Many people are reluctant to get tested because of how self-isolation might affect their income (Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas)

How Ōtara rallied to ensure its people got fed and Covid-tested

After initial concerns about low testing rates in South Auckland, Counties Manukau DHB has the second-highest testing rate in the country. Ōtara Health chief executive Sosefina Paletaoga explains her organisation’s role in achieving this. 

Covid-19 has affected us all in different ways, and for us in Ōtara, it has highlighted existing issues, but also reinforced our strengths.

One of our strengths is how good we are at working together. And it’s been through this collaborative approach that we’ve been able to ensure our community got the support it needed during this time of crisis.

At Ōtara Health we had two choices at the beginning of the lockdown. Our charitable trust could have responded as we have or hibernated and waited for business-as-usual activities to resume. But in many ways, that was a false choice, as our primary reason for existing is to lead through servanthood. This value is familiar to our Pasifika people, and it sits at the heart of our organisation. 

With this in mind, we joined forces with South Seas Healthcare to get a food distribution service running as well as ensuring this Ōtara-based healthcare clinic could use our site to run a Covid-19 testing station. 

South Seas Healthcare CEO Lemalu Silao Vaisola-Sefo, left, Health Star Pacific Trust GM Vaifagaloa Naseri and Sosefina Paletaoga, right, at a function to mark the four-month partnership to run a testing station in Ōtara. (Photo: Supplied)

While it has meant serious disruption to our normal work and to many of the community and social services we run, it’s been worth it. 

The testing station was one of the first in New Zealand to be open to test anyone, regardless of symptoms – and since it opened on April 4 almost 10,000 people have been tested.

South Seas’ decision to open up testing to anyone was based on the emerging evidence of asymptomatic transmission that was reported from around the world. What also drove this move was the knowledge that once Covid-19 gained a foothold in South Auckland, it could be very hard to contain, due to the many other risk factors that exist in our community. 

By ramping up efforts to test as many people as possible, it ensured a better chance of isolating and stopping the spread of the virus and I have the hugest respect for South Seas’ staff who have worked tirelessly over the last four months to make this possible. 

My staff have also been doing a tremendous job running our food distribution service, providing up to 300 parcels a week to families across Ōtara and those in neighbouring suburbs. Through our existing community relationships and networks we have been able to secure extra storage facilities, resources and food supplies at a time when most businesses and organisations had shut up shop. 

Ōtara Health’s Tuava’a Lefono packing a food parcel at their temporary base. (Photo: Supplied)

Such locally run approaches aren’t totally unique to Ōtara, as we know of similar efforts by organisations in Māngere, Glen Innes and Manurewa. What has marked these highly effective responses has been the power of using local people who had existing local knowledge and networks. 

We have now closed the testing station, and are rethinking the way we provide food support, partly to ensure our organisations can take a breath and also to refocus on our core business. 

But this also allows us to evolve what we are doing,  and so we will be to starting a wellbeing hub in Ōtara. Again, this will be done in collaboration with South Seas Healthcare and has been made possible by funding from the government. This hub will be about helping our community both young and old to access jobs, training, or social services to enable them to navigate the tricky times ahead. 

As someone who was born and raised in Ōtara, who then went on to teach at one of our local high schools for a number of years before taking up this role, it makes me immensely proud to be leading an organisation such as Ōtara Health that is able support our community through these uncharted and choppy waters. 

I know from personal experience that Ōtara has seen its fair share of drama and disruption. But what we do have is each other, the power of our collective abilities, and our strong family-like relationships.

At this moment, we don’t know for sure whether there will be a return wave of infections or whether unemployment will rise up to 20% for our local people (as some are predicting), but we can’t just wait for these issues to hit us. By prioritising local people, local businesses and local NGOS, and focusing on collaborative solutions – we can weather whatever may come.




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