Māori health experts say they did everything they could to go hard and early on a targeted Covid-19 vaccine programme, but many were passed over or ignored. Liam Rātana reports.
The government has known that it would have to undertake the nation’s largest vaccination rollout in history since Covid-19 became a global pandemic in early 2020. As it had almost a year to plan, many are asking how the government still failed to deliver a timely programme for Māori.
At time of writing, only 72% of eligible Māori have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and only 53% are fully vaccinated. However, Māori account for 40-50% of recent cases in the delta outbreak.
With spread to areas with high percentages of unvaccinated people, such as Te Tai Tokerau, it’s widely accepted that efforts by the government to ramp up vaccination rates among Māori has come too late.
But it’s not for lack of options.
“We do national programmes but we just don’t seem able to learn from the mistakes that we make in rolling them out,” says former deputy director general of health Teresa Wall, one of four Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā (National Māori Pandemic Group) co-leaders.
On March 9, 2021, the government announced it was establishing an Immunisation Implementation Advisory Group, which originally comprised five members. The next day, the government unveiled its official plan for delivery of the Pfizer vaccine across Aotearoa. No vaccination targets were set publicly.
“Dr Rawiri Jansen was the rep for Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā on the government’s Immunisation Implementation Advisory Group,” says Wall’s co-leader, Sue Crengle (Ngāi Tahu). “He resigned because he felt as though his advice wasn’t being listened to.”
Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā was formed in March 2020 as a response to concerns that Māori were being left out of planning decisions for Covid-19 and treated as an after-thought. In January 2021, Jansen told media his appointment to the Immunisation Implementation Advisory Group meant Māori would be a priority in the vaccine rollout. By April 2021, he had resigned due to cabinet’s refusal to adopt an age adjuster, so Māori could be included in the high-risk elderly group at 50 or 55 rather than 65. Cabinet was also advised to immunise anyone in residential care, including imprisoned, homeless and addicted people. Instead, it stuck with its general rollout, and only Māori and Pasifika people over 70 were vaccinated as part of group two. Group three, restricted to those aged 65 and over, disabled people and their carers and others with severe illness, were vaccinated over June and July 2021.
A handful of Māori health providers instead chose to “interpret” the rollout in their own way, ignoring cabinet guidelines but implementing exactly what experts like Jansen had recommended instead.
Te Puna Ora o Mataatua in Whakatāne categorised the subsection of group two as “kaumātua”, rather than by age, as well as vaccinating the whole household so that they wouldn’t have to come back. In Te Kaha on the east coast, this approach of vaccinating whole whānau early on meant that 80% of Te Whānau-a-Apanui were vaccinated before the delta outbreak began in August. In Northland, the age for group three was brought forward to 50 in order not to waste unused vaccines.
“There are still serious issues around accessibility to the vaccine for Māori,” says Crengle. It is unclear exactly who the government consulted with prior to releasing its vaccine rollout plan. What is clear is that a number of Māori experts and organisations feel as if their recommendations were ignored.
Cabinet minutes from March 31, 2021 show that plans were tabled to vaccinate all of Counties Manukau DHB district, home to the country’s largest Māori and Pasifika population, including those not already included in group two or three. However, an OIA request by The Spinoff revealed that the DPMC received no advice relating to whether the vaccine should or should not be prioritised for all residents of South Auckland.
Wall is critical of the the total population approach taken by the government and its failure to fund targeted initiatives and involve Māori health providers and experts from earlier on in the planning process. “Why did the government lack the courage to say, ‘We want 90% vaccination rates for Māori and Pasifika or whatever groups make up large percentages of different health board populations’? I think that the government has not been terribly courageous and I don’t know why they have not,” she says.
She wonders if their reluctance to announce targets specifically for Māori stems from public backlash in the early 2000s, centred around the then Labour government’s “closing the gaps” policy.
“The idea that we can only have a total population approach has played out over the Covid-19 vaccination programme because people will think that we’re ‘advantaging’ Māori over other groups. The system has to work harder and put more effort into addressing the inequities it has created.”
The government released its Covid-19 Māori Vaccine and Immunisation Plan on March 20, 2021, 10 days after the release of the national plan. It allocated $11 million to support providers in preparing to implement the programme across their communities. An additional $24.5 million was allocated to develop a Covid-19 Māori vaccine support service and $2 million to provide tailored communications to whānau, hapū, iwi and the Māori health sector. The amount of money allocated to the vaccine rollout for Māori has grown over time, with the most recent news being an announcement of $120 million in late October.
“As the plan was rolled out, at different stages, Māori health providers have been engaged. Initially it was more around what we thought about what the ministry was doing. Only in the last four or five weeks has that shifted to them wondering about what we could or would do,” says Geoff Milner (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu), chief executive of Ngāti Hine Health Trust.
One group that approached the government early on in the planning process was the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency. The group is contracted by Te Puni Kōkiri to invest in initiatives and services provided in communities across Te Ika a Māui. With over 81 service provider partners across the North Island, the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency met with representatives from throughout the motu and drafted a comprehensive proposal detailing how they could help ensure high rates of vaccination among Māori.
“We reviewed nursing capacity, doctor capacity, training requirements and solutions for reaching communities in ways that work for them,” says Awerangi Tamihere (Ngāti Kauwhata, Rangitāne, Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata), COO for Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency.
“We worked very hard on a comprehensive proposal and said ‘We can do this but we need to go now’, because we knew it was going to require such a long lead-in time to get to the point of vaccination.
“That proposal was submitted in April and was declined. I’m not sure of the reasons why. I understand that the funding instead went to the district health boards, who would then manage their own solutions around engaging with Māori in their respective areas.
“Rather than take a collective Māori view in terms of a response for our people, [the Ministry of Health] took a funder-centric view and said, ‘We’ll put the money through the current distribution mechanisms of the individual district health boards to do things their own way’. So it was a great opportunity that was missed,” Tamihere says.
Tamihere is not alone in her criticism of the government’s decision to provide money to the DHBs to distribute, instead of directly to providers. Others say that the decision added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to accessing funds, slowing down the availability of resources at a critical time. They also say the move has led to a fragmented vaccination rollout, with approaches and messaging differing greatly across the country’s 20 district health boards.
“If we go back to March, when the Ministry of Health delegated the allocation of additional resources for Māori through the DHB networks, that’s been abysmal… Money that was allocated in March didn’t hit our bank accounts until September, with multiple strings attached,” says Milner.
“I do believe that if the Ministry of Health had backed an entity like the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, there would have been a rapid Māori response for our communities and I’m almost certain the result today would have been different.”
The full effects of the vaccination rollout for Māori are yet to be realised, which is a discomforting thought for many. Even worse for some is the realisation that had the government approved plans such as the one submitted by the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency in March, vaccination rates among Māori would undoubtedly be a lot higher than they currently are.
“Had Māori and Pacific providers been involved earlier, had there been earlier access to the vaccine for Māori, then we wouldn’t be seeing the inequities in vaccine coverage that we are seeing currently,” Crengle says.
For Tamihere, the figures are clear: “There were 500,000 vaccinations done by September 30 by Whānau Ora partners across the North Island. With the data we’ve analysed, if we were given the funding back in March, we would be sitting at 90% vaccination rates for Māori across the North Island.”
According to Wall, the recent announcements around the new traffic light system and continued shortcomings with the vaccine rollout continue to grow the inequities in the health system. Like others, Wall is concerned that targeted lockdowns in areas with low rates of vaccination will disproportionately affect Māori communities.
“People need to consider that maybe it’s not the fact that Māori are hesitant to get vaccinated but that the system isn’t doing a very good job delivering for Māori.
“We’ve got a bit of discourse in the media at the moment that Māori people are hesitant. We’ve immediately gone to a victim-blaming approach, as opposed to asking whether the system has made it easy for people to get vaccinated,” says Wall.