Last week, Ngāti Porou sent a letter to whānau living away from home, asking them to consider staying away this summer because of the very real threat of Covid to their communities in Tairāwhiti. Yet the tourists have already started arriving. Tina Ngata, who lives in rural, isolated Matakāoa on the East Coast, explains why their presence poses an unacceptable risk for those who live there.
The summer holidaymakers are already here. Our campervan parks are full. Unvaccinated tourists are flocking to campgrounds in rurally isolated regions, because hotels in the bigger centres are asking people for their vaccine passes.
One tourist from New Plymouth was laughing at my cousin last week for fishing while wearing a mask. When my cousin asked this guy what brought him here to the East Cape, he replied: “Nobody else would take us.”
Your choice to holiday here risks our lives. Vaccinations are our strongest protection, and we’re working so hard to get our rates up even though we started the vax race from behind.
But vaccinations alone — yours or ours — won’t keep us safe.
No vaccine provides 100 percent protection. And although the Pfizer Covid vaccine (94–95 percent effective) is one of the most protective vaccines available, there are still such things as “breakthrough infections”.
Among healthy populations, they’re very rare. But there are things that make them more likely to happen, and those things coalesce where I live. We’re at high risk of breakthrough infections and severe Covid because of our crowded housing, our prevalence of certain health conditions, and our low immunity.
When I said all this and more on The Project this week, they listened and nodded politely, and then editors snip-snipped those comments out so the hosts could respond, once I’d gone, with some incredibly callous and uncaring jokes.
They essentially said: Well, hahaha, we’re coming anyway, losers. I wanna holiday.
To people who think like this, we’re simply backdrops for their escapist fantasy. For 251 years now, since Cook’s first arrival, Māori have borne the brunt of non-Māori imported diseases. We’ve been infected, and then blamed, for the infections. Covid is a continuation of this tradition.
Dr Rawiri Taonui lays this out very clearly for us when he points out that, as of this week, Māori are now 51 percent of all new Covid cases and 42 percent of all Covid deaths, while non-Māori account for 96 percent of the imported Covid cases.
Coloniser tourists feel entitled to our home as their product to consume, whatever the cost to us. It doesn’t matter to them that people have to live here. Our challenges don’t matter to them, and our lives don’t matter to them.
For the rest of you who’ve told me you do want to listen and understand, I want to paint a picture.
Let’s consider an average household in the East Cape.
Riripeti is a 35-year-old mother — her whānau call her Riri. She has three children, aged 5, 14, and 15. Her partner works in forestry.
The little one had bronchiolitis as a two-year-old and now has mild asthma. Riri is also asthmatic. They live in the whānau homestead here, somewhere between Wharekahika and Potaka.
It’s a modest but well-kept home, built in the 1950s. One bathroom, one toilet, three bedrooms. Their 17-year-old nephew lives with them, and sleeps on the couch. They are all double-vaxed.
The 14-year-old contracts Covid at school and brings it home. They can’t isolate away from her because they only have the one bathroom. Of course, Riri wants to take care of her, so the whole family has to isolate.
Her partner is hesitant to stay home because they’ve just had 500 job losses in the forestry industry, and he doesn’t want to lose his job. He’s stressed at having to isolate.
The patient, because she’s vaccinated and young and healthy, has a rough time but recovers after 10 days and gets the all-clear to stop isolating at 14 days. But then Riri tests positive, and because she’s asthmatic, she deteriorates fast.
At 10am, she was able to talk. At 10.30am, she’s struggling to breathe and they call 111. The ambulance takes 20 minutes to get to her and three hours to get her to town. She is barely alive at that point (in fact, it’s a miracle she makes it there). The entire household clock resets to 14 days again, even though she’s been transferred out.
The damage from the time it took to get Riri to hospital means she needs ICU, but there are only two beds in Gisborne hospital and they’re both full. There’s a spare one that’s free, but for only seven days, in another district. The hospital barely manages to keep her alive long enough to transfer her again to fight for her life in another district, alone. The family are notified of the transfer after it happened because the staff are too busy to call and the decision to save her life is too urgent.
The father and the five-year-old now test positive and you have a Covid positive parent looking after a very sick Covid positive child, and of course the clock resets itself again for the remaining household members.
The five-year-old also needs ICU. There are only 15 staffed child ICU units in the country, all in Auckland.
Here are the father’s choices:
Allow his five-year-old child to be transferred to Auckland by herself for ICU treatment (if it’s available).
Allow his five-year-old child to be transferred to Hawke’s Bay ICU, where there’s one available bed not intended for children (so the ICU staff will not be trained in pediatric care), and with uncertainty about how long that will be available.
Keep his child at home with him where, if she also deteriorates, she may not make it to hospital in time and will not be able to access ICU.
The father recovers because he’s healthy and vaccinated. The 17-year-old nephew is the last to catch it, which resets them for another 14 days, but he also recovers because he’s fully vaccinated. By now, that one house has had to isolate for 70 days.
Nobody in, nobody out.
Over that time, who is delivering their kai? Who is delivering their medicine? Their water tank runs out which means they can no longer sanitise the house, clean or hydrate — who is arranging a refill for their tank? Refills can sometimes take four or five days as there’s only one service on offer — so who brings them water in the meantime? Who is feeding or moving their animals? Who is taking care of income?
Physically, they’re fine. But the 17-year-old is now suffering depression, and the father has lost his job and is also severely depressed, and the 14-year-old daughter is now carrying the whānau. And they can’t reach anyone to find out about Riri.
Their living situation is not an uncommon living situation, or health profile, where we are in the East Cape. Now take this situation and multiply it by hundreds. Consider what this means for single parents. Consider what this means for grandparents looking after multiple mokopuna under 12.
Maybe it’s not asthma — maybe it’s diabetes, or obesity, or heart disease. Or maybe they beat cancer a few years back with the help of drugs, which worked but lowered their immunity. All of these things mean that, although you are MUCH safer than if you had no vaccination, you still don’t have 95 percent protection. If you are in close-living quarters, you can halve that protection again.
And that’s just for our vaccinated.
The lowest protections and worst outcomes of all sit around whānau who are unvaccinated and have lower immunity and underlying health conditions, and who are living in crowded situations.
And we still have too many unvaccinated in Ngāti Porou. We have very high rates of asthma, of diabetes, of heart disease. We have people who have had, or are on, immune-suppressing treatment. We have overcrowding.
If you look at the Ministry of Health maps tracking the prevalence of Covid risk factors like child asthma, heavy smoking, obesity, heart disease, you can see that places like Tairāwhiti and Tai Tokerau, even with vaccinations, are still very high risk.
If I put up maps for all of the risk factors — cancer, addiction, kidney disease — you’d see the same thing.
Now, to add to these health factors, consider the following maps which focus on housing deprivation (overcrowding, damp homes, and homes without all amenities) and the travel distance to a hospital.
Can you see now why the picture I painted above is the story of many whānau where I live?
I say this because I need us all to understand that we have to do everything we can, even with vaccination, to keep our whānau safe.
It really will take all of us as a community to protect each other, with masks, with distancing, and with the courage to make strong calls about things like holidays, about gatherings, about visiting. We’re going to have to dig deep to avoid a deeply tragic scenario playing out again, and again.
So, I need to know from you. If you are here camping on our beach, five hours away from any health service, and you carry an infection you picked up from the petrol station you stopped at two days ago, and you spread it in my community:
Firstly, are you expecting all of the volunteer community hours which are going into supporting our own community to isolate at home, to then wrap around you? Who then looks after our whānau here? Are you expecting us to volunteer to look after you when you walked away from a fully resourced health service wherever you normally live?
Secondly, who is going to transport you to hospital, and to which hospital? The one with only two ICU beds? Our whānau will be more likely to decline fast because of the diabetes, rheumatic fever, heart disease and poor housing. You’ve just spread it in our community, but you get the ICU bed?
And thirdly: If you’re willing to return home, how will you get home without leaving a wake of infections in your path?
Every year, tourists swell our population to three or more times its normal size. That terrifies me when I consider how hard it is for us to plan to just look after our own whānau, and how hard we’re working to stop them from getting infected too.
Earlier this week, our iwi sent out a pānui to whānau, acknowledging in a beautiful, heartfelt way the healing everyone finds when they reconnect with home every summer holiday.
The letter acknowledged that, for our whānau who live away from home, it’s not just a holiday but a form of rongoā (medicine). It’s a time-honoured tradition to return home, to connect with your ancestral soils, to cleanse in your waters, to let the winds of your home renew you, and to hold your loved ones close.
Returning home provides hauora wairua (spiritual health), hauora hinengaro (emotional health) and hauora whānau (communal health) that complements the hauora tinana (physical health).
We acknowledged the rongoā of a home visit is particularly relevant after the year we’ve had, especially for those in Tāmaki Makaurau. We also asked them to please carefully consider the limitations on our health system at home, that we are facing imminent mass loss, and to please consider alternative plans to help ease their mamae.
It wasn’t an easy ask, knowing what a home visit means for so many of our relations. But, already, many have written back, sending love and understanding. And even though it’s difficult, they’re considering other ways of finding that healing, without placing the home communities at risk.
Reading those responses of grace and understanding made me think: If this is the sacrifice being made by those with the MOST legitimate reasons to visit Tairāwhiti this summer, tourists really have no excuse.
I don’t think any of those people casually travelling here think that they individually are a risk. They don’t seem to realise that, from where we’re standing, anxiously watching them drive past us, they’re just one of hundreds of others we’ve seen that week — and that, for us, that risk is cumulative. For us, that risk is severe.
Or maybe they do understand, and they don’t care, because, for them, we’re just somewhere to use for an escape.
I hope not. I hope you care. I hope you care enough to wait just one more summer.
This is an edited, updated version of a piece originally published on Tina’s blog.
Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.
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