Pandemic Response in Aotearoa: Racism is the real virus

Recap of Keynote Presentation by Dr. Rawiri Taonui: 

Dr. Rawiri Taonui began the second day of the Kana Wain Dida International Gathering with a powerful presentation on the response to COVID-19 in Aotearoa, New Zealand. As the first professor of Indigenous studies in New Zealand, Dr. Taonui spent time as the Head of the School of Māori Art, Knowledge and Education at Massey University, and the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the Uiversity of Canterbury, and has presented at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He is now a semi-retired independent academic writer and one of the main Māori commentators and advisors on COVID-19 in New Zealand. He fell into this role to cover governmental gaps in the country’s pandemic response.

The Māori Indigenous population of Aotearoa faces “a system with broad racism on multiple fronts,” according to Dr. Taonui. They have the highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and have experienced a significant language loss. At one point, only three percent of their population continued to speak their traditional language. In the 1970’s, they underwent a strong Renaissance period, with young leaders organizing protests and marches. They now have a substantial Māori economy and an increasing presence in federal and regional governments.

To outline the historical context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Taonui describes the series of pandemic and epidemic events in Aotearoa following European contact in 1769, when Captain James Cook’s crew spread syphilis, gonorrhea and tuberculosis into their population. In 1840, the Māori signed the Treaty of Waitangi and lost 95% of this land. Between colonial violence, the loss of land, and the 30 health epidemics that followed, the Māori population fell to 42,000 by 1900. At first contact, this population was 250,000 in 1769. From 1900 to WWII, they experienced another 20 epidemic events. In the words of Dr. Taonui, “Many Māori began to live life in a state of permanent epidemic.” He goes further, describing his grandmother’s experience with disease: “[She] lost a brother to typhoid in 1911, another to Spanish Flu, and her brother and sister to tuberculosis in the 1930s. Some families have lost everyone. They cease to exist.”

This history of epidemic is underwritten by racism in multiple forms. During the 1918 Spanish Flu, Māori death rates were nine times higher than European rates. Even in a recent 2019 measles epidemic, where Māori and Pacific people accounted for 80% of all cases, the government ignored pleas to declare a state of emergency. Dr. Taonui outlines evidence of resource racism, vaccine racism, and racism in data collection and reporting. Resource racism is the unequal distribution of resources between European and Māori hospitals. European hospitals were staffed with doctors and nurses, while Māori ones had only nurses, or even a minister. Vaccine racism is seen when vaccines are underdelivered to Māori communities, or when, in the 1920’s, it was unlawful for Māori nurses to provide vaccinations. Historical graphical racism is a complex system of inaccurate reporting, in which European historians have underestimated the Māori population, minimized the impact of disease and exaggerated the history of intertribal fighting “to deny history, amplify our savagery as an explanation for our demise, and thereby justify and magnify the benefits of the colonial civilizing mission,” as described by Dr. Taonui.

With this troubling history, Māori communities worried that racism surrounding COVID-19 would undermine their pandemic response. Their people face the increased risks caused by crowded housing, comorbidities, and several other factors. Research has shown that Māori are twice likely to be hospitalized and fifty percent more likely to die from COVID-19. Despite these risks, Māori were initially under tested compared to their European counterparts. One regional health authority did not allow qualified Māori medical staff to test patients, and others  withheld and obscured data on testing. 

Fortunately, the 1970’s Renaissance had established strong Māori leadership, and their communities were in a position to fight back. They formed advocacy groups and established checkpoints to keep travellers from entering their communities. Initially, these checkpoints were criticized for “willfully and illegally impeding citizens going about their legal business.” That criticism ironically was not directed at the European day trippers and holiday makers, who made up the majority of those intercepted at checkpoints and who were in violation of travel restrictions at the time. Checkpoints were not run by health professionals, but by concerned community members who trained themselves in proper conduct and followed regulations carefully. They slowed rates of infection in tribal areas to half of what it was in areas of the country without them, and Europeans soon demanded police to establish them in their own communities.

Dr. Taonui says that the Māori have done “really well, but it has a lot more to do with the strength of our communities than it does to government policy.” This is seen in their government’s vaccination policy. At the time of his presentation, anyone over the age of 65 was eligible for a vaccine. In addition to ignoring the higher risk of severe infection in the Māori population, this policy, in conjunction with their lower life expectancy, means that a smaller proportion of their population is eligible for the vaccine. Māori were the lowest vaccinated ethnicity in New Zealand at the time of his presentation.

Dr. Taonui ended his presentation by acknowledging the existence and effects of vaccine inequality. “Western countries pre-purchased the majority of the 17 billion vaccine doses that can be manufactured around the world, throughout this year. And that’s led to an unequal distribution between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor communities.” He reminds us to stay vigilant, because the lack of vaccinations in underdeveloped countries creates the conditions for new and dangerous variants. As we see these new generations of COVID-19 variants, he shares a final reminder to “stay safe and self-sovereign.”

If you missed Dr. Taonui’s presentation at the Kana Wain Dida International Gathering, or if you would like to watch it again, it will soon be available here on our website (