The government’s road map moving from elimination to suppression with low vaccination rates abandons Māori and Pasifika, particularly in South Auckland. Already these communities have paid a heavy toll in this outbreak; 80.9 percent of all cases so far in this outbreak have been in these demographics. Māori and Pasifika are in the firing line, for multiple reasons. They are heavily concentrated in the essential workforce, with many low-paid customer-facing roles. They are more likely to be struggling economically, with entrenched poverty found in South Auckland households. They are more likely to be suffering from pre-existing health conditions from years of living a working-class life and lack of access to healthcare and stability. Finally, the insane housing crisis in Auckland forces multiple families to live together under a single roof in damp overcrowded conditions, perfect for the disease to spread. It is a perfect storm for a pandemic.
But let’s make it clear, these are not vulnerable communities, they are communities that, through no fault of their own, have been placed on the frontline against the pandemic because of years of neglect and government failures to deal with the long-term crises those families have been facing for decades.
The crisis before the pandemic
The combined housing and poverty crises evident for decades in South Auckland are the largest contributing factor to the susceptibility of these communities to the pandemic. These crises are a direct result of capitalism and its colonialist stage. Māori deprived of their land and forced to sell their labour power to the lowest bidder, flocked into the cities in the 1950’s. In the 60’s and 70’s Pasifika people joined them as the demand for low-cost labour in Auckland industries exploded. Previously concentrated in Ponsonby, the suburb gentrified in the 80’s and 90’s, these communities got pushed further South and West out of Auckland.
Capitalism has used these communities as a reserve low-cost labour force to be abandoned when costs are too high. This has been the case during this pandemic too. As a result of the first lockdown and the general shut down of the Auckland Airport hundreds 100’s of jobs were lost for South Auckland families that were already struggling. Those in casual work were the first to get laid off when lockdowns began. Some high school students who had picked up jobs to support their families found that due to the pandemic they became the sole income earners for their families.
In 2018 ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) released the Auckland prosperity index showing the entrenched levels of poverty in South Auckland. Before the first outbreak, job opportunities were few and far between, with 13.7 percent of Manurewa on the Jobseeker support benefit in 2018.
Housing in South Auckland is ridiculously unaffordable. For example The median income of a household in Mangere was $59,900. The median market rent in Mangere today is $550 a week, $28,600 a year, which is 47 percent of household income.
It is no wonder, given the lack of opportunities and poor housing, that so many Pasifika and Māori families are overcrowded in South Auckland. According to the 2018 census data, 40 percent of Pasifika and 20 percent of Māori live in a crowded or severely overcrowded household, many with multiple generations living under one roof. These are the living conditions that create a perfect storm for a Delta variant that routinely infects entire households.
This is to say nothing of the burgeoning homeless population. The homeless population in Auckland is not just marginalised members of society sleeping rough on the streets, as might be imagined. Rather it is whole families living in garages and cars; families with jobs that cannot get a permanent roof over their head. Transitional housing facilities have exploded with the Ministry of Social Development also paying motels to act as emergency housing providers for those in need. Whole families in a single motel room, having to be isolated and locked down is a difficult prospect for many. Yet these families are not the ones calling for a lifting of lockdown restrictions.
Poverty in Auckland was in crisis mode before the pandemic. It is hard to plan ahead and worry about pandemic protections when you are struggling to put food on the table and get a roof over your head. A lifetime in poverty also has severe consequences for health. Living in damp and overcrowded conditions has led to Pasifika and Māori having a much higher likelihood of pre-existing conditions that result in much worse health outcomes.
Government failure to deliver
Government responses to these crises have been woeful. There has been no attempt to deal with the extreme housing crisis in Auckland. As of July this year 24,474 applicants were on the waiting list for public housing. There has been no substantial increase in benefits under the Labour government despite the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which, among other things, called for a doubling of benefits in 2018.
COVID wage subsidies are tied to employment and distributed by employers, meaning those out of work do not receive the same level of support. The government has not done enough to support families through the lockdown as the rise in families taking food parcels shows. In the first lockdown last year, the government made a push to temporarily house the homeless, and offer winter energy payments and small increases in support. But these meagre offerings aren’t available this time around despite the need being greater.
The lack of government support and targeted funding to deal with entrenched poverty has left the worst off communities far more vulnerable to the Delta variant. While the responsibility for not dealing with these mounting crises of poverty lies with successive governments, it is a case of Labour being unable to deliver even a modicum of relief for families in need. Is it any wonder then that there might be mistrust of government policy after the experience of dealings with the Ministry of Social Development, Oranga Tamariki, or Kāinga Ora?
People living in poverty in South Auckland have been abandoned. Case numbers of the newly infected are fluctuating, so much not because of breaking restrictions, but because of household size. It is not uncommon for a couple of families to share a 3-bedroom house in Auckland. Households of 10-12 people in damp overcrowded conditions struggling to put food on the table are in disastrous conditions already without COVID, but adding the virus makes them far worse.
Vaccinating our way out of a pandemic
With these continuing crises in mind we can now look at Labour’s road map out of lockdown. Obviously with rates of infection very high within Pasifika and Māori populations, the prevalence of pre-existing health conditions and the housing crisis make for a perfect storm. So what have the government offered in response? A push for the increase in vaccinations for Māori and pasifika.
But why are the vaccination rates lagging behind? Populations in South Auckland where these communities are concentrated are largely young. Twenty seven percent of the population in Manurewa is under the age of 14. Vaccination campaigns have only recently been aimed at younger people. Local campaigns that target Māori and Pasifika communities in particular have only just taken off.
The Labour government should be rightly criticised for the lack of work that it has put in to raise Māori vaccination rates. There is still a lack of access, as Māori are more concentrated in the essential workforce and cannot work from home to make ends meet. Te Reo Māori Tiktok campaigns aren’t convincing people to get the jab, it is food parcels and convenient access that will increase vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, Māori health providers have been asking for COVID vaccination numbers and details of individual patients for weeks now in order to remove barriers to getting vaccinated. They will directly contact their Māori whānau and bring the vaccine to them, along with other support services. The Ministry still refuses to give them this information, despite the fact these health providers are part of the big changes to the healthcare system and already have access to the NHI system.
Māori and Pasifika voices are conspicuously absent from daily briefings, and yet it is these communities that have been left on the frontline against infection. The Māori voices that are highlighted in the media are calling for equity to be placed first and foremost in both the pandemic response and the vaccination drive. Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the National Māori Pandemic Group called for Alert Level 4 to stay in place to not drop down to level 3. Similarly they too are saying it is too early to abandon elimination, and now Māori and Pasifika families are in harm’s way because of these changes.
In the Q & A after the briefing on Wednesday 6 October, Minister Chris Hipkins said that he’s not sure if the government would be transitioning away from elimination if the general population had the same vaccination rates as Māori. This is a telling statement, and shows the callous racism that lies in the early abandonment of the elimination strategy. There is a road map out, but it’s clear that the map is not for Māori or Pasifika. We desperately need more time in order to get those vaccinations levels up or we risk disaster. A return to the elimination strategy is needed for at least another month to get vaccination rates up as high as they can be. Otherwise, opening up the economy and returning students to school will allow a rampant spread of Delta across Tamaki Makaurau.
The demands of Solidarity
The mental health damage caused by lockdown is very real, but it is nothing compared to the mental anguish of living with the loss of a family member. If this outbreak continues as Shaun Hendy’s modelling suggests, everyone will know someone lost to COVID-19. Many of our friends in the migrant community already do. It could take as little as 6-7 weeks for Auckland to look like Melbourne or worse, which reported 1838 cases and 5 deaths on 8 October.If we reach that level, the government’s mismanagement of the COVID response will be less of a mistake and more of a crime. Māori are 50 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-Māori.
Already comparisons have been made between today and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. As Colin Tukuitonga wrote recently in The Spinoff; “The mortality rate among Māori from the influenza pandemic was eight times that of Europeans. The avoidable introduction of influenza to Samoa from Aotearoa resulted in the deaths of about 22% of the population.” The turn from elimination to suppression while vaccination rates are so low for Māori and Pasifika is not just irresponsible and reckless, but downright criminal.
While some of the greater depredations of capitalism, like poverty and housing need, cannot be fixed in a few weeks, we must focus our efforts on what is essential to avoid catastrophe. Solidarity with Māori and Pasifika communities requires this threefold action plan.
- Demand a return to level 4 lockdown. We need at least another month to raise vaccination rates. As we still do not have vaccines available for under 12’s, we may need to delay further to ensure that our tamariki are not the vectors of virus spread.
- Demand the devolving of services from the Ministry of Health to Māori service providers. It is Māori who know how and where to reach Māori. But they need resourcing and funding, and crucially to be listened to. Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, The national Māori Pandemic Group has been vocal in advice that has not been followed.
- Crucially, the greatest act of solidarity is for everybody to get vaccinated, in order to limit the spread of this virus.