16 Nov 2021

Ōpōtiki races to vaccinate community before summer visits

From Checkpoint, 5:54 pm on 16 November 2021

The vaccination rollout and the push towards 90 percent has in many ways highlighted this country's existing disparities.

It is being seen in our biggest cities, but also in some of the more remote districts, one of them being Ōpōtiki, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. 

About 9000 people live in this district, 66 percent of whom are Māori. The median age is 40, and the median income $22,000.

Arihia Tuoro is a community leader, and part of a new group formed to boost the district's vaccination rates. She was direct about what was needed in Ōpōtiki. 

"No-one wants to listen to cruddy old 64-year-olds talking on Radio New Zealand, no one is even going to go there" she said, talking about how to reach the district's predominantly rangatahi population. 

"What do those messages look like and how do we get them out there in a way that's accessible and meaningful?"

As a district, Ōpōtiki sits at 77 percent first doses, and 68 percent fully vaxxed. But peel that back further and a patchwork of contrasting rates emerges. 

Ōpōtiki town, nestled between two rivers, is only at 52 percent fully dosed - in the bottom one percent of the country. But across the bridge, in much wealthier Woodlands and Waiotahi beach, it's 73.7 percent.


 Ōpōtiki (file image). Photo: By Ulrich Lange, Dunedin, New Zealand - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

"This ngāngara (bug) has just revealed the inequities of our system," Tuoro said. "We've got to learn from this very quickly. The challenging side is this is urgent, this is about keeping our whānau safe." 

Tuoro said there were mis-steps at the start. Resources were slow to get this far east, and community providers were now on the back foot against months of social media-stoked misinformation.  

But they also had to overcome other hurdles. A lack of staff, clinics with impractical hours on limited days, and when they were on, no-one really knew where they were. 

That was slowly changing, Tuoro said. 

"We've got a street party next week, we've got the college opening up - they're doing vaccinations anyway but we're gonna wrap around an event," she said. 

"It's just providing those platforms for whānau to get that information. They might not convert on the day, but they might trot along on Sunday and just walk past the pharmacy and decide to go in there, or they might rock up to Whakatōea health clinic two weeks later."

It is a race now as summer nears. This region is a magnet for out-of-towners, but that had caused anxiety, Tuoro said, with rates so low and the Auckland border due to open at some point soon. 

As well as trying to get the vaccine waka "to paddle faster," her group is also starting to discuss plans for Covid-19's eventual arrival in Ōpōtiki. 

It's a similar picture up the coast, along the Pōhutukawa-fringed State Highway 35. 

At the top of the Bay, Te Whānau-a-Apanui has had extraodinary success, with Māori health providers getting the rate above 80 percent. 

But that drops off as you move south. In Torere, a pop up event rolled into the marae, organised by local Memory Mio. 

"A lot of them were very hesitant about just going to town to be vaccinated," she said. "I thought, well if we could somebody out here ... then that would be great."

Torere is Ngāi Tai country, where tangata whenua say the beach is bad and the diving terrible. 

Mio said there is hesitancy in town - but that needs to be overcome to protect whakapapa. There is a stark reminder a short stroll up the gravel road from the marae: Ōpeperu Urupa. 

Beneath the trees is an unmarked patch of lawn from 1918, a shallow mass grave from the last time a pandemic ripped through Torere, where tikanga had to be cast aside as whānau died en masse. 

"We've got this opportunity now and so we're hoping we will never have to see what occured back then," Mio said. 

Bringing the vaccine to the people helped remove a major barrier, and whānau were trickling through the afternoon, including some Mio said had changed their minds.

A sunny afternoon with whānau at the marae. Music, food and prizes on offer: His and hers hunting packs. 

It worked to get Kani Stewart along for his first dose. 

"I just did it for work and so I can travel as well," he said. "Gotta do what I gotta do, eh." 

And for Manawanui Maxwell, too - "In my family I've got a lot of hori's and they love free things ... it was awesome, pretty worth coming," he chuckled.