Jacinda Ardern’s COVID stumble may cost Maori lives

New Zealand should not abandon its COVID elimination strategy while Maori vaccination rates remain low.

Health workers test for COVID wearing personal protective equipment suits (PPE) at the Pages Rd Marae, Christchurch on August 21, 2021 [Adam Bradley/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently turned up at the small East Coast town of Ruatorea in an effort to encourage Maori to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It was a nice photo op for the media-savvy politician who is always keen to be seen among the people. But it was also an implicit admission of failure and a recognition of a potential disaster looming on the horizon, and not just one of the PR kind.

New Zealand’s total death toll from COVID-19 remains under 50 – thanks to strict and timely lockdowns – and the low number has been the envy of the world. But now that the Delta variant has established a toehold globally, those numbers could escalate rapidly. And there are already signs that the rates of death will be higher among Maori.

Ruatorea is the heart of the Ngati Porou tribe, to which I belong through my paternal grandmother, and is predominantly Maori. Ngati Porou is the second biggest tribe in the country and also gave the country arguably its greatest Maori leader of the 20th century – Sir Apirana Ngata. His face is on the country’s $50 note.

Ngata’s achievements are legion. But possibly his greatest achievement was a collaboration with other Maori leaders of his generation to get a large number of Maori vaccinated, thereby halting high Maori mortality from introduced diseases. White politicians were apathetic at best – it was Maori health initiatives that saved Maori.

Ngata knew the urgency of his task. Born in the late 19th century, he was from an era where Maori and Indigenous peoples in other colonised countries were being told they were heading for extinction.

New Zealand’s current demographics and even land ownership have been dramatically shaped by disease and depopulation. Maori had no immunity to diseases that had long circulated in Europe and Asia and those diseases took a heavy toll on the Indigenous population in the 19th century and right up into the early 20th century. An estimated population of around 100,000 in 1840 was reduced to approximately 40,000, 50 years later.

But in the early 20th century Ngata and his colleagues took it upon themselves to prioritise vaccinations and other health measures. The eventual result was a surge in the Maori population through the middle of the 20th century, a trend that continues to this day – the percentage of Maori in the total population of New Zealand has been increasing since World War II.

But despite her visit to Ruatorea, Ardern clearly has not learned much from Ngata’s towering legacy. Today, the COVID-19 vaccination rates for Maori are low compared to all other ethnicities, which makes them disproportionately vulnerable to the virus.

Maori members of parliament, from the Maori Party, are accusing Ardern’s government of laying the groundwork for a potential genocide for its failure to increase Maori vaccination rates and for its apparent willingness to abandon its elimination strategy before getting the majority of the Maori population vaccinated. They are predicting that the result will be catastrophic for Maori and their argument is backed up by numbers. Indigenous populations in other countries have already experienced this – low rates of vaccination combined with high risk factors such as other health problems and poverty result in disproportionately high death tolls.

Some will scoff, wrongly believing that genocide only refers to outright massacre. But article II of the United Nations’ definition of genocide includes the clause of “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

The only defence Ardern can actually have against this accusation is lack of intention – it can be argued that the New Zealand government does not intend to harm Maori. But the consequences of its actions – or inactions – were and will be entirely foreseeable. If anything, there has been a lack of intent to prevent “inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. If it goes ahead with its plans to open the country up, it knows what the likely outcome will be for Maori. They will be collateral damage.

New Zealand had a period when it was COVID-free, which Ardern and her government can rightly take credit for. But then there has been a lag in getting the country vaccinated and the rollout has prioritised old, white people. Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world and the south of the city, where most Maori and Pacific Island people reside, is the location of the international airport. Maori and Pacific Islander residents of South Auckland are also facing housing, health and economic inequalities and are thus more vulnerable to COVID-19. Nevertheless, the state has prioritised white baby boomers over them in its vaccination efforts.

There is also a misinformation problem. In recent conversations I’ve had with Maori, I’ve learned that many rely on dangerous sources for information. Due to their deep-rooted – and often justified – distrust in mainstream media and politicians, many Maori turn to untrustworthy sources on social media to inform themselves about all issues, including the pandemic.

But misinformation was also a problem in the early 20th century. Maori understanding of disease was hampered by low education levels and traditional health practices that struggled to explain or deal with new diseases. Ngata and other university educated leaders like Te Rangi Hiroa and Maui Pomare were among a handful of university educated leaders at the time. But they knew how to communicate with their people. They established relationships with trusted members of Maori communities – influencers if you like – and worked with them to convince Maori to get vaccinated en masse.

Ardern could have adopted a similar strategy a lot earlier. Instead, she is just now trying to call on her star power to influence Maori to get vaccinated. It may be too little, too late. And sadly, the success or failure of her efforts will not only be seen in her approval ratings – it will be seen in the Maori death toll.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.