Experts say COVID-19 is 'deepening inequity' in New Zealand society

People working with Auckland's vulnerable communities say COVID is exacerbating inequities and hardships in New Zealand society.

Announcements over home isolation and vaccinations have been impossible for many to follow, and it's left some communities feeling left behind.

Papakura Marae runs a testing centre, vaccination centre, and food bank. Demand for food has tripled since the most recent lockdown started.

"It's sustained effort that's required, so it's not just a quick one-off, one-week thing, we're seeing repeat people come back and new people come in for support," says CEO Tony Kake.

We've been told for over 18 months now that COVID doesn't discriminate.

But National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri Jansen says it's making existing discrimination worse.

"We are all witnessing a deepening inequity as a result of COVID and our response to it," he says.

Some policy announcements aren't just failing to break down barriers: they're establishing new ones.

"Don't get us wrong, these are great ideas, but they're ideas coming from people who have no understanding or experience of what it's like to live in these communities," says Manukau ward councillor Efeso Collins.

Access to vaccinations is more difficult for isolated communities, or people without cars whose nearest centre may be at least an hour away.

High school students are having to drop out and take full-time jobs to support relatives who've been put into isolation and unable to work.

And while the Government's proposed an interim home isolation model, it simply doesn't work for many households.

"I think it's not possible for the majority of people who are caught in our current outbreak," says Dr Jansen.

Under the scheme, positive cases can isolate at home if their home allows them to safely isolate away from others, if they have good access to the internet or a phone, and they can drive to a testing centre.

If someone can't meet the criteria, then they're transferred to a quarantine facility.

"What we're seeing here is the inequity that exists in our society, because we've got overcrowding that's at phenomenal levels at the moment, and all of our garages are being used to house people, so self-isolating at home is impossible," says Collins.

"If we're depending on the one person who's got data on their phone, someone with a car who's able to get us somewhere to get us tested, it's just way too much stress on our families."

Collins says many in his community have shut themselves off from the COVID response because they believe the system doesn't believe in them.

"This is the ultimate issue you have when you have a one-size-fits-all system. The system needs to adjust, we've all got to adjust, and when we do adjust, people come forth and they feel like they belong in the society."

That's something Kake has been working to change.

"The 1pm announcements have addressed the bell curve, the median, now we've got to work differently for the corners," he says.

While he welcomes the announcement of the $120 million support fund to accelerate Māori vaccinations, he says the marae will continue on the same trajectory it's been working on.

"We know our communities, we know those hard-to-reach communities, and the approach needs to be different. Vaccination might be number three, four, five, six on their priority list and that's just the way we've got to work it through."

Even he acknowledges the marae's Monday to Friday vaccination drive-thru can't serve everyone.

"Courier drivers, for example, have to be on the road every day, they can't come between 9 and 5, we have to work it out differently."

Kake has a particular interest in recognising the needs of whānau hauā and tangata whaiora - disability and mental health communities - and the barriers towards them getting support.

"Even touch, or turning up fully gowned is going to turn them off, so we need to be conscious of that and help overturn some of those barriers," he explains.

Ultimately, Dr Jansen, Kake and Collins say it comes down to partnerships and listening to their communities' needs.

"We as a nation, we as communities, we as families have so much more to do, and this pandemic is an opportunity for us to do it right," says Dr Jansen.

"You'll get compliance from people when they understand the why. And to get the why from the individuals you need to go one-on-one with them to explain it," Kake says.

"If you turn up on their doorstep willing to have a conversation in Samoan, you've got a food parcel with you, they know that you're interested in their immediate needs and they'll be prepared to listen. Otherwise they're not going to engage with a system that has failed them over many years," adds Collins.

Those on the front line say getting vaccination rates up takes more than announcing policies. It takes engaging with those who until now have felt left behind.