Chloe Fergusson-Tibble, a medical student and māmā of two based in Rotorua, on the impact of anti-vax messaging on Māori communities.
My daughter reaches up with a cloth doused in washing liquid and begins rubbing the message that has appeared on a busy Rotorua street corner.
She rolls her eyes and looks up with her most appalled face, asking: “How can people think it’s a death jab when not having the jab is when the death comes?”
My daughter turns 12 this month and, for her birthday, she’s getting vaccinated. She’s a medical student’s daughter and already knows about antibodies, antigens and vaccines, but today she’s on a whole other buzz, exclaiming: “We have a Delta outbreak people. Come on. What are you up to?!”
I giggle at her soapbox-like passion and think of all the women she sounds like in my whānau as we wash the sign together, with water running straight into our armpits as we reach up high to make sure this insidious message is all gone.
I recall quietly how, only a few days ago, the chalk was left on the road by some kids who were writing “Have a happy day” and other caring rāhui messages for those out on their daily walk, so they might feel the kindness and the overwhelming spirit of our team of five million.
“Team of five million,” I think bitterly, as I fake smile at the cars who slow down to see what we’re up to. Most of them give us nods of approval after the curious look that comes with seeing a Māori woman with a moko kauae. I’m glad the drivers see sense in our actions, and, today at least, we’re part of the team of five million.
I may not know who wrote the anti-vax message but I do know who will die at an inequitable rate if it’s allowed to spread unchecked. I also suspect that those who are most at risk from Covid are the ones who are more likely to believe these harmful messages.
When you colonise a country and create racist institutions, you develop structures where propaganda can flourish. If your land was taken from you, you might be suspicious of the team of five million and whatever else we’re up to.
I’m gutted thinking about the conspiracy theorists in my own whānau who would go to town with this hopeless message, and that’s when the pukuriri sets in. I scrub more vigorously.
Whirinaki is a small valley in the Hokianga, and although I wasn’t raised there, I’m connected to that whenua, and so it’s the first community on my mind when I think about the damage that choosing not to vaccinate our tamariki could do.
It means that our Pāpā, Nannies and whānau in Whirinaki are more at risk. The anti-vax message, should our whānau choose to believe it, ultimately means more death — and the saddest part is that we’re already dying before our time, and earlier than non-Māori without Delta.
How do we fight this misinformation? I don’t think it’s about ramming more science in people’s faces. I believe that we all want to protect our whakapapa. So we need to go back to basics here. We need to wānanga.
To wānanga as Māori means engaging in open discussion with one another about our experiences, questions, fears, and reservations. It requires a level of curiosity from everyone involved — especially those of us who’ve already made the decision to vaccinate. This is to ensure that all voices are heard and valued, and that those who are “still on the fence” are given an opportunity to kōrero.
This doesn’t mean, though, that we’re choosing to listen to harmful messages. It means that we remember whose land was stolen and we acknowledge how historical injustices have developed mistrust. It means we remain open to hearing from our whānau about their fears so we can respond lovingly and provide good information where we can.
After all, these people aren’t just patients. They’re our whānau.
This type of wānanga is as old as the wānanga that occurred when Ranginui and Papatūānuku were separated. Not everyone was in agreement, and some siblings were in fear of change, and yet here we are in te ao marama with both parents having been separated despite the fears and reservations of those in the wānanga. We can do this — our whakapapa has made it so.
(And big props to Dr Diana Kopua and tohunga Mark Kopua who taught me about this way of wānanga, and the curiosity required, through Mahi a Atua, a framework that seeks to reinstate mātauranga Māori.)
I have every faith in my whānau Māori to make safe decisions that protect our whakapapa. But, as a country responsible for this vaccine rollout, we’ve got to do better.
I think about my daughter’s boldness today and I get the sense that she’s actually slightly baffled that we’re out here supporting a majority kaupapa, when so often our whānau voice is a minority one. Perhaps that explains her confidence as she scrubs, and the loud tone she’s adopted for her outrage.
After all, she thinks she’s on the winning team because we’re standing with the majority as pro-vax people.
But what she’s missing is that, as long as it’s our whānau Māori that these anti-vax messages prey on, we’re still losing.
Chloe Fergusson-Tibble (Te Hikutu, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa) is a medical student and mataora working alongside Te Kurahuna. She has a postgraduate diploma is psychology and has previous experience as a consumer leader for mental health services in Tairāwhiti. Chloe’s husband is from Ngāti Porou, and she is a māmā of two tamariki. She is currently enrolled in a total immersion te reo Māori course in Rotorua.
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