Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: Learning to live with Covid in NZ – lets leave no one behind


The transition to living with Covid is on, as we prepare our regions and vulnerable communities for red and orange lights underpinned by mandates.

We’re only weeks away from crossing boundaries in flight of “Christmas holidays”, and many of the communities I relate to are putting up iwi borders and pleading with whānau to think twice about holidaying in their regions.

Many of these regions include areas with a hiatus ahead of them before they reach vaccination milestones allowing them to breathe. Others are communities that are rural with access to their closest medical centres about two hours’ drive away. These are the communities under-resourced but always willing to go above and beyond, for everyone.

So, our various health providers continue to pivot again pulling together the resource, plans and home isolation strategies. All this with three weeks’ notice of shifting to the new form of response.

Mandates and traffic lights weren’t supported by Te Pāti Māori. As the most protocoled people in Aotearoa, we have carried ourselves for centuries in decisions and protocol made for and by ourselves. Tino rangatiratanga, self-determination is an action, preserved in Te Tiriti.

We believe the Covid response vaccination bill was not compliant with Te Tiriti. Our pandemic response policy reinforces tino rangatiratanga and enables whanau to take their own reign. A reign that would avoid mandates, with a vaccination rollout that is created by us for us. A reign where vaccination status and the tikanga around it is empowered by whānau, marae, hapū, roopu and businesses. A reign that leaves no one behind.

Let’s be honest, these political decisions and mandates are a disguised acknowledgement that the public health vaccination plan failed.

At the date of writing this piece, Māori have had the highest number of new cases for 56 consecutive days with Pasifika the second highest. Together, we make up 80 per cent of the new cases in the past 56 days, 72 per cent of hospitalisations and 53 per cent of deaths. All this since the Government decided to move Auckland out of elimination. These numbers were avoidable.

Hard to acknowledge but the harsh reality we find ourselves in is despite the forewarning Māori health experts and leaders have offered for months.

Even I joined the warnings advocating for clemency, hoping that the Government would let our communities catch up. But no, it is what it is.

The transition for many of our communities is frightening – particularly for areas that are still trying to get their whānau vaccinated, such as Te Tai Tokerau.

What is just as concerning is that we are trying to transition while bridging divides caused by public health messaging. Messaging that pushes mandates, “two shots to go to the gym, two shots to hang out with your whānau”. Traffic lights that divide and give ultimate power to legislation, preventing unity in a time where we need it most.

The prospect of the real “threat” has pushed some of our communities and whānau into an unrecognisable state of fight or flight.

I picture it as a plane crash occurring before me with two pilots at the helm. The passengers (us) all conceding as the plane plunges, only to have it pull up at the last second. We’re saved but will never view each other the same way again. But imagine if we were all in a waka, rowing together at the helm of the team.

Psychologist Dr Paris Williams says, “the Covid crisis has illuminated a number of aspects of human nature – both what you might call our “darker” tendencies, including scapegoating, polarising, dehumanising others and groupthink; and what you might call our more noble qualities; empathy, kindness, compassion, companionship and courage”.

Living and acting collectively is a fundamental part of who we are as tangata whenua, it’s how we learn, grow, mobilise and mourn.

Vilifying instead of engaging in an inclusive way forward will create long-term social problems if we don’t focus on repair and reconciliation.

And by we, I mean starting with the government entity most responsible for this public health and its collateral damage. Much harm has been done by the Government’s centralised approach.

However, we also need to each reflect and contemplate even within our own spheres of influence in succumbing to groupthink, understanding our response to threat and how we remain clearheaded, empathetic and compassionate.

As our communities embrace for this next phase I would like to call on us all to look out for each other, check in on our neighbours and find ways to support those who are forced to home-isolate. Create games, ideas for tamariki that must stay home, help lift the spirits of those scared and lonely.

Everyone is experiencing their own degree of trauma, let’s not add to it.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is co-leader of Te Pāti Māori.

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