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Maori politician worries New Zealand's COVID plan is a 'death warrant' for her people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern scaled back the country's strict lockdown in Auckland this week, saying the goal of zero COVID cases is no longer a possibility. But there is concern that it's too soon to ease restrictions, especially for Indigenous communities. I spoke about it earlier with Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. She's co-leader of the Maori Party and a member of New Zealand's Parliament.

So I know that you have been extremely critical of this decision to move away from the COVID elimination protocols, saying that, quote, "Maori were always expendable." Can you just, first of all, explain that sentiment and explain why this shift could be very dangerous for the Maori population in New Zealand?

DEBBIE NGAREWA-PACKER: 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. So when we have something of this nature telling us that we're going to come out of elimination process when a majority of Maori are not vaccinated, then yeah, that effectively is perceived by us on the ground as signing a death warrant.

CHANG: And can you tell us why there is such a low vaccination rate among Maori communities? Is it a matter of access, disinformation or something else?

NGAREWA-PACKER: Yeah. To be fair, it's a, I guess, a combination of a whole lot of things, but it starts basically with a high mistrust in government and authority. And, you know, part of that is systemic racism that we've been enduring. And we have endured a vaccination program that was designed for general population. So it started at 65-plus and has rolled out in a Western centric model. But Maori population, 70% of us under the age of 40, 25% of Maori are under the age of 20. So you've got this complete hit and miss with the public health system and the rollout of the vaccination program.

CHANG: You know, we should point out that New Zealand still has managed to keep COVID deaths relatively low - 28 people, I understand, have died during this pandemic in your country out of something like a population of - what? - about 5 million. I'm curious, can you point to what the government in New Zealand has done right, particularly when it comes to protecting Indigenous communities?

NGAREWA-PACKER: With the first COVID that we had come into the country in 2020, I think one of the things that we've done right then is that Maori were able to stand up their own responses. This time round, there has been a much more centralized approach, less support for Maori to be doing their own ground resistance to COVID.

CHANG: In your calls and your meetings with members of your community, how are you telling them now to prepare during this phase of the pandemic?

NGAREWA-PACKER: I think the first thing is that we've realized that the prime minister's message of kindness and being a team of 5 million has now changed to, Maori, you must look after yourselves. So we have prepared varying messages that are less about the governments generic and more connected to the communities that we belong to, and that is emphasizing the importance of vaccinating. The other part of it is that we are talking to our communities about the need to have an outbreak plan, what you would do if COVID spread comes into your particular community, and being forward thinking on how to cope through that.

CHANG: Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is a member of New Zealand's Parliament and co-leader of the Maori Party. Thank you so much for joining us so early in your day in New Zealand.

NGAREWA-PACKER: (Speaking Maori). Thank you so much for having me, and appreciate you checking in on us here in Aotearoa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.