Regional | Māori

Are the 'priority groups' just guinea pigs for everyone else?

The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination By Stuff reporter Florence Kerr

New Zealand’s Covid vaccination programme is structured around four different “priority groups”, chosen by the Ministry of Health.

The definitions of these groups mean those at the front of the queue will include many people with Māori and Pasifika backgrounds, starting with Group 1 - MIQ and border workers and their families.

South Auckland, home to Auckland International Airport, is the main gateway into the country during the worst global health crisis in recent history.

It is also home to the largest Polynesian population in the country and a high number of Māori. Many MIQ and border workers - including airport cleaners, hotel staff, and baggage handlers - are from Māori and Pasifika backgrounds.

Group 2, which covers frontline healthcare workers and their families, also includes people over 65, people who are pregnant, and people with chronic health conditions or disabilities living in the Counties Manukau district health board area, which includes South Auckland.

The third group includes anyone within the country with a chronic condition or other vulnerable health status - again propelling many Māori and Pasifika higher up the priority list.

Many of the people included in the higher priority groups are used to being last in line for health care. Research shows Māori and Pasifika continue to have less access to medicines and treatments than other ethnic groups - structural, racist inequities that go back centuries.

So why are these groups now at the front of the queue?

Some have already expressed their concerns they are mere ‘guinea pigs’ for everyone else.

But the government’s vaccination plan is structured to protect those most at risk from contracting the disease and their families. The higher priority groups (Groups 1, 2 and 3) have been chosen because they are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 or are more likely to suffer serious or fatal consequences if they do.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, Māori death rates were seven times higher than Pākeha and, more recently during the swine flu (H1N1 influenza) spread in 2009, Māori were 2.6 times more likely to be hospitalised or die.

Modelling from Te Pūnaha Matatini and published in the New Zealand Medical Association Journal found that Māori are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 as non-Māori. The rate is even higher for older Māori and Pasifika people and those that suffer from underlying health problems.

According to the modelling, approximately one in four Māori and 45 per cent of Pacific peoples live in crowded housing, and many are multi-generational households: potentially accelerating transmission.

Māori and Pacific populations also have a shorter life expectancy and face increased exposure to infectious disease and respiratory conditions.

For these reasons, rather than treating the vaccine with suspicion, some Māori and Pasifika health leaders have actually called for the government to make all Māori and Pasifika people a priority during the vaccine roll-out.

Structural health and social inequities mean Māori and Pasifika people are more likely to suffer a serious illness or die from Covid-19 than Pākeha people - and that is why they feature so strongly in the priority groups for vaccination.