Ngāti Ruanui CEO Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. (Image: supplied)

How marae and iwi are preparing for Covid-19

Māori authorities have acted swiftly on behalf of their people, but some say they’re concerned about the lack of communication from government.

Māori have not fared well in pandemics of times past. Health statistics remain grim compared with other demographics, and there are fears that should the Covid-19 coronavirus spread via community transmission, it’s Māori and Pacific communities that would be most at risk.

In response, many marae, iwi and other Māori authorities have acted quickly. Hongi and harirū have been phased out and a number of marae have closed their doors – a tough call for those for whom the marae is the centre of their daily lives.

The Iwi Chairs Forum, an iwi leaders collective created to engage directly with the Crown, set up a National Pandemic Response Group and spokesperson Mike Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) says that their advice to members has been to be discerning about the information they share.

“The anti-vaccination crowd are using this as an opportunity to get their message out, which is particularly irresponsible in my opinion.”

“One of the problems for our people as a result of colonisation is that there’s a high level of mistrust about government agencies,” he says. “We need to suspend our suspicion about what the relevant ministers are telling us at the moment and realise that that information is legitimate.”

As well as the ubiquitous hygiene advice, he advises whānau to do a risk assessment immediately. Identify the most vulnerable in the community and help them establish a social distancing routine. He emphasises that social distancing doesn’t mean being locked up inside. “You can still walk around the garden or go down to the river, you can still go to the ngahere and gather rongoā or take your kuri for a walk. It’s about close contact at this point, and I think it’s important to make that point for the sake of everyone’s mental health.”

“Keep yourself healthy. It’s a good time to stop smoking cigarettes; a good time to lay off the booze, a good time to smash the P pipe and address some of those baseline health issues,” he adds.

“Your whānau, friends and community are your first line of defence. Set up a neighbourhood support group.”

Ngāti Kahu’s chief executive Anahera Herbert Graves announced a two stage response via the iwi’s social media channels. Stage one included all of the usual hygiene and social distancing protocols, and stage two, to be enacted when the “first case of Covid north of Mangamuka is diagnosed”, included isolating, ordering groceries online and assigning one person to pick them up and deliver them, thoroughly washing fruits and veges, wiping down any packages or canned goods with a bleach solution, and wearing masks and gloves in public.

Ngā Whare Waatea, Māngere’s urban marae, is getting ready to deliver care packages but their food bank has been hit hard and they are welcoming donations.

Te Whānau ā Apanui have drawn their aukati line, closing the border of their traditional lands to fishing, tourism and travellers in order to protect kaumātua.

Meanwhile Ngāti Porou have hosted workshops on how to create soap and sanitiser using rongoā Māori, traditional methods and ingredients from nature.

Ngāti Ruanui CEO Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says they have identified a list of 1000 vulnerable people to keep an eye on in her catchment. “There’s varying degrees within that list, I’m not saying they’re all high risk. But we’re blessed with an abundance of kaumatua and have high diabetes and renal issues, like a lot of regions with high Māori populations. It only takes an hour to prepare 100 of our care packs, and our aim is to get those out before we end up on lock down.”

New Zealand’s director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield has said there hasn’t been any modelling done specifically for Māori, and some remain frustrated that the government hasn’t yet communicated directly with iwi. Ngāti Ruanui and other iwi have been working with the Iwi Chairs Forum on the most effective response, but Ngarewa-Packer says she is frustrated with the government’s response. She says weeks of calls and emails have been met with “a chasm of silence”.

“There’s probably a lot going on behind closed doors but the reality is their engagement and messaging with us as tangata whenua has been nil. We gave them some time and then went, you’ve taken a while, here’s our pandemic management plan. When we had no response over a week later we started to get a bit cross and stared pushing for a plan.”

When a meeting was finally scheduled on Tuesday with eight Taranaki iwi, the CEO and the chair of the Taranaki DHB, and the lead Civil Defence coordinator, she described the outcome as “completely benign”.

“Not one of them had a plan that included Māori.” she says.

“We had the mayors saying, ‘we want to make sure the water stays on and the infrastructure survives. Each sector needs to look after themselves’. I thought, iwi are a sector now?”

She says she’s not expecting the prime minister to get in contact personally, but expects Māori liaisons and the offices of Māori ministers to be engaging with marae, hapū and iwi right now.

“We’ve contacted the deputy director-general of Māori health. We have a Māori unit in DHBs, we have a liaison Māori unit in local council. We have representation in every bureaucracy across the agencies but not one of them has connected with us.”

“If it’s not in Taranaki now, it will be soon. I will eat my hat tomorrow if a case in Taranaki isn’t announced.”

On Thursday, the first case in Taranaki was announced.

Smith says the Iwi Chairs haven’t had a lot of communication from the Ministry of Health either but agrees with Ngarewa-Packer that by ignoring Māori, they’re missing out on what could be an essential resource in their response.

“Māori communities can provide relief and effective leadership in difficult situations, by mobilising volunteers and skilled health professionals, making some marae available in the event of emergencies, and information sharing though Māori networks. It’s really important that the government is inclusive in regard to Māori authorities, particularly tribal ones, because we have huge capacity to provide relief, support and facilities in the event of a disaster.

“We’ve seen that with the Kaikoura earthquake. Mark Solomon and Ngāi Tahu were able to provide aid and satellite phones and personnel faster than the Civil Defence and Red Cross and others. We have that capacity and the government would be foolish not to avail themselves of that.”



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