When the latest lockdown became much more than a health crisis for many South Auckland families, it was their local, Pacific-led social services that stepped up to help.
Patricia Tosogu is beaming with relief as she stands in the doorway of her new temporary home in Ōtāhuhu, while the sounds of her sons’ play filters outside onto the courtyard.
All seven members of her family contracted Covid-19 despite only one of them attending the superspreader event that was the Assemblies of God (AOG) Church of Sāmoa service on August 15.
Their health crisis, which included one family member needing hospital care, soon became a housing crisis as the family weren’t able to keep up with rent while isolating in MIQ. But instead of returning to their overcrowded rental in Avondale after recovering, they were able to move into one of five transitional houses, managed by community housing provider, Penina Health Trust.
Tosogu says given the stresses of the last month, receiving this support feels like a “massive weight has been lifted off our shoulders”.
“After all we’ve been through, this is definitely a blessing in disguise. The house we were in [before catching Covid] was overcrowded. We had four of us in one bedroom — so this brings us a step closer to getting into suitable housing for all of us.”
She says it’s been particularly hard trying to keep her one and three-year-old sons’ spirits up through it all. “It’s just a long period to be in isolation, and we were shut up in quite a small room [in MIQ] so it was a lot for them to take. Finally being able to come out now and get back to normal is good.”
AOG cluster spokesperson Jerome Mika says many families in the cluster, like the Tosogus, have been struggling with “issues around employment, mental health and housing”, and in order to address this, a collective of Pacific-led social services have come together to provide more coordinated support.
Penina Health Trust chief executive Roine Lealaiauloto says they had actually been holding some houses aside for this very purpose, knowing a Covid outbreak was likely.
“This initiative is about everyone pulling together. The church are doing their part, the providers like ourselves and South Seas have come together to develop solutions and it’s also about government – and we’ve had very quick response from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Pacific Peoples and the MSD [Ministry of Social Development] who have given us the ability to wrap these supports around.”
Alongside transitional homes managed by the Penina Health Trust, South Seas Healthcare, The Cause Collective, Ōtara Health and Vaka Tautua have been providing a range of services to get families in the cluster back on their feet.
At the forefront of the health response has been South Seas Healthcare from their site in the Ōtara Town Centre. The organisation’s chief executive Lemalu Silao Vaisola-Sefo says a week into this latest lockdown it soon became clear many families from the church didn’t understand what was required. But he believes his staff’s more “relational approach” kept the cluster from getting even larger.
“The distrust of government services goes a long way back,” he says, pointing out the government’s dawn raid apology was less than two months ago.
“Initially people weren’t getting tested or providing contact tracers enough information. We were asked to set up a testing site, and on the first day [of running the testing station] only three people from the church got tested, the second day it was 13. It was then I started to understand there was an issue.”
Knowing Mika’s family link to the church, Vaisola-Sefo texted him and arranged a meeting with ministers from the AOG church. From there, South Seas was able to run a second testing event which got 700 members and close contacts checked, and his staff also began assisting with contract tracing.
“Our approach wasn’t about telling people ‘you need to get tested now’, instead we flipped the approach to making it about them and what their needs were.”
Five weeks on, with new cases from this cluster having significantly decreased, Vaisola-Sefo says his staff are now overcoming vaccine hesitancy, “the church members are getting vaccinated, and that’s because we’re providing the right information from the right people”.
Pacific Peoples minister Aupito Su’a William Sio says while it has always been the intention of his government to work more closely with Pacific social service providers, he admits it hasn’t happened as hoped, but he believes the Covid response has provided a template for what it could look like.
“South Auckland is the front line border in the war against this invisible enemy. But by bringing these organisations together it’s also helping government agencies start to think outside the box.”
Sio says it’s clear the “silo approach doesn’t work for Pacific communities or Māori or people with disabilities” and he’s confident the lessons from this crisis can also help tackle some of the chronic health issues faced by many in his community.
“This is certainly an approach I’ve been exploring with the minister of health, and with our health reforms moving forward. There’s still a long way to go but where we have a number of Pacific providers who are able to work together, the role of the government is to resource that.”