Meet the South Auckland GP getting thousands vaccinated and tested with the implicit blessing of Destiny Church.
One of the vaccination and testing operations playing a crucial role in getting people a jab or a swab over the course of the pandemic is the Whānau Ora Community Clinic in South Auckland. Last year it set up one of the first Covid testing sites in Wiri, and over the last three months its Takanini mass vaccination centre has immunised tens of thousands of people.
But the organisation just so happens to be owned by two prominent Destiny Church members, Raewyn Bhana and George Ngatai, and uses the church’s Wiri-based carpark for its testing operations.
This is despite the fact that the church’s pastor, Brian Tamaki, has been a virulent opponent of the government’s public health response, and is currently out on bail after facing charges related to speaking at three large anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine mandate protests at the Auckland Domain.
While Ngatai wasn’t available for comment, the organisation’s clinical director Dr Vanshdeep Tangri says its operation would not have been possible without the support of the clinic’s leadership, other church members and the implicit support of Destiny itself, given they’ve had unfettered use of its carpark for the last 18 months.
“We’ve always been pro-vaccine and George and Raewyn are part of that – so from my perspective, it’s just about how we can be a good clinical service. And I would walk out if they didn’t [support us], because for me, the first priority is clinical safety.”
Tangri says the clinic pays a standard rate for use of the church’s grounds but because of its location in the centre of South Auckland and its proximity to motorways, the carpark has been an invaluable resource in the fight against this virus.
“We do have some staff that are from Destiny but at the end of the day, religion isn’t discussed,” he says. “One thing I should say is that the site in Wiri is absolute gold. It’s so hard finding sites and we’ve found no one really wants you running a testing site in their carpark. But we’ve had the complete freedom to use this site however we needed.”
During the first two lockdowns in Auckland, the clinic ran one of the largest testing sites, doing hundreds of swabs every day, which Tangri says was like “building a plane while you’re trying to fly it”.
“There was no blueprint for setting up a testing centre, as we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands, so we probably went overboard on safety. But as we improved, we got more and more efficient.”
With the Counties Manukau District Health Board’s eligible population creeping towards the 90% vaccination target, Tangri’s staff have been literally going door to door at times to ensure people have access to their two Pfizer doses.
“We’ve had some people who’ve asked us to come to their home and vaccinate them, so we’ve basically just gone wherever there are people that need to be vaccinated. And we’re also having conversations with people that don’t want to be vaccinated. Not trying to sort of force people, but just being very approachable.”
Tangri, who had harboured aspirations of becoming a skin cancer specialist in Tauranga, says a short stint working in rural India turned out to be a key experience in preparing him for running such a large public health operation.
“In my final year of medical school I went back to India,” he says, having migrated to New Zealand in his early teens. “I was part of a community team and we were doing vaccinations in the villages and a lot of the challenges we faced were not too different from what we’re having now, with the same sort of misinformation, and people not understanding things.”
With both his parents and grandparents being doctors, it’s no wonder he followed in their footsteps. But he says it was seeing the care and diligence of his grandmother that was particularly inspiring.
“As a boy, I used to sit on my nana’s lap while she was doing voluntary clinics and seeing patients, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
He has developed a similar heart for his patients, which is why he finds it so hard to fathom when a small group of other medical professionals don’t take Covid seriously.
“What people do in their own time is fine, but if it’s affecting our patients, that’s when you should start to worry,” he says. “We’re dealing with elderly, frail patients that have multiple health problems and if you’re not vaccinated, you’re more likely to give them Covid.”
While Tamaki’s church has been very accommodating of the clinic, the vaccination centre has still been the target of anti-vax protestors, leading to extra security being posted at the site. But Tangri is quick to reiterate the need to remain respectful of others’ views.
“Obviously as a doctor I have different views to them. But if you don’t treat people with respect, they will not want to hear what you’ve got to say.”
Despite the extra pressures Tangri has faced over the last few months, including less time with his two daughters, he seems unperturbed by it all. I ask how he’s been able to ensure he and his team don’t burn out, given the virus is probably here to stay.
“My mantra is safety, safety, safety. So that means if my staff need time off we give them time off to recharge their batteries. And we just support each other and it’s pretty much like a family.”
Over the course of our interview, Tangri keeps using words like “support”, “safety”, “respect” and “family”, and perhaps that’s a clue for us all in that – as we each navigate the divisions and tensions in our own communities.