They must be part of planning New Zealand’s COVID-19 recovery
By Tahu Kukutai, Professor of Demography, University of Waikato
As schools and businesses reopen and attention shifts to the longer-term repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that Maori be involved in decision making more equitably than has so far happened.
The failure to include Maori in strategy discussions throughout the pandemic has already been roundly criticised, most recently over tangihanga (funeral) restrictions and the Public Health Response bill, which sets up a new legal framework for responding to COVID-19.
Maori public health specialists have repeatedly challenged a one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic recovery. There is also growing unease about who has the authority to make decisions in the best interests of Maori collectives. The sidelining of Maori as Te Tiriti (Treaty of Waitangi) partners cannot continue through our recovery and rebuild.
First do no harm
As restrictions are relaxed under level 2, it is Maori and Pacific communities that carry a higher risk – both to their health and livelihoods.
According to modelling by research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini, infection and death rates would be highest for Maori and Pasifika of all ages if community transmission were to rebound.
Emerging international evidence also suggests the social and economic impacts of the pandemic will be felt for longer and more intensely for people living in precarious conditions – more likely to be racial minorities.
In Aotearoa we know previous economic recessions hit Maori and Pacific communities hardest, with consequences across generations. Even with the government’s NZ$50 billion COVID-19 budget plan, one Treasury forecast says unemployment will peak nationally at 9.6% in June this year.
Maori unemployment was nearly this high even before the pandemic (8.2% in the March quarter) and economists predict levels will surge over the next two years.
Unsurprisingly, last week’s budget was firmly focused on job creation. Among the suite of investments, NZ$900 million was earmarked for specific Maori initiatives, including $NZ136 million for the Whanau Ora programme and a NZ$200 million Maori employment package that includes boosting youth employment.
These will help address short-term employment needs in the most affected regions. But the opportunity to take a long-term transformational view that enables Maori to thrive, not merely survive, was lost.
Local decision making is vital
While there is immense pressure to fast-track economic recovery, the risk is that responses designed by and for largely Pakeha (non-Maori) constituencies will maintain, or deepen, pre-existing inequities.
Decisions must be based on evidence – but evidence takes many forms. New Zealand should draw on its dual knowledge systems: the richness of mātauranga Maori – Maori knowledge and ways of knowing – and “western” science. Now more than ever we need diverse sources of expertise, experience and leadership.
Over the past month, iwi (tribal groups) and Maori communities have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to anticipate and respond to the needs of their people – from setting up checkpoints to protect vulnerable and remote communities, to providing online support for grieving whanau (families) and delivering care packages to elders.
Indigenous communities in Aotearoa and elsewhere demonstrate powerful distributed leadership and a deep capacity to care for each other, based on the strength and knowledge of kin and kin-like connections.
These adaptive capacities have always existed within Te Ao Māori (Maori worldview). The pandemic placed them in the full view of mainstream New Zealand. Maori communities have strong social networks and infrastructures (especially marae – tribal meeting places) and long experience of dealing with the impacts of ongoing colonialism, natural disasters, pandemics, and mass death.
With worldviews that are inherently long-term and holistic, Maori are well positioned to lead circular economies. Maori models of regenerative agriculture and ecotourism can help shape a globally distinctive Indigenous sector that puts inter-generational and environmental well-being first.
Where local solutions have been properly resourced, such as in the development of traditional bassinets to help prevent sudden infant deaths, outcomes have been positive for everyone.
We can learn from such examples and build this evidence systematically into our response with co-determined strategies and solutions.
Reimagining our futures beyond coronavirus
As te Tiriti or a treaty partner, the government has an important role to play. But everyone will lose out if Maori and Pacific community agency and local solutions are not used.
By re-imagining our futures we can address unjust and unsustainable inequities. An unrelenting and system-wide focus on equity is clearly needed. We also need to amplify and support what is strong including a respectful treatment of te taiao (environment) and mana motuhake (self-governance, autonomy) in diverse communities and households.
Our youthful Maori and Pacific populations are a demographic gift. It must not be squandered in the post-COVID-19 reset. Ongoing investment in their potential will not only benefit wider and future whanau, it will also future-proof regional economies.
If the pandemic has taught New Zealanders anything it is that our well-being as individuals is intimately connected to the well-being of those around us and our environments.