How Māori can bridge the digital divide in the post-Covid world

Technology has helped Māori assert a strong, independent response to help stop the spread of Covid-19, but the crisis also exposes telecommunications vulnerabilities. 

The 1918 influenza epidemic hit Māori hard. Around 2,500 died in under two months at a rate of 50 per 1,000 people – eight times that of Europeans. So, when Covid-19 arrived, Māori had already read the signs. They swiftly mobilised response teams all over the country. It is an exercise in tino rangatiratanga, an independent and assertive response to a crisis.

Communities with a reliable telecommunications network – mobile coverage, fixed or wireless internet – coordinate, share information and source safety gear relatively easily. Teams deploy essential supplies, and road checkpoints prevent the spread. As a result, the virus is absent in several small Māori communities and thousands are being held safe.

The crisis also exposes telecommunications vulnerabilities. First, many communities have poor or no access to a telecommunications network. Response volunteers drive substantial distances to get the nearest signal. Knowledge isolation is a critical disadvantage. Second, a higher-than-average proportion of Māori children in low-decile schools and kura have no access to the internet for remote home schooling. Third, the jobs hit hardest are those that cannot go online. Māori rates of unemployment during lockdown are already twice the national average. We expect it to get worse after lockdown. Fourth, disinformation affecting Māori is not manageable.

Aspirations of access to a high-quality telecommunications infrastructure for Māori in rural areas have not been met even after years of advocacy. Māori telecommunications groups and individuals have brought about a few small projects, but they rely heavily on volunteers, and have limited access to expertise and funds.

The government’s announcement last year that it would provide basic data plans to hundreds of marae resulted from this advocacy, but the project is Crown-led and undercooked. Its recent announcement that it will allocate short-term spectrum to Māori in 2020 to develop 5G technologies is also a result of tenacious lobbying by Māori telecommunications and Treaty claimant organisations. The opportunity is unique in the world. It only took 30 years.

Photo: Getty Images

Scams spread fear

What about this 5G malarkey? Not all conspiracy theories are fake, but the 5G link to brain frying and Covid-19 is. This sophisticated scam was initiated offshore and has geo-political motives. It targets the naive and those who may already have a negative experience with authorities.

Māori Covid-19 response teams say the conspiracy is spreading fear among some of our own. Most don’t know how to navigate the conspiracy theories landscape and ignore trusted independent experts in favour of over-sharing Facebook friends and social media influencers.

We don’t have time in a crisis to convince the unconvincible. They’ll hold a position regardless of facts. And for some, acting in the role of activist has a certain appeal.

But here’s the downside. The scams cultivate a portion of the population whose ability to discern good information is compromised. The Māori Covid-19 response teams need to stay ahead of this disinformation so they can responsibly update their communities.

There are also direct repercussions from those deciding to attack vital communications infrastructure – that is, anything on a pole, not an actual 5G cell site. This damage isolates communities already under stress and endangers lives.

The long-term risk is if this ignorance continues, Māori communities will feel conflicted about critical infrastructure in their areas and will not have communications and economic lifelines. The least informed and most anxious among us are not well-positioned to lead post-lockdown aspirations, nor can we allow international disinformation campaigns to sway it.

Illustration: Toby Morris

What should a post-lockdown world look like for Māori?

Like many conversations now, Māori want to reposition and align our core values with economic opportunities. That means looking after our people, caring for the environment, improving the distributing of wealth, and increasing our ability to contribute to the economy. It means shedding the residues of colonisation.

The first wave of responses after lockdown will be short-term solutions. The government will fund shovel-ready infrastructure projects in the construction industry. From a quick solution viewpoint, it works. A high proportion of Māori work in the construction sector. It will restore many jobs and incomes.

But we should ask, who will be on the shovels and who will receive the profits? Shovel-ready projects will put Māori back on the same bumpy track as before, where in-job skills and opportunities will have little to do with the future of work or the impact of new technologies on their industry.

We must be careful not to reproduce the continuing dependency of Māori in jobs not geared towards the future of work and not able to withstand a crisis.

The second wave of responses after lockdown need to be strategic. Māori want better prospects, transformative change and to determine our future economic, social and cultural wellbeing. We need to build resilience and opportunity into our jobs and businesses. And we’ll need to fight for it.

The experience of Māori in telecommunications is largely passive. We’re often consumers and users rather than architects and innovators. Telecommunication projects are usually commercially driven, based on population size and density. Without capable Māori leadership making key decisions, projects that serve rural Māori have scant chance of being financed.

Global trends signal a need to build telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas irrespective of population density. There are measurable shifts in the demands of young and middle generations who want ethical, environmentally responsible, healthy food and quality products with an extended no-maintenance life cycle that reduces waste. That means not killing animals, polluting waterways, or growing crops and forests under unmanageable climatic conditions. The Covid-19 experience will intensify this demand, and post-lockdown conversations all over the world show an interest in making this a priority.

The Māori economy will need to reshape ideally by choice, not circumstance. A telecommunications infrastructure hosting 5G technologies will enable precision technologies, sensors, artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, automation, and energy management to advance and future-proof our primary sector industries. What’s good for Māori is good for the country. The whole rural sector including non-Māori will benefit.

The continued exclusion of Māori from high-quality telecommunications infrastructure is untenable.

Socially and economically driven Māori-led projects will bring opportunities to upskill, establish career pathways, generate new and periphery businesses, set the foundation for intellectual property development, and contribute to the country’s economic potential.

If we redirect those shovels to build extensions to a large-quality telecommunications infrastructure targeting rural communities and businesses and align the values that many of us are aching for post-lockdown, we can change our futures.



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