still a lot of work to be done."

While they can't change history, whanau in this rohe want to learn from it.

"When we stand at places like our urupā filled with children who were never given that choice in the past, I think we owe it to them to have the fullness of the conversation around what this means for us here and now," said Ngata.

I ōnā wā ka mate rātou, ka mate ngā tāngata o te marae ka noho ko ngā tangata anake, mā rātou e tapuke ngā tūpāpaku e mau mai ki tēnei wāhi ka tāpuke ki kōnei.

Nā konā kāre e mōhio ko wai ko wai ko wai.

At that time they were all dying, the people of the marae were dying, and those who remained had to bury the dead, they'd bring them here to be laid to rest.

And that's why we don't know who is who.

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

Coronavirus: How a past pandemic is helping East Coast locals protect its community from COVID-19