Tarapuhi and Madeleine Discuss The Impact Of Covid-19 On New Zealand’s Communities Of Colour

Content warning: The following discussion contains mentions of anti-Blackness and colonialism. 


Tarapuhi Vae’au hails from Te Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi and Ngāti Raukawa iwi (tribes) and Pākehā ancestry. She is a lecturer in cultural anthropology and also works as a freelance design researcher and cultural competency coach. Her research focuses on structural racism, historical trauma, and wellbeing.

Madeleine: “A 2017 University of Otago study found that in the 65-79 year age group, Māori were 3.6 times more likely to die of influenza than non-Māori. This is particularly alarming given the current health crisis we find ourselves in. I’ve also discovered that during the influenza pandemic in 1918, the mortality rate was seven times higher for Māori than for New Zealand Europeans. Historian Geoffrey Rice believes this is likely the result of Māori communities living in isolated, rural areas during that time and therefore missing out on getting some immunity when the first, more mild flu arrived. The 1918 influenza also happened at a time when Māori had just lost their land and were living in very poor conditions with minimal access to proper nutrition. Can you speak to the impact of colonisation and the dispossession of Maori from their land on health inequality?”

Tarapuhi: “The most important thing to understand about health inequality is that it is avoidable. We have the ability to address the health inequality Māori experience – it’s just not a top priority for our government, the scientific community, or the New Zealand public. This is because of the way colonialism has shaped our values and behaviour, and the influence it has had on how we’ve organised our society and what we deem important. The relationship between colonialism and the Māori experience is incredibly complex – too complex for a short article. But if I was to give a “colonialism crash course” I would have two key points:

First, land loss and land acquisition significantly shaped intergenerational wealth and health for both Māori and Pākehā. When colonies first arrived in New Zealand, they already understood of how to swiftly build a colony based on how it had been done in other countries. Overseas, this involved targeting the social and physical mechanisms that created resilience from illness, poverty, trauma, and environmental change in order to hinder resistance and take resources. This was actioned through war, neglect, and disease, and resulted in dramatic increases in wealth, social mobility, and social power for Pākehā. An example of how this social power has been weaponised is detailed in a recent article from The Spinoff. During a Smallpox outbreak, those with social and material power were able to constrain the choices of Māori community and put them at risk. For example, Councillor McKinnon used his power to ban Māori from entering the township to access food and shelter, saying “Let them starve…It is not our funeral.”

Secondly, our society is organised based on colonial motivations and values that dehumanise Māori and expose us to more risk than other members of the population. This is evident in the many policies, pieces of legislation, structures, curriculums and behaviours that place Māori at greater risk of poor health outcomes than Pākehā. This may be overt, such as police charging Māori at higher rates than Pākehā for the same crimes. Or, it might be more a subtle example of neglect, like medical research that produces policies or therapies based solely on Pākehā bodies and circumstances. As a result, the drastic inequality that Māori face is deemed acceptable and does not provoke outrage or outpourings of empathy from the general public, leading to less research, investment, and action to support Māori to achieve their best health.”

Madeleine: “It feels remiss to discuss health inequality between Māori and non-Māori without raising the issue of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. In your opinion, is there still an inequitable divide in terms of access to health care (even just geographically speaking)?”

Tarapuhi: “I’ve been listening to a great podcast hosted by the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw called Intersectionality Matters. In a recent episode, guest Dorothy Roberts discusses the disproportionate number of Black Americans dying from Covid-19. She explains that “race isn’t the risk, racism is the risk.” What she’s referencing is that, often, health and social inequalities experienced by marginalized groups are blamed on an assumed biological deficit when, in reality, these inequalities are extensively shaped by social factors like racism. Still today, oppression has more of an impact on our health than our genes.

This is extremely distressing within the context of Covid 19 because although the Coronavirus does not discriminate in terms of who can be infected or killed, our society does. Researchers at Otago University wrote on April 10th that Maori will “be more likely to experience severe COVID-19 outcomes.” This means that every decision point in the COVID-19 ecosystem will be shaped by racism, in the same way racism shapes things like who is allocated tests or therapies, whose symptoms or pain is believed, who is targeted in public messages or marketing, and where health clinics are established, geographically. Should we experience any real or perceived scarcity this will be amplified. Furthermore, because of existing inequality, Māori are more likely to experience issues and conditions that would exacerbate COVID-19.

These inequalities are inconsistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi in that they significantly hinder our ability to exercise self-determination over our bodies, futures, whānau and whenua by constraining our choice through structural racism. Such inequality is also a clear breach of the guarantee of equal rights established in Te Tiriti.”

Madeleine:Our country is currently under a nation-wide lockdown, requiring all Kiwis to stay within their “bubble” for the foreseeable future. I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges our country could face due to this new reality – a potential increase in domestic violence being one such example. With Māori still experiencing higher rates of IPV than Pakeha, is this something that you’ve thought about?”

Tarapuhi:The context I explored above demonstrates how Māori are more at risk of contracting and dying from the virus, but they’re also more likely to be disproportionately impacted by the wider social consequences of this pandemic, as well as the worsening of inequalities they already experience.

Māori already have less access to services that address issues like violence, job insecurity, and housing, and the services that are designed to support Māori remain chronically underfunded and overworked despite being highly effective for all population groups. Māori are also highly represented in essential jobs (think supermarket workers and delivery services). In particular, Māori who are experiencing compounding disadvantages will be less supported during this time: women, takatapui, people who beg, incarcerated people, people with addictions, and people on benefits.

To combat this,  some of the questions we need to be asking as engaged and critical citizens are:

  • How might we reduce the potential influence of institutional racism on the special government powers granted under the ‘national emergency’ framework?
  • Given the knowledge of police bias against Māori, what are the potential ramifications of increased police and military patrolling during the lockdown?
  • How are Māori voices and Te Tiriti being represented in the special committee?
  • How might the decision-making surrounding rationing of resources be influenced by racism?
  • How should the wider government response frame their response to the pandemic considering the increased risk that Māori face?

One thing I find troublesome about health research is how it reduces harrowing experiences into digestible statistics. What isn’t conveyed in these numbers is the fear and suffering; the impossible choices our tupuna and whānau have been forced to make; the pain of losing parents, siblings and children to avoidable diseases; the impact of generations growing up without grandparents; the anxiety and hopelessness that can come with facing an unequal system.

In the same way, the resilience and resistance of Māori communities, and the innovative ways that we have dealt with these complex issues are not visible either. We are painted as passive receivers of our inequalities, when in reality, we’ve been facing the stress and trauma of increased risk for many generations and have a whole lot of knowledge and tools (just look at places like the Whanau Ora Clinic) that could improve our collective response to this pandemic.”

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