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(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty)

ĀteaJune 12, 2020

Covid-19 exposed equity issues for Māori, and now is the perfect time to fix them

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty)

As we face what seems to be the tail end of the first (and hopefully final) wave of Covid-19 in Aotearoa, research is being done to examine whether people of different ethnic and socio-economic statuses have the same ability to respond to the crisis. 

New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 has been heralded all over the world as one of the most effective, all but stamping out the virus with its series of intense lockdown rules. It has worked for us in a way that other countries of similar population have not seemed to manage yet. But despite the number of active cases dropping nearly every day since early April, the pandemic has highlighted inequities between Māori and Pākehā.

From internet access issues for online schooling to availability of medical care, to projected job losses and safety concerns in low-skilled jobs – which over a quarter of employed Māori in New Zealand work in – Māori communities have been hit hard by the effects of Covid, which will last far longer than the virus itself in New Zealand.

At the University of Otago, Wellington, senior lecturer Lesley Gray has been given funding to start research on how societal inequities and cultural differences change a person’s ability to respond to the guidelines set out to combat Covid-19. The research will examine data from those registered for self-isolation via Healthline, and should provide crucial information about attitudes, practices and knowledge of isolation measures among New Zealand’s different social and cultural groups. 

As the fight against Covid-19 seems presently under control, focus needs to shift towards decreasing inequities in the system, says Gray. Now is an opportunity to ensure the safety of already vulnerable populations isn’t put at even more risk in future. 

“We don’t know yet how this might impact our country,” she says, “so can we make sure that we can rapidly put in place anything that would alleviate some of those inequities if we discover there are particular things that make it easier or harder for people to take the action we’re all told we should be taking?”

University of Otago, Wellington, senior lecturer Lesley Gray (image: supplied).

Long overrepresented in negative health statistics like diabetes, heart issues, mental health issues and asthma, New Zealand’s Māori population is again at risk if the government is focused on equality rather than equity in its response, according to the study’s researchers. Dr Natasha Tassell-Matamua (Te Ātiawa), deputy head of the school of psychology at Massey University, is a research partner on the study, and says often “equality” responses only exacerbate the different cards Māori are dealt. 

“We don’t all start on that even playing field, so it’s really about addressing what are the things that can be changed to ensure that, as much as possible, everyone has opportunity to respond in the same way.”

The situations that have led to these disadvantages stretch long into New Zealand’s past, with roots in colonisation, but the inequities created back in the 1800s are still being perpetuated now. Tassell-Matamua says there are complicated nuances to the way things are, but now more than ever we have a chance to fix at least some of the systems that place this disadvantage on Māori people.

“There are systemic issues that feed into the reasons why we are overrepresented in negative health outcomes – less socio-economic stability and security,” she says. 

“Equally, it’s important to recognise that these outcomes should not be the defining characteristics of Māori. There are numerous positive, flourishing elements to Māori culture that are often not captured by statistical indicators. So, we want to emphasise that it’s not about always keeping up with the people at the ‘front’, it’s just about not leaving those who are ‘behind’ on some health and socio-economic indicators even further back.”

“Leave no one behind” was a value introduced by the United Nations in its 2030 agenda for sustainable development. It’s based on the premise that communities thrive when they’re supporting those most in need. For Gray, it’s one of the values that’s driving this research.

“It’s about making sure that the person at the back is helped and supported to not be left behind, and that goes back to employment opportunities, where people live, how their education happens. The building blocks of our capacity to be resilient go way beyond the immediacy of catching a virus.”

“It’s about making sure that the person at the back is helped and supported to not be left behind,” Dr Natasha Tassell-Matamua (image: supplied).

Using information including people’s prior health status, ethnicity, where they live in the country, what their household size is and what their earnings might be, the researchers will be able to accurately show if there are circumstances that prevented anyone from being able to fully comply with the lockdown rules, Gray hopes.

The study is being funded as part of the Health Research Council and Ministry of Health’s $3.8 million funding for Covid-19-related research, and the results will be fed back rapidly to the Ministry of Health to quickly support changes in the implementation of further self-isolation measures.

Tassell-Matamua says the collaborative nature of the research means it has real potential to combine Western scientific approaches with Māori knowledge and science, creating a broader understanding of the elements that contribute to inequities in health responses between Māori and Pākehā. 

She says there is a long way to go before Māori get equity in New Zealand, but there is no better time to start than now, with the opportunity to reconfigure some of the systems that have disadvantaged Māori for years. With industries having to rethink the way they operate and the government equipped to help those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic with its latest budget, the country is uniquely situated for change. For Māori, this change needs to be in the form of a push towards a much more equitable, Treaty-based future. But before that change can happen, clarity is needed on the true effects of the lockdown on Māori, and why those effects exist.

“Māori and Pacific do suffer a disproportionate amount of inequity as it is, so we’re interested in finding out how does the pandemic exacerbate this, and also how do the various levels and requirements of, in particular, social distancing, have an effect. Equally, we recognise Māori cultural values and practices promote positive benefits, so how can these be acknowledged and lead to transformative change regarding equity concerns?”

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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