Sasha Borissenko: Where does low Māori vaccination rates leave us amid Omicron threat?


Last week the Waitangi Tribunal released its sobering ruling of the Government’s Covid-19 response and the vaccine rollout, following an urgent hearing held earlier this month.

The 144-page report said the Government breached the Treaty of Waitangi for “political convenience”. It was a case of politics over public health best practice.

The tribunal found that Cabinet’s decision to reject advice from its own officials to adopt an age adjustment for Māori in the vaccine rollout breached the Treaty principles of active protection and equity. It found the traffic light system to be necessary, but the rapid transition into the framework did not adequately account for Māori health needs.

Consequently Māori have been put at a disproportionate risk of being infected by Covid-19 in contrast to other groups.

The Māori Council told the Tribunal – Judge Damian Stone, associate professor Tom Roa, Tania Simpson and professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith – that a lower age threshold should have been made for Māori in the vaccination rollout given the population’s high mortality rates and lower social determinants of health.

As at December 13, 2021, although Māori made up 15.6 per cent of the population, Māori comprised over 50 per cent of the Delta cases, 38.6 per cent of Delta hospitalisations, and 45 per cent of associated deaths, the report read.

The tribunal’s recommendations – although not binding – urged the Crown to urgently provide further funding, resourcing, data, and other support to assist Māori providers and communities.

Consequently, the Government announced its Covid-19 Māori Health Protection Plan days later. The plan aims to tailor Covid-19 vaccine messaging for children and increase funding to Māori providers. It means hauora contracts will be maintained – if not increased and extended through 2022.

Change has been slow, especially seeing as this isn’t the first time the disproportionate impact on Māori has been tested in the courts.

The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency went to court three times over October, November and December, arguing for the release of Māori data saying it was critical to boosting vaccination rates and saving lives.

Whānau Ora requested the data of all Māori who hadn’t had a first dose of the vaccine living in Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, Lakes, Northland, Wairarapa, and Whanganui DHB areas. The data would include a person’s name, personal contact details, and National Health Index number (NHI).

Officials refused on the basis of privacy but the court said it had to reconsider. After two High Court judicial reviews, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced the Ministry would be conditionally releasing some data in December.

Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency chief executive John Tamihere told me it was too little, too late.

“It’s been essentially a bunch of white fellas telling us we can’t have our own data. And we’ve been wronged because we haven’t been adequately accounted for or acknowledged and we’re seeing the results where our people are demonstrably overrepresented in the Covid-19 statistics.

“No wonder it’s hotly contested because could you imagine if the natives got control of that information? We’d start to question whether we’re getting the right pharmaceutical interventions, elective surgeries, right referrals, and so on. For white people it’s about how we can monetise people.

“We went down this road because we know how to serve our people. We want the Ministry of Health to let go and give Māori the opportunity and resourcing to lead our own response. It’s the deployment of money that’s important.”

To date, across all ethnicities in New Zealand 95 per cent have received at least one dose and are partially protected from Covid infection, with 92 per cent of people being fully immunised. For Māori, only 87 per cent are partially vaccinated, with 15,000 needing to be vaccinated to reach the 90 per cent target for the first dose.

Sadly, only 79 per cent of the Māori community have received two doses, meaning there are 60,000 Māori needing their second dose to reach the 90 per cent target.

Where does that leave us? Māori have gone to court multiple times, the Waitangi Tribunal has come out swinging, data is being drip-fed, and we’ve now got a Covid-19 Māori Health Protection Plan. But Omicron is coming, and during the holiday period no less.

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