Around the country, iwi are putting safety measures in place to compensate for the government’s easing of restrictions, while working to raise vaccination levels. Māori are making sacrifices to keep their people safe – will other New Zealanders do the same?
Whānau, whakapapa and whenua: these are why the many hundreds of Māori living away from their tribal rohe return home over summer.
The motivations are often the same as Pākehā and tauiwi looking to flee the city for a few weeks of reprieve from the rat race: to enjoy the sun, swimmable oceans and good kaimoana. But for Māori, going home is also about reconnection. Recharging the soul by the fires that are kept burning by ahi kā; adding their own logs to the fire by helping around the marae or looking after kaumātua. Going “home” for many Māori is more than just a holiday, it’s central to reaffirming who we are as tangata whenua.
So when Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou asks everyone – including those who have whakapapa ties to the area – not to visit the East Cape this summer, it shows how seriously the risk of Covid being introduced and spread to these communities is being taken,
“Unfortunately, the hospitality and beauty of home during the holiday period masks a poor reality for our hau kāenga year-round,” Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou chair Herewini Parata wrote in an open letter to those Ngāti Porou living outside the rohe.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that health services will be overwhelmed when Covid-19 arrives in our region. Ngāti Porou people will be at the worst end of that struggle; some of us will become seriously ill and some of us may die.”
Aotearoa will move into the new alert system at midnight tonight. The regional borders around Tāmaki will be opened, which is clearly casting fear into the hearts of Māori in some rural and isolated communities. These concerns aren’t unfounded: Covid-19 analyst Dr Rawiri Taonui pointed out on Tuesday that Māori made up nearly half of all new Covid cases and over 40% of all deaths from the delta variant.
Whānau Māori who reside in areas that many New Zealanders enjoy as their summer holiday destinations are already stretched for resources and overwhelmed at this time of year. Now, the stakes are even higher.
Te Tairāwhiti has one of the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates across all of the DHBs. The nearest hospital in Ngāti Porou is three hours away. Hauora Tairāwhiti has just six beds in ICU, and the plan, in the event of an outbreak, is to split the beds: three for Covid-19 patients, and three for emergencies.
For Ngāti Porou who “must come home”, Parata asks them to consider having a Covid-19 test before leaving and limiting movements for a short time when they arrive in Te Tairāwhiti.
It’s unlikely that those travelling to the region for Rhythm and Vines, which brings 24,000 people into the region over the New Year period, will follow the same advice. That’s 4,000 people for every ICU bed.
Following the recent announcement that the iconic New Year’s festival is going ahead, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāi Tamanuhiri and Ngāti Porou are collectively pushing to have it cancelled. They’ve met with representatives from the festival’s organiser Live Nation, which has admitted it was slow to engage with iwi. Live Nation has also been warned it should expect staff shortages on site, since many whānau who would usually volunteer have signalled they won’t put their hands up this time round.
Ngāti Porou have cancelled their annual Pā Wars inter-tribal sports day in early January, arguably the largest annual event on their iwi calendar, as well as the dawn ceremony events that take place on Hikurangi maunga around Christmas and New Year. These are important cultural events, but community leaders have put the health and safety of their people first. This follows the cancellation of Te Matatini, the national kapa haka competition which was to be held in Tāmaki in February.
One of the areas most at risk of a widespread outbreak is Waikato. Linda Te Aho, chair of Waikato-Tainui executive arm Te Arataua, is echoing calls made by other iwi that they need more time to get Māori vaccination rates up before Tāmaki reopens to the rest of the country.
On the East Coast, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, which ran iwi road-blocks during alert level four last year, has asked holidaymakers who don’t whakapapa to the whenua to stay away from their tribal territory. Like other iwi, they are emphasising that more time is needed to reach a satisfactory level of vaccination within the community.
Further north, iwi have announced Maitai Bay in the Karikari Peninsula will be closed. The hapū, Te Whānau Moana o Karikari, with the support of Ngāti Kahu iwi, will be keeping the Maitai Bay campground closed to protect local residents.
Ngāti Kahu chair, Professor Margaret Mutu, told Stuff: “The kuia and kaumātua of Karikari are extremely worried for their whānau… they also miss the many of them living in Auckland who always come home for Christmas, and it causes them pain to have to say to them, ‘Please do not come home this Christmas’.”
Haami Piripi, chair of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, reiterated to Radio Waatea concerns that Te Tai Tokerau isn’t ready for an influx of visitors from the Auckland region.
“Once it does open up, we will become inundated with the threat [of Covid-19]. Our communities will suffer loss of life.”
Another notably isolated and vulnerable iwi, and a popular area for visitors over summer, is Tūhoe, who had their first community case in Waimana last week. The popular Lake Waikaremoana Track in Te Urewera has been closed to the public since August. Radio NZ reports it will remain closed until the end of January to allow the community time to get vaccinations numbers up, which are estimated to be around 40% of the eligible population.
Another popular tourist destination is the East Cape lighthouse in Te Tairāwhiti. With access to the lighthouse across privately-owned land, Rena Kōhere issued a public statement on behalf of the Kōhere whānau who own the land:
“Mana whenua (customary authority) and our wider community in the isolated area of Te Araroa do not feel ready to receive visitors as we are an at-risk area, we still have low vaccination rates and we need to limit pressure on our health services across the East Coast.
“Those efforts continue and we are asking for the summer to increase those rates so that we can be in a better position to protect our community when we decide to reopen access,” said Kōhere.
Last week, local Matakāoa community spokesperson Tina Ngata appeared on Three’s The Project, where she explained that her small community on the East Coast had to crowd fund for a van to administer vaccinations and swabs in remote areas.
Following the interview, and flying in the face of Ngata’s plea for visitors to stay away, host Jeremy Corbett put into words exactly the attitude that has so many Māori community leaders concerned.
“The reality is, Auckland is going to travel, and I feel for those areas but if they’re not ready now, when will they be ready?” he told The Project’s prime time audience. “We’re going. I’ve booked some flights, took the gamble, it’s paid off and as much as I hate to be seen as a virus myself, I’m going to travel to the South Island. Here we come.”
For iwi and hapū, asking their own whānau to stay away this summer to protect their people won’t have been easy.
The decisions by iwi to close certain attractions are already being met with racist backlash online, partly due to the way they’re reported. But it also reveals a lack of regard that some holidaymakers have for the lives of tangata whenua who live in these holiday destinations year-round. Iwi are making these calls because they know their people are at risk.
For many it’s just a holiday, but for someone else, it could mean life or death.