The co-leader of New Zealand's Maori Party, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, says the country's new COVID-19 strategy amounts to a "death warrant" for Indigenous communities.
Earlier in October, the country announced it is easing coronavirus restrictions in the largest city of Auckland. The decision was widely seen as moving away from a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic, where a single coronavirus infection could trigger severe restrictions on public life. To date, only 28 New Zealanders are confirmed to have died of COVID-19.
But combating the Delta variant has proven more challenging. A seven-week lockdown in Auckland failed to bring cases in the latest outbreak down to zero.
"With this outbreak and Delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult," said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in an Oct. 4 speech. "But that's OK ... elimination was important because we didn't have vaccines. Now we do. So we can begin to change the way we do things."
Auckland's eased restrictions are still far tighter than what most Americans are used to, and 83% of New Zealand's population age 12 and over has now received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Yet vaccination rates among Indigenous Maori people are far below national averages. Rates for New Zealand's Pacific peoples, who trace their heritage to islands in the Pacific Ocean, are higher — but also still below the national average.
Ngarewa-Packer, who is also a member of New Zealand's parliament, said the plan showed "Maori were always expendable."
"When a majority of Maori are not vaccinated, then that effectively is perceived by us on the ground as signing a death warrant," she told NPR's All Things Considered. "We are an Indigenous people that have survived colonization and all that comes with it, so sadly, we have some of the worst health statistics."
A study in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that due to increased rates of comorbidities in Maori and Pacific Islander communities, as well "structural bias and systemic racism" in the healthcare system, an 80-year-old white New Zealander had the same predicted risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 as a roughly 60-year-old Maori patient, and a roughly 55-year-old Pacific patient.
Indigenous Maori account for 16.5% of the country's roughly 5 million people, and Pacific peoples account for another 8.1%.
According to the latest government data, 62% of eligible Maori have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as compared with 77% of Pacific peoples and 83% of the general population. Those numbers fall to 39% of eligible Maori and 53% of eligible Pacific peoples with a second dose, compared with 59% of the eligible general population.
Ngarewa-Packer said Maori communities weren't to blame for their lower-than-average vaccination rate.
"It starts basically with a high mistrust in government and authority," Ngarewa-Packer said, adding the vaccination campaign was designed with only the general population in mind.
"So [the vaccination campaign] started at 65-plus ... but in the Maori population, 70% of us are under the age of 40 [and] 25% of Maori are under the age of 20," she said. "So you've got this complete hit and miss with the public health system and the role of the vaccination program."
Ngarewa-Packer noted that during the initial outbreak, Maori communities were able to "stand up their own responses" in the forms of checkpoints to control movement and extra resources for disadvantaged citizens.
"This time round, there has been a much more centralized approach, less support for Maori to be doing their own ground resistance to COVID," Ngarewa-Packer said.
When asked at a press conference about the Maori Party calling the easing of COVID-19 restrictions a "modern form of genocide," Prime Minister Ardern replied: "I disagree with that."
She noted vaccination rates were very high for Maori aged over 50, but added: "We need to see those [vaccination] rates pick up ... and we're putting a huge amount of effort into that, as are our Maori providers as we speak."
Collin Tukuitonga, an associate professor of public health at the University of Auckland of Pacific origin, told NPR that most public health experts had always believed the government would eventually relax restrictions, "but not until we have better vaccination rates for the groups most at risk."
Tukuitonga noted the majority of cases in the most recent outbreak were among Māori and Pacific communities.
"People are worried that it will continue to affect predominantly Maori and Pacific people," he said. "And they will bear the brunt of the government's decision to transition out of the elimination strategy."
Along with Ngarewa-Packer, Tukuitonga believes responsibility for low Maori and Pacific vaccination rates lie with the New Zealand government. However, he said the government had turned a corner on its vaccination strategy by targeting marginalized communities.
"Finally, the government has given ... Maori community-owned providers, Maori community leaders, the resources and the support to offer vaccination services to their own communities," Tukuitonga said.
He said there were now increased vaccination options, including mobile buses sent to vaccinate members of low-uptake communities.
"The criticism we have is that we should have done this from the beginning," he said.