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OPINIONSocietyAugust 17, 2020

Our ancestors were not conspiracy theorists

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Our communities need us to listen to the people who have dedicated their lives to making ours better – not those who only want to exploit our fears, writes Christine Ammunson.

One in five Sāmoans died when the 1918 pandemic hit our homes. Through whispers I remember elderly aunts recalling the horror of watching the bodies of loved ones rolled up into sleeping mats. Carried to the road and picked up by a truck that collected the dead twice a day. There are no funerals when almost a quarter of the population dies within two months.

One hundred years on we, like Māori and other Pasifika communities, are some of the most at risk from Covid-19. Look at your family and imagine one in five gone. This is what we are up against.

But we are also up against something else and it’s not the virus.

I get it that right now people are scared. We all are. Being scared of things we can’t explain is to be human. Being suspicious is natural when you’re feeling helpless and vulnerable. But when the stakes are so high we owe it to our loved ones to take the time to not just stop at Youtube videos or Facebook posts. We need to also listen to our doctors, nurses and health workers. These are the people we trust when we are ill and the people we can’t afford to ignore when the going gets tough.

Conspiracy theories are the fast food of ideas. They’re quick and easy to digest. They attract us because there are little parts of them that seem believable. Conspiracy theories are convenient because, unlike the science that is needed to make your hybrid car move or your child’s medicine work, they don’t have to do anything except make you suspicious. Unlike scientists, engineers, surgeons, doctors, nurses and microbiologists, a Youtuber, social influencer or celebrity just has to say things. When someone I love dearly went through major surgery we didn’t turn to Youtube or social media platforms. We trusted in a GP, a paediatrician, a neurosurgeon, nurses, doctors and many other specialists.

My grandmother was a baby when influenza decimated Sāmoa. She was a child when NZ Police gunned down Mau independence marchers, one of them her beloved papa. She became a nurse because she had seen so many lives lost, she wanted to help save lives. Both my grandfathers were doctors and like her they were also moved by death to save lives. I’ve thought of them a lot in recent times.

Right now things are scary. We are all scared. But the best thing we can do is perhaps focus on the same things that got our ancestors through – no matter where our family trees began. While being scared of things we can’t control is part of what it means to be human, so too is caring for others and making the very best decisions for your family’s wellbeing.

The Māori Language Commission noted in March that while our tikanga or how we do things changed when we went into level four lockdown, our reasons for doing them had not changed at all. Everything we do, we do to keep others safe, our loved ones and ourselves. This is what manaakitanga, kindness is all about.

Ko ēnei ngā tikanga e whakaatu ai tātou i te manaaki ki te tangata.

He noho kāinga, he oranga tangata.

Stay Home, Save Lives

Our Polynesian ancestors explored and settled the greatest ocean on earth a millennium before other humans even dared. The world’s first long range ocean voyagers, they were astronavigators and scientists. They would look at the environment around them and study the way the birds were moving, see what the stars were doing, examine sea conditions.

Like them we need to analyse the conditions around us and make the best judgements we can. We must strive to be situationally aware – that’s what our ancestors were good at and it’s why we are here today. They didn’t just listen to dogma and nor did they sit on the waka gossiping with each other. Sure, some of them probably did, but ultimately those who succeeded made the best decisions in order to guarantee the safety of the people on their waka. This is the kind of leadership, science and precision we need now and, in the days, and months ahead to get our people through.

Kia kaha Aotearoa. Be Kind Aotearoa.

Christine Ammunson is a Sāmoan New Zealander who works for the Māori Language Commission. She lives with her family at Papawai Pā in Wairarapa.

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