Coronavirus: Māori health experts urge return to elimination strategy, warn of 'acceptable collateral damage'

By Jamie Tahana for RNZ

A coalition of Māori health organisations in Auckland is urging the Government to return to a COVID-19 elimination strategy, saying many Māori will die if it does not.

They say the Government's move to relax restrictions while the number of cases among Māori are rising and the vaccination rate is still low painted a picture of Māori as "acceptable collateral damage".

Of the 71 cases of COVID-19 announced Thursday, 52 percent were Māori. Only 40 percent of the eligible Māori population is fully vaccinated.

The coalition of Hāpai Te Hauora, Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust, Te Hā Oranga and Raukura Hauora o Tainui said the elimination strategy had acted as protective korowai while the vaccination programme caught up, but it had now been dropped.

"That will no doubt result in loss of lives, with Māori being a major casualty," they said in a statement.

General manager of Ngāti Whatua provider Te Hā Oranga, Boyd Broughton, said he was incredibly frustrated with the way the pandemic was panning out. Nearly two weeks after Auckland was moved to alert level 3, the number of cases was steadily growing.

His organisation had been busy across Auckland, running vaccination centres, setting up mobile clinics, helping get in contact with hard-to-reach communities.

Things were catching up, he said, which was what made the shift especially frustrating.

"It's very disappointing when there's a shift from the elimination strategy to a suppression strategy and it comes at a time when Māori case numbers are rising, our vaccination rates are still lower," Broughton said.

"So that's why we're left with the impression that Māori are an accepted collateral damage from this Government, and this Government making decisions."

Health Minister Andrew Little rejected that assertion.

"No not at all," he replied when asked on Midday Report. "That's why we have the level 3 restrictions in place for the length of time that we have in Auckland, and we went into level 3 for Waikato and Northland when we thought there were risks there."

But public health service Hāpai Te Hauora chief executive Selah Hart said trying to eliminate COVID-19 would be more equitable, as suppression would still see the virus in vulnerable Māori communities.

"We as a country have missed many marks in being able to get us on track to ensuring that those who are always most underserved across any health statistics aren't going to carry the weight of this pandemic on their shoulders," Hart said.

Hart said it was particularly disheartening to see what Māori health experts had warned about for nearly two years being borne out.

"We want to ensure that those people don't get forgotten about, that our communities that are now bearing the brunt of this thing are not forgotten about and that the system doesn't turn its back on them once again," she said, saying a familiar pattern of history was now repeating.

Broughton said he understood patience with the lockdown was wearing thin, and it was a feeling held by many Māori whānau too. But he said it would be different if there was better support for vulnerable whānau to be able to stay home.

Little said the Government was putting significant effort into the vaccine rollout.

"We've seen an amazing surge of vaccinations for Māori and Pacific in the last couple of weeks," Little said. "That's great, we want to continue that."

He said restrictions won't be relaxed further until the Government saw sufficient levels of vaccination in all groups, including Māori.

But Broughton said he had little faith.

Māori health providers called for a different type of vaccine rollout early this year, but they were rebuffed and were now playing catch-up. He said he warned that static vaccine clinics wouldn't reach Māori, and now they're having to play catch up with mobile clinics.

Now, he said Māori providers are being dumped in an avoidable catch-up position yet again.

"We raised these issues that where they've put things doesn't work, how they're delivering doesn't work, the messaging doesn't work.

"But the decision-makers are non-Māori and we're having to tidy up, essentially."

He was worried the Government had buckled too early, putting whānau at great risk.

In the coalition statement, the head of Whānau o Waipareira Trust, John Tamihere, had a warning for the Government.

"If Māori lives are lost because of this denial, we will take civil action in manslaughter," Tamihere said.