I spent yesterday afternoon with a couple of doctors from Papakura Marae, going door-to-door visiting whānau who have tested positive for Covid-19. They were testing vital signs and oxygen saturation.
It was a good reminder of just how different our pandemic experiences are. My biggest day-to-day gripe is not being able to go to a restaurant. These doctors are working 12- or 13-hour days, risking their own health to try and help patients, many of whom are seriously unwell.
The die has now been cast for reopening. In a fortnight we’ll be in the traffic light system. Covid-19 will be spreading everywhere. That’ll be it. And my experience spoke to the two groups of New Zealanders who I think have the greatest reasons to feel let down by New Zealand’s pandemic response. When all is said and done and we look back at Covid-19 in years to come, these are the two groups of Kiwis that won’t forget.
The first group is Māori. I’ve been harping on about this for months, but the early stages of the vaccine rollout left Māori behind and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Despite all the millions of dollars pumped into community providers, the efforts to support remote communities, and the social media campaigns, the damage of those early failures cannot be undone. Māori health experts were ignored at the start of the vaccine rollout. Young Māori were left to Group 4. Community groups were sidelined. And when the Government made that pivotal decision to start relaxing the toughest restrictions in Auckland, Māori vaccination rates were more than 26 per cent behind those of the general population.
When I confronted the Prime Minister about this last month, Jacinda Ardern responded sharply, which indicates just how sensitive the Government is to this criticism. It’s true that from a pragmatic perspective, she and her Cabinet colleagues simply cannot wait to relax restrictions until Māori vaccination rates are equal to those of the general population. The anger and antagonism would be damaging for Māori and politically devastating for the Government. Jacinda Ardern has to govern for the whole population.
But there is no changing the facts. Māori will soon make up more than half of all the Delta infections ever recorded in Aotearoa. In the face of a deadly pandemic, despite warnings from Māori public health experts, this Government made two of its most important decisions – the shift down from level 4 and the impending opening of Auckland’s borders – when Māori vaccination rates were miles behind those of the general population. Those two decisions alone have more or less guaranteed Te Pāti Māori another term in Parliament. I think there will be Treaty implications. Waitangi next year could be very interesting indeed.
The second group to feel an enduring sense of abandonment is New Zealanders overseas. Yesterday, Ardern confirmed she won’t be changing MIQ until next year. But in going door-to-door, visiting positive cases, I was again reminded of the ongoing double-standards with our system. There is simply no scientific justification why a double-vaccinated person with a negative test, travelling from a comparable country, somehow presents more of a risk self-isolating at home than the thousands of people who are already self-isolating, having tested positive the virus. Dr Michael Baker even says as much!
Every week we are confronted with stories of Kiwis who want to visit dying loved ones and are being denied. I was recently in contact with a young doctor, double-jabbed, with multiple negative tests, who was granted an emergency MIQ spot, but then denied an exemption to leave and visit her dying granddad. He was the man who raised her. Every night, watching the news from MIQ, she would be reminded of the hundreds of positive cases who were isolating at home. She wasn’t granted the same level of trust. She wasn’t granted compassion. Her granddad died and was buried while she sat alone in a hotel room.
I’m not suggesting we throw open the borders. But there is only one feasible reason our border rules won’t become more nuanced when New Zealand moves to the traffic light system: the Government isn’t ready. The logistics of changing the system are too much for it to handle right now. Perhaps that’s understandable and forgiveable, given everything they’re managing at this minute. Home isolation is groaning under the strain of new cases. But perhaps again it speaks to complacency. We had a year and a half to prepare for these scenarios. Kiwis abroad who are missing out on their most important relationships will have little sympathy for a Government that’s really busy.
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