Sāmoa i Manurewa Tutū Fa’atasi is a South Auckland community group which was set up last year to meet the needs of local residents falling through the gaps of both mainstream and Pacific health providers in Covid.
To begin with, it had to tackle low vaccination rates among Sāmoan and Pasifika families.
Penina Ifopo, a former high school teacher and public servant, is one of the group’s founding members. She spoke to Teuila Fuatai about why community groups like hers continue to be a necessary part of the Covid response.
Talofa lava, Penina. I’ve heard that your group, Sāmoa i Manurewa Tutū Fa’atasi, was one of the unsung heroes of the South Auckland Covid response, because of the way that you rallied your community last year to boost low vaccination numbers here in Manurewa.
You’ve continued to support families through this latest Omicron outbreak. I think many people probably think the challenges around Covid have been more or less sorted now, especially with the new funding announced in February.
How’s it really going? Did we learn anything from the vaccination rollout?
We’ve made some progress, but there are still gaps. There’s a clear mismatch between what people really need and what’s going out during Covid. Especially for a lot of families that we work with — those who aren’t well connected to health services or a GP clinic.
Basics like isolation supplies aren’t getting to families who rely on it, and there’s problems around communication of health advice. And that’s despite funding dedicated to specific initiatives around caring for people with Covid in the community.
Before we talk about that in more detail, can you share a bit about yourself?
I’ve lived in Manurewa for over 20 years, where I raised two sons — Penitito (21) and David (18).
I’m an educator. I’ve run a range of learning programmes across the education system — from early childhood to English language learning. I also completed a Master of Education Leadership at AUT and was a teacher at James Cook High School in Manurewa. Now I work in the public service, designing and improving education programmes in prisons.
Our family is part of St Anne’s Catholic Church Manurewa, and like many Sāmoans, our parish is an important part of our life.
I also hold the chiefly title of Sauatulagioletagaloa from Musumusu, Fagaloa. My mother is from Fagaloa and my father is from Solosolo — both villages in Upolu.
How did you get involved in the Covid response in Manurewa?
I’m an active union delegate and I hold several national roles in the PSA and NZ Council of Trade Unions.
Around the beginning of last year’s second lockdown (which began on August 17), the union executive had a number of Zoom meetings around Covid. Representatives of several government departments, including the Ministry for Pacific Peoples and Ministry of Health, attended.
They had lots of statistics, including that, as of September 19, only 31 percent of Sāmoans living in Manurewa were vaccinated. It was one of the lowest rates around the country, with those aged 15 to 30 the most likely to be unvaccinated.
At the same time, there was a huge amount of misinformation on social media. I found it pretty shocking, even though it was relatively early in the big vaccine push. Even my own household of nine was still in the process of getting vaccinated.
Because of my work, I was double-vaccinated by June — but like a lot of families in Manurewa, we hadn’t heard much about Covid vaccines until Delta was in the community.
I was worried about the situation, and in a lot of ways, that’s the story behind Sāmoa i Manurewa Tutū Fa’atasi. Locals like me felt like we’d been left behind in the Covid response. All of a sudden, there were lots of cases where we lived and we didn’t know how to deal with it.
At our very first open-invite Zoom meeting, about 30 residents turned up. Many were overwhelmed with mixed messages from the health ministry. They weren’t sure how to get help for Covid, and many weren’t well-connected to primary health providers, which seemed to be another barrier to getting vaccinated.
To start, an organising committee of five took charge. That’s me and Asiata Gadiel — the community members — and three faife‘au (church ministers): Lui Ponifasio, Talia Tapaleao and Amosa Kennaar.
All of us had lived in Manurewa for more than 20 years, but we’d never met. Using our own resources, we organised Sāmoa in Manurewa’s first vaccination event on October 1 at the Northcrest carpark.
I heard that went pretty well.
We vaccinated 1380 people over two days, well over our target of 200.
It was a huge learning experience, especially in terms of working with health providers.
Pasefika Family Health, a Pacific health provider based in Manurewa, contacted us about partnering for the event. Like us, they’d never held a community vaccination event before.
Sāmoa i Manurewa was in charge of mobilising and engaging the community. The low vaccine uptake showed the approach taken by mainstream health hadn’t worked, so we needed to do it differently. The health providers said they’d take care of the medical side of things, and could also help with incentives to encourage numbers.
Early on, we put a call out to Sāmoan youth in Manurewa. Because so many of those who weren’t vaccinated were under 30, we wanted to know where the breakdown was. I remember the first Zoom meeting — about 25 people logged on, and only two showed their faces. Everyone said they were worried about the toll that Covid was having on their families.
We quickly formed our youth committee and they coordinated promotion of the event. Since then, they’ve also helped other community groups around Auckland including Pasefika Youth United and the EFKS Magele i Sisifo Church. Just last month, they were contacted by AOG youth in Henderson and they helped them plan a vaccination event.
Our faife’au mobilised local Sāmoan church leaders. Did you know that there are over 20 Sāmoan congregations in Manurewa and they’d never worked together until Covid? Getting them on board has been critical for Sāmoa i Manurewa’s outreach.
But, as motivated as we all were, there were major speedbumps. For instance, we’d been told that South Seas Healthcare — the largest Pasifika health provider in the Counties Manukau DHB area — would give us 200 food boxes as prizes for the first people who turned up, but a few days before the event, we found out that wasn’t happening.
I had several conversations with Pasefika Family Health, which was liasing with South Seas. Eventually, I was told that we’d be getting only 100 boxes and they’d be delivered on the day of event, which would be too late.
We ended up reaching out to our own contacts. The Sikh temple in Takanini, Gurudwara Sri Kalgidhard Sahib, and the Kiwi Fruit Company were kind enough to provide food boxes for the prizes. We also got vouchers from Pasefika Family Health, donated by one of their contacts. And throughout the two-day event, people also brought food — keke paua, panikeke, suppers, vai fala.
That voluntary support was essential.
It sounds like the community really pulled together. But it must have been frustrating when things didn’t work out with the health providers. Did you find out what happened?
We never really got an explanation, so we’re not sure. We suspect it may have been a lack of communication between the health providers.
Either way, it was frustrating and stressful. But our numbers showed we’d hooked into something good.
After that, we decided to minimise our reliance on health providers. The government announced Prepare Pacific Funding managed by the Cause Collective for community groups to help support vaccinations.
We applied for funding as a community group for incentives for events and other expenses. All the providers had to do was administer vaccines and logistics. We also dealt directly with the local board around use of council locations for events to speed up the process.
That’s been a lot better, and we’ve just held our 15th vaccine event.
Perhaps a bit naively, I thought Sāmoa i Manurewa would be warmly embraced and supported by Pasefika health providers when we formed. After all, we’ve got a common goal. Instead, barriers have come up around which organisations we coordinate with and exactly how we do that.
For example, health providers have established relationships and processes with government funders and certain community organisations. They know how to work the system and understand the necessary administrative processes. We came in without any of that knowledge and found the primary health space siloed, complex and unfriendly — even with Pacific providers.
I think it should be the opposite. Certainly, Pacific health providers are an important plank of community healthcare, but so are community groups like Sāmoa i Manurewa. Especially when we’re connecting with families who have little exposure to health services and who need to be vaccinated. Making it hard for us to work with them doesn’t benefit anyone.
What are things like now? The vaccination rate was 89.3 percent in Manurewa by the end of the year (88.1 percent for Sāmoan residents). I understand you’ve continued to run events for the child and booster doses, and you’re also now helping families dealing with Covid at home.
It’s been a mixed bag. We’ll keep going with the vaccine events because our booster and child rates still need work. At the end of the first week of April, 61.5 percent of eligible people in Manurewa had been boosted. For children aged 5 to 11, 44.9 percent had one shot, while 10.3 percent were fully vaccinated.
For us, even 100 people vaccinated at an event is important because we know the extra protection makes a difference to families. Especially as we navigate more waves and variants.
I’m proud of the increased vaccine coverage Sāmoa i Manurewa is contributing to, but our work also shows significant gaps in health and social support services for our families.
Throughout this Omicron outbreak, I’ve been asked by families to help with isolation supplies. That’s after their household cases have been registered through official channels like public health and their family doctor.
These households are supposed to get food boxes and other essentials so they can be at home for at least a week as part of the official Covid response. But that’s not what we’re seeing.
For example, one of the radio stations got in touch a few weeks ago because they’d been contacted by five different Sāmoan families in Ōtara, Papatoetoe and Manurewa. Each of the families had cases and were isolating. They were also running out of essentials.
My children and I ended up buying supplies and dropping them at their homes as they hadn’t received anything. They weren’t flash things — it’s stuff like toilet paper, milk and things for the kids. One family also asked for nappies for their six-month-old baby.
My own household’s isolation experience highlighted other issues. There are nine of us in a four-bedroom house, and we have three vulnerable people at home — my elderly aunty, my son who is epileptic and asthmatic, and my sister who is diabetic.
When two members of our family tested positive, I tried to find out what resources were available for us. I was passed between Auckland’s public health Covid team, South Seas, Pasefika Family Health, and the social service agency The Cause Collective.
In the end, we didn’t get help from any of them, so I came up with our own system.
First, I looked at hiring a temporary cabin, but it was too expensive and nothing was available as a short-term rental. We ended up making the garage into a makeshift isolation unit with beds and furniture for our two Covid positive family members. They had a set of cleaning equipment, which they used to sanitise the bathroom whenever they needed it. Fortunately, we managed to prevent Covid being passed through our household.
That’s not a great outlook of how things are going. It really sounds like you landed in the middle of a setup that doesn’t work for families that likely need the most help during Covid. Not to mention your own family’s difficulties.
Exactly. I count my family as one of the lucky ones because they’ve got me. I’ve learned how important it is to follow up and call different organisations and people — even if they keep referring you to someone else. While it may not always get the ideal outcome, at least I’m a bit more clued-up about how things operate.
But so many of our families won’t do that, or they can’t. A lot won’t know who to call. Time and language skills is often an issue, and there’s also previous negative experiences with health services which can be off-putting.
I think local health providers, and health authorities, need to take a look at why some households continue to be left behind. When Sāmoa i Manurewa formed, I was told a large percentage of Pasifika aren’t enrolled with Pasifika health providers — or any health provider at all.
That essentially means a lot of us sit outside the system.
Health providers need to find a way to connect with these families. Certainly, working with community groups like Sāmoa i Manurewa helps because we understand the dynamics of the community we live in and how to reach people.
But there also needs to be a shift in mindset among health providers. Specifically, about how they can adjust their systems to lower barriers for grassroots organisations like ours.
At the same time, the community needs to be brave and tell health providers where they’re failing. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s a necessary one for us to be able to tackle why a lot of us miss out on essential health and welfare services.
This interview has been made possible by NZ On Air, through the Public Interest Journalism Fund. It has been edited for length and clarity.
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