Manurewa marae chairman Rangi McLean says the lessons of past pandemics that devastated Māori communities made his goal clear – ignore the noise and ensure it never happens again.
Read the te reo Māori version of this story here.
When Rangi McLean, chairman of the Manurewa marae in Manukau, first heard of Covid-19, he was reminded of one of the most traumatic times in te ao Māori. Growing up in Manawa, in the shadow of Te Urewera, McLean could see the impacts of the 1918 Spanish flu in the land itself. Ngāi Tūhoe was ravaged by the pandemic, and whānau were buried in mass graves, with no way to conduct tangihanga and other funeral rites.
“When I asked the question of my elders, why is there such a great memorial stone, the answer I got was that it was because of the flu,” he says. “A lot of our relations passed away and our protocols and etiquettes were dispensed with because they needed to be buried straight away so that the pandemic wouldn’t spread. With that in mind, when I heard about Covid, I was reminded of the epidemics of the past, and I knew we were in a similar position, and we could not allow it to happen again.”
When the outbreak reached New Zealand last year, McLean says the marae responded immediately. He flew to Wellington and lobbied the government to designate Manurewa marae as an essential service provider, continuing the work that it was doing with Whānau Ora to provide for the poor and elderly in their rohe.
“The basis for doing what we did at Manurewa marae was based around that fear,” he says. “The responses that we got from our Manurewa marae staff and whānau was awesome. They allowed us to close down our activities, close down booking the marae out to get revenue – that’s how the marae was getting its revenue, through bookings and events that ran there.”
“When I was able to negotiate funding assistance through not only Whānau Ora but through the government departments as well as the local board and council departments, we were able to close the marae down and concentrate on getting out the health packs and the food parcels.”
Manurewa marae, which opened in the late 1980s, has a rich history of community support. The marae houses a GP clinic and a Te Kooti Rangatahi youth court system, runs driver education courses, provides access to counselling and budgeting services, and operates an emergency housing transition service. But Covid presented an unprecedented challenge – one the marae team mustered its forces immediately to confront.
“We have a marae staff of 30 and we turned them all into essential service workers,” says McLean. “We turned Manurewa marae into a distribution hub. On one side we were receiving hygiene products and food supplies, and in the wharekai, Matukutureia, we were processing them, packing them and then they would go out the other door into our communities to be delivered to at-need whānau, our elders and the poor.
“We received, packed and delivered over 30,000 hygiene packs and over 10,000 food parcels.”
McLean says Manurewa marae decided to keep its kaupapa in place until at least February next year, and the benefits of this decision were immediate. When Auckland went into a second lockdown following another community outbreak in August last year, the systems that were developed during the first level four kicked into gear, and a coordinate response began within an hour of the government’s announcement.
But while the physical needs of the community were met, a psychological virus rose alongside Covid. Misinformation and conspiracy theories ran rife through social media during the first lockdown, leading to the rise of figures like Billy TK, whose attempt at political power came on the back of a campaign of lies and pseudoscience. Stuck at home in an environment of fear and uncertainty, many whānau were swayed by the charismatic would-be leader and his daily Facebook rants. For Manuwera marae, like many grassroots organisations, there was no tolerance for ignorance, especially not when the stakes were so high.
“We never took any notice of him,” says McLean. “We saw the need, saw that a job needed to be done, and we just did it. We didn’t worry about Billy TK and what he was talking about, or anyone else – what we concentrated on was the fact there was a job in front of us and we got out there and did it. In my role as the chair that’s what I shared with all of our staff. I also allowed those that didn’t want to subscribe to that view to take the time off.
“I had the picture in my mind that I wasn’t going to allow the Spanish flu to happen again wherever I had an influence. Because I had that influence over Manurewa marae, that is what informed our way of addressing the Covid crisis.”
That influence also extended to working towards a continuation of protocol around tangihanga. During the first Covid lockdown, when Aotearoa New Zealand moved to level four, limits were instituted on gatherings. This move extended to funerals and tangi, and drew criticism from tangata whenua who saw the restrictions as a heavy-handed response taken without consultation or cultural sensitivity.
“We actually resisted a lot of what they wanted to do in the wider community,” says McLean. “For example, in terms of our funerals. We were able to still carry out and hold on to our protocols and etiquettes based on the example of one of our leaders that passed away from Taranaki. He was a well-known statesperson for the motu – Huirangi Waikerepuru – and we utilised that as an example to hold a tangihanga on Manurewa marae, and we did that. We did that, but we still maintained the protocols and the guidelines for the Covid response and we had all those in place and still were able to carry out our tangihanga.
“We didn’t want to go against the system but what we were able to do with Manurewa, because we have an excellent working relationship with our local police, I asked them to allow police to be part and parcel of our essential service capability at the marae, and they did that. We were able to address the concern that the government was going to get the police to move in on the marae without any warrant.”
Unlike many marae, Manurewa is not a remote community. The marae sits a little over 8km from Middlemore Hospital, and a short drive from Auckland’s CBD. There were no checkpoints beyond those at the marae gates, but the drivers who left each morning to deliver supplies around the city saw New Zealand’s largest urban hub in a way many never have – a rare shining light in a dark period for whānau in this rohe, and those across the country.
“Because we could travel freely across the district, we were able to see how clean the environment was,” says McLean. “Because there were no cars on the road, there were no people littering, and to that extent we could see that the waterways were clearing up as well. I put all of that down to the Covid restrictions being in place and keeping our people at home.
“The environment was healing itself. That’s something physical that we could see, and would like to see in the future.”
Read the te reo Māori version of this story here.