Coronavirus: Associate Health Minister Aupito William Sio defends naming church, ethnicity of those in Auckland outbreak

A Government minister has defended naming the church and ethnicity of those at the centre of Auckland's biggest COVID-19 cluster, saying it was a risk worth taking.

On Tuesday, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told the country more than half the cases found in the latest cluster were Pasifika, singling out the Samoan Assembly of God Church, based in Mangere.

Sadly - and perhaps predictably - this prompted racist comments online, the Ministry of Health issuing a statement reminding everyone the virus is the problem, not those who've caught it

Auckland Councillor Efeso Collins, a Labour Party member and Samoan, told TVNZ's Breakfast it was "unnecessary to name the fact that they were Samoan, that particular church". 

"What it’s done, it's opened the floodgates to what's been on social media."

Pacific Response Coordination Team head Pakilau Manase Lua said on Saturday it wasn't helpful. 

"We didn't see that in the North Shore," he told Newshub Nation, referring to the case which originally sparked the lockdown. "Actually, the guy was from Devonport and he was probably European. You didn't hear anything about his race. We had a church and Freeman's Bay in the middle of a well-heeled community, but did you hear about that? 

"No, the sensationalism always hits south Auckland and we're sick of it."

He said even though the church's name contains the word 'Samoan', the way this was publicised could have been done better.

"I think it's good to say if it is in our communities, we need to let communities know that the virus is here. But let our community media or our community leaders front the story. Don't get reporters running up and making a sensationalist position on something… You have to frame the story very carefully, considerate of our communities, because this is what happened to us in the dawn raids - it drove a lot of hate, drove a lot of races, and they got politicised."

Pakilau Manase Lua
Pakilau Manase Lua. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

Associate Health Minister Aupito William Sio, who was born in Samoa and represents the Mangere electorate, acknowledged it was a risk - but one worth taking. 

"I reached into the church leadership prior to the announcement… to indicate that the public interest was really, really important for us. We needed to be able to give an indication to the general public - friends and family members who are not members of the church but could have been at that event - to be able to self-identify," he told Newshub Nation, after listening to Lua's criticism.

"I was also mindful of the multiple vulnerabilities of our communities - not only with multiple illnesses, but many of them are frontline and essential workers. We had to work quickly… to try and identify as many as possible. 

"It is unfortunate… it did invite sort of the bad, racist commentary that we saw but I indicated that we would do as much as we can to just tell the story that this is our common enemy. The Delta virus is our common enemy, not the people." 

The Ministry of Health's website has always provided demographic information on the latest cases. It currently shows 238 of the 347 cases are in Pasifika, 12 in Maori, 39 in Asian people, 42 European or 'other', and 16 unknown. Since the first case early last year, most - 53 percent - have been European/other.

Elsewhere in the interviews, Lua and Sio discussed the state of the vaccine rollout amongst the Pasifika community. While over-40s are showing up in strong numbers, there is concern Pasifika youth haven't been. 

"Our demographic is very different to mainstream," said Lua. "Our population, a majority are in the under-40 age bracket, you know what I mean? And unless you can get our young people motivated to get vaccinated, good luck. You'll never get the numbers."

The Delta variant appears to be better at infecting younger people than prior strains of hte virus, and more than half the cases found in the outbreak so far are under 30. 

"I think the first priority is driving the vaccinations to get people who haven't been vaccinated to get their first jabs done," said Lau. "We've been working behind the scenes to support our hardworking providers on the ground and our hardworking workforce, who are doing a fantastic job. But they're working under the policy constraints which stop them from doing things that work better for specific communities. We need specific solutions."

Aupito William Sio.
Aupito William Sio. Photo credit: RNZ

Sio said he's been talking to Pasifika leaders and groups across the country via Zoom, making sure they have the information and resources they need to reach their communities. 

"I accept the work that they're doing - they're one organisation… I deal with all leaders right throughout the whole country. I'm talking to them constantly… 

"We've held nationwide Zooms across the region to make sure that all the leadership, our church leadership, our traditional leadership are getting the correct information from health officials… we're working very, very closely with Pacific providers as well as the agencies to make sure that we're identifying the needed support and getting that support to them as quickly as we can."

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