Analysis: Māori no longer shouting Covid grievances into void

The Prime Minister has repeatedly denied the Government’s response to the Delta outbreak has failed Māori or breached the Treaty of Waitangi. But that view flies in the face of the evidence presented so far by claimants at the Waitangi Tribunal’s priority inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield

Much of what has been said at the inquiry over the last three days is not new. Māori health experts and leaders have raised the issues for some time; that Māori remain the least vaccinated group because the age-based rollout failed to consider their much larger youth population. That Māori health providers faced challenges accessing funding from DHBs to support the vaccine effort. And, that key decisions were made without Māori input or consideration of the increased risk the virus posed to their communities.

The difference this time, is that Māori are no longer shouting their grievances into a void. They are presenting them as evidence in front of a judge and a panel of some of the country’s most renowned Māori experts in tikanga, law, te reo Māori, science, business, and policy. The inquiry could force the Government to change its approach to the pandemic.

Health practitioners and providers, epidemiologists, Covid-19 modellers, iwi and community leaders have told the tribunal Māori have been let down at almost every stage of the Government’s Covid-19 response, exposing them to harm and putting their lives at risk. Their submissions paint a picture of a pandemic response that has largely left Māori behind.

Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy told the tribunal he urged the Government last year to take into account ethnicity in the vaccine rollout. The modelling he provided demonstrated that even when age was taken into account, a 59-year-old Māori patient with Covid-19 and no comorbidities still had the same risk of hospitalisation as an 80-year-old Pākehā with no comorbidities.

Iwi Chairs forum leader Mike Smith described consultation efforts between the Government and Māori as insulting. He said objections to the Traffic Light System were ignored, and the Government announced the protection framework at a time when some areas still had a 40 per cent Māori vaccination rate.

Ngāti Hine Health Trust chief executive Geoff Milner explained that the delivery of funding to Māori health providers had been consistently too slow. The Northland health provider has waited months for contracts to be approved in order to ramp up its vaccination efforts.

Milner put that down to distrust in the value of grassroots providers compared to mainstream ones.

“The current system doesn’t value the intelligence on the ground," he said.

“Nine Māori health providers have vaccinated 21 per cent of all Northlanders, nine little Māori health providers. The combined general practices and pharmacies have vaccinated 23 per cent and there are fifty of them."

The Chief Executive of the National Hauora Coalition, Simon Royal, put it simply: “The Crown’s approach to Covid-19 has been inadequate and inequitable.”

On Thursday Crown representatives, including Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, will front up to the tribunal and defend the Government’s response. Dr Bloomfield’s written submission says that from the outset, the needs of Māori and the country’s most vulnerable have been at the centre of the pandemic response.

At the end of the week-long hearing the Waitangi Tribunal will consider whether the Government has breached the Treaty of Waitangi. It may also propose a list of recommendations, which could include what some claimants have been asking - that it prioritise Māori children aged 5 to 11, as soon as the vaccine is approved for this age group. The tribunal’s recommendations will not be binding though, so it will be up to the Government to decide whether it will act on them.

In any case, the fact that many Māori feel aggrieved enough to take the Crown through the tribunal process is significant. The Government’s response to Covid-19 will undoubtedly be a topic of discussion come Waitangi Day next year. If the tribunal do find a Treaty breach the Government is going to find it difficult to convince Māori it has delivered for them.