Coronavirus: Te Pāti Māori slams 'very white' COVID-19 vaccine rollout, says Māori not to blame for low vaccination coverage

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has placed the blame for her people's low rate of vaccination squarely on the Government, saying many Māori don't trust the "very white" approach it's taken.

Māori lag other ethnicities when it comes to getting protected against COVID-19, despite being at statistically higher risk of infection and serious illness. Nearly half the cases in the Delta outbreak are Māori, who also make up nearly a third of those hospitalised with the virus, far more than their share of population.

That's no doubt partly down to their low vaccination coverage - just 63 percent of those eligible have had two doses, compared to more than 95 percent of Asian Kiwis and 83 percent Pākehā - and a younger population, those under 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine.

"The way that the vaccination has rolled out for Māori hasn't been designed for Māori - the Government has let us down," Ngarewa-Packer told Newshub Nation. "And at this stage of the game, it's not about, you know, what isn't working - it should be about what they need to do differently."

Senior Māori Labour MP Kelvin Davis in September - when the Māori vaccination rate was 21 percent, and Pākehā 35 percent - said Māori were choosing to "stay home" instead of getting jabbed.

"There's no excuse for being ignorant. It's a simple message, go and get vaccinated. It's okay to blame the Government but we have to take responsibility for ourselves as well. 

"The right thing to do is to go and get vaccinated. How many more millions of public funding do we need to keep giving to Māori service providers so more Māori go and get their vaccines?"

Ngarewa-Packer said the Government is "absolutely responsible" however, saying they ignored advice from experts which predicted the rollout, as planned, wouldn't work for Māori.

"I remember when Dr Rawiri Jensen left... that was a real warning bell for us that the Government's refusing to take advice from some of the best Māori experts that we have."

Dr Jensen quit the Government's expert immunisation advisory group in April, saying he wasn't being listened to. He said officials refused to let younger Māori qualify for the vaccine earlier, taking into account their shorter life expectancy and heightened risk factors.

"The work that we're doing on the advisory group wasn't influential enough," Dr Jensen told Radio Waatea at the time.

As a result, Ngarewa-Packer said this upcoming summer is "going to be one of the toughest Christmas summer breaks that we ever going to have".

"I'm concerned for our capacity and our ability to withstand and what's coming down at us, and I really believe in the fact that we can hold a really strong resistance on the front line. But I am extremely concerned at the way the numbers are tracking and the way that Māori are being the most affected."

Modelling has suggested 6000 Māori could be struck down with COVID-19 by Christmas, each step down in restrictions resulting in more cases.

"In the race between increasing Māori cases and vaccination, Delta is winning hands down," Dr Rawiri Taonui told the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday.

This could have been prevented, Ngarewa-Packer claims, if Māori had been handed the decision-making powers for their own communities. 

"Had this been done differently though, we could have been in such a better state of play within the whole COVID response. And yeah, that's a continued challenge really for the Government - it's got to stop doing a blanket approach, one-stop-shop suits all... It's just been one route and it's a very white route. People don't like to hear it, but that is the basis."

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Mask mandates a 'punishment'

It's not just vaccines Māori have become sceptical of, despite the evidence - it's mask mandates too, she says. A recent global study found mask-wearing is the single most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, considering its low cost and effectiveness against all variants.

Despite this, Te Pati Māori wants the Government's top-down mask mandates dropped.

"We're not actually saying that we would abandon mandates as a tikanga. We would abandon the Government's approach of mandates," said Ngarewa-Packer.

"Māori are the most protocolled people in Aotearoa. We have tikanga to do rahui and have been doing that for hundreds of years. What we're saying is had it been used in a way that was from the very communities themselves, instead of being used by Government as a punishment... it would have been more accepted and it would have been more, I guess, empowered. 

"There's been no engagement with Māori and Māori communities on this. And so therefore, you know, it's not going to be picked up because there's so many flaws in the way the Government is rolling out things at the moment."

Western vs indigenous

The Government has put millions of dollars towards boosting Māori vaccination rates, which she called "investment at the end of the cliff, which is typical of where Māori - and truly, to be honest. Pacifika - get investment".

"What we needed was a Māori COVID response. We've got not only a different age profile, we've also got different stages. Māori are very collective - when they go to get vaccinated you have the whole whanau turn up.

"So there's a whole lot of Western versus indigenous approaches that should have been adopted, and that need to happen, not just in the vaccine rollout. They need to happen in the testing, they need to happen in home isolation stages. And that's certainly what we've been pushing, holding the Government to account. Stop blaming Māori for your failures and you know, and listen to what needs to happen from the grassroots up."

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