Coronavirus: Anti-vaxxers might have brought COVID-19 to Te Tai Tokerau - Hone Harawira

Hone Harawira thinks anti-vaccination activists might be to blame for Northland's new mystery cases of COVID-19.

And the founder of Te Tai Tokerau Border Control fears more locals will be infected when Aucklanders are freed from the grip of alert level 3 restrictions ahead of summer, dubbing the prospect "a bit scary". 

The northern tip of the country went into level 3 at midnight after the detection of an "unlinked case" of COVID-19 in Taipa, about 20km northeast of Kaitaia, far from other Northland locations where the virus has been found. 

The case was found six days after members of a self-described 'Sovereign Hikoi of Truth' gathered in Waitangi. While most appear to have been local to Northland, Harawira thinks some of them made it through Auckland's southern and northern borders. 

"Big ups to Ngati Whatua and the police for keeping 95 percent of them out, but some of them got in," the former Mana MP told RNZ's First Up

"We won't know probably until the end of this week just how much damage they've caused by coming up here with a scant disregard for the health and wellbeing of the people of the north. We should have gone up to level 3 then."

The Sovereign Hikoi of Truth, previously dismissed by Harawira as a "scam" organised by "Pākehā anti-vaxxers", brought together a couple of thousand people who - according to an investigation by The Spinoff - appear to believe in a wide range of bizarre conspiracy theories, including about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The truth is the vaccine is incredibly effective at preventing serious illness and death, and also lowers the chance of infection and transmission. Experts worldwide are now saying COVID-19 is largely a disease of the unvaccinated

"They were dedicated anti-vaxxers, eh - people who didn't mind standing right up in the face of local Māori and spitting their venom," Harawira told RNZ.

Like health officials, he can't say for sure where the mystery case came from. An August study found the average time it takes for COVID-19 symptoms to show after infection is 5.8 days, and the case was found six days after the Waitangi event.

Even if these cases never happened, with Delta now likely here to stay Northland won't be free of the virus forever. Harawira says too many "unnecessary" exemptions for cross-border travel have been dished out, increasing the risk.

"We had a guy come up to look at his orchard not so long ago - spent 10 minutes at his orchard and the rest of the day out fishing with his mates from up here," he told The AM Show. "There's so many examples of these stories in our area… somebody really needs to clamp down properly." 

The problem is at current vaccination rates, Northland is likely to be the last part of the country to reach the 90 percent target. In the meantime, locals are highly vulnerable to the virus, which is about twice as infectious as the original strain that emerged in China in 2019. Māori are also about 50 percent more susceptible to COVID-19, health experts say, due to pre-existing conditions and socio-economic conditions. 

'Poor and destitute' will get 'smashed'

With the Prime Minister promising Aucklanders they'll be allowed to travel to other parts of the country for Christmas, Harawira is urging Northlanders to get vaccinated.

"I know that when they say even if Northland hits 90 percent, the ones who are going to be the 10 percent missing are… the poor and the destitute," he told The AM Show. 

With many hailing from Te Tai Tokerau living in Auckland, he said those still up north are "dead keen" to welcome them home for the festive season - but not if that means bringing the virus with them. 

"I think the Government needs to take a lead on this and to be honest with everybody. I see the minister trying to be nice to Aucklanders - but he also has to be nice to the rest of the population, and if those who are likely to get heavily smashed are not properly vaccinated come Christmastime, then everybody can go to Christmas south of Auckland… We don't want them coming home if our people up here aren't properly vaccinated…

"The key thing is keeping people up here as safe as we possibly can… Get vaccinated. Look around - it's your relations that are getting whacked, it's your friends that are getting whacked, it's your workmates that are getting whacked. The more of us that get vaccinated, the less strike we're going to have and the sooner we can welcome home our whanau from Tamaki." 

Hone Harawira.
Hone Harawira. Photo credit: The AM Show

Working with the Government

When Te Tai Tokerau Border Control first set up roadblocks in March/April 2020 - before there were any alert level borders - there was outrage from some quarters, and they were criticised by National MPs and ACT's David Seymour. But by May they were working with the police, and when Tuesday's case was found, Harawira found himself being asked for advice on where to set the new border. 

Harawira told RNZ the call came just weeks after local Māori ran trials to find out exactly that, and the Government ditched their original border plan and adopted his. But he won't be out there enforcing the border right away, currently in isolation and awaiting the result of a COVID-19 test after a work colleague suspected they may have been exposed.

"Here I am, boss of the Te Tai Tokerau Border Control, and I had to send my crews out at midnight last night," he added to The AM Show. "All I could do to help was do up the pamphlet and send it out to them so they could get them printed up to hand out to people, to those who were able to travel through to the border, where to get vaccinated, where to get tested and to be careful."