“If the government had listened to our experts, and itself, all these months, Māori could have been 90 percent vaccinated by now,” writes Vini Olsen-Reeder, who’s sick of Māori being blamed for being slow to vaccinate.
I’m tired of hearing our politicians complaining about Māori vaccination rates.
Māori, especially rangatahi, have been branded as slow and selfish and blamed for holding back the rest of the country. The truth is, we’ve been held back by a rollout that ignored the basic statistics.
Māori are a young population. Our median age is around 26. For Pacific, it’s around 24. (This compares to the Pākehā median age of 41, and the national medium of 37.)
That means half of us are under those ages. So when it comes to vaccination, the great bulk of us — more than 90 percent of Māori, including me — sit in Group 4, which was everyone aged 12 and over.
Which means we’ve only been eligible for vaccination since September 1. That’s only 53 days ago. The vaccination rollout started in February; Group 3 started back in May.
So, of course, Māori are playing catch-up.
It was always going to be a race to get vaccinated before Delta hit. That’s why our public health experts fought for Māori and Pasifika to get vaccinated first. They argued that the rollout was inequitable.
We’re younger than the general population, so most of us were going to be last in line in the vaccine rollout. (Only 15 percent of Māori and Pacific are aged over 60, compared with 30 percent of non-Māori/Pacific; 77 percent of Māori and 79 percent of Pacific are under the age of 54.)
And we’re more vulnerable. For instance, Māori have an at least 50 per cent higher risk of dying from Covid than Pākehā, a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found.
The government insisted the rollout was fair, but then admitted that it had got Māori vaccination wrong. I think our experts lost that battle because the government was worried about the optics. And when Māori health providers like Te Whānau o Waipareira tried to right that inequity by targeting Māori with a vax code, people like ACT leader David Seymour stood in their way.
It was a perfect storm for Delta. In the latest outbreak, of 2492 cases, 770 people are Māori, 1047 are our Pacific whanaunga.
If the government had listened to our experts, and to itself, all these months, Māori could have been 90 percent vaccinated by now.
But now the biggest group, with the biggest Māori population, is charged with the biggest challenge of all — to get vaccinated, as fast as possible, and not get Covid in the process.
Despite that late start, since Group 4 vaccinations opened in September, our cumulative doses per 1000 people has doubled. Non-Māori have not reached anywhere near this uptake in the same timeframe. Māori are getting it done.
It isn’t anything to do with our speed. It’s that we started from behind.
We had more than six months to vaccinate Groups 1–3. In those age brackets, we’re about as highly vaccinated as non-Māori. In certain regions of the country, we’re more vaccinated than non-Māori are. Our elders have smashed vaccination goals, and I’m so proud of them for leading the way.
The bulk of us have had just 53 days to navigate booking times, wait times, and overcome such a manifest lack of access that in some areas we have had to fundraise for our own clinics.
Our experts are having plenty of “we told you so” moments right now, and they’ll be bitter moments, I’m sure. It’s an impossible expectation that Māori go back in time, and get vaccinated then. We are magic people, but we aren’t that magic.
It’s no wonder it’s so hard to dampen down distrust of the vaccine, when that distrust stems from a lack of faith in government, which has made this tougher for Māori than it ever had to be. All it had to do was give Group 4 a shot to vaccinate as safely as other groups.
For anyone hesitant to vaccinate out there for reasons of distrust in government — I understand, but the last few weeks have shown me we should vaccinate in spite of how we’ve been treated.
It’s sad to frame things in this way, but when it counts most, it’s Māori who come through for Māori. Not overseas news platforms, not chat forums, not churches, and not government — it’s us. The vaccine is tino rangatiratanga, for now.
When we look back at this point in the pandemic, to pore over what we learned, I hope the lesson is not that Māori were slow, but that we were stopped.
Dr Vini Olsen-Reeder (Ngā Pōtiki a Tamapahore, Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Arawa) is a senior lecturer at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
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