17 Mar 2020

South Auckland doctor: "Our community at highest risk of Coronavirus"

From First Up, 5:52 am on 17 March 2020

As the New Zealand government bans mass gatherings of more than 500 people, Doctors in South Auckland say their district - filled with hundreds of churches - is at high risk of a community outbreak and the messaging is still not clear among its Pasifika community.

Hundreds turned out at Te Wananga O Aotearoa in Auckland.

Hundreds turned out at Te Wananga O Aotearoa in Auckland. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Christine Rovoi

Dr Maryann Heather, a GP at South Seas in Otara and a Senior Lecturer of Pacific Health at Auckland University said some Doctors who can speak Pacific languages have been visiting Pacific churches in an attempt to educate elderly members about the Coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Heather said restrictions on mass gatherings will be a huge challenge for Pasifika communities and self-isolation will be near-impossible for the many who are already living in overcrowded housing.

When asked how an infected member from a family of 10 people living in a 3 bedroom home would be able to self-isolate, Dr Heather said it would be extremely challenging.

"It's going to be very difficult but it's something that we really must adhere to," said Dr Heather.

"There's a lot of information that's available out there but just to keep it simple, many of our families are in overcrowded situations. But we have to plan around what that's going to look like if say, one or two of our family members get Coronavirus."

A group of state houses in a South Auckland suburb.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Dr Heather advised that infected family members should be isolated in a separate room if possible but in the case of over-crowded housing, residents should try to stay at least two meters away from each other.

"You can still have your family members around but either the person that is infected has to wear a mask or if there's no mask, then the other family members will have to protect themselves. Frequently wash your hands, use safe hygiene practices. If you're sharing a bathroom, clean everything really well. You cannot share a bed. So it's going to be tough," she said.

"But plans have to be in place to protect the rest of the family and the community."

Dr Heather said the language barrier faced by the elderly Pasifika community who are among the most vulnerable is a serious concern for health officials in South Auckland. 

"We must get the message out there in whatever way and one of those things is making sure that our elderly get to hear those messages in their languages," said Dr Heather.

Cook Islanders elderly people sitting together.

Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari

"It's very important. As health professionals, for those of us that come from Pacific Islands - we need to get that message out there in whatever way we can. Whether that's through the media, the radio or us going out there and talking to them. We must get it out there."

After one man yesterday entered her Otara-based practice immediately after coming off a flight, she is reiterating that people must adhere to the government's new restrictions around 14-day self-isolation upon arrival in New Zealand. Dr Heather said those suspecting they may be at risk should call their local clinic rather than entering the clinic and putting others at risk.

While details of the outbreak are changing every day, Dr Heather said it's possible that the restriction number of 500 would need to be reduced even further. 

Dr Maryann Heather from Southseas Healthcare Clinic in Otara, Auckland.

Dr Maryann Heather from Southseas Healthcare Clinic in Otara, Auckland. Photo: supplied

Many local churches are now in discussion over their services, planned events and how they will adjust to the new restrictions. 

The restrictions have come after it was revealed New Zealand's 6th confirmed case - a parishioner from a Catholic church in South Auckland's Papakura suburb - had attended mass and taken communion with others before becoming ill during the week. 

As the rise in global Covid-19 cases has now outpaced cases of the virus in China where the outbreak first began, branches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have suspended all church gatherings worldwide until further notice.  

Dr Heather said while social distancing and self-isolation practices will be uniquely challenging for Pasifika communities, it's crucial.

"I think the main thing is just to try and reduce the spread into the community. That's why self-isolation's important, reducing down the numbers of mass gatherings is very important. Because once it gets into the community it's going to be very difficult."

Mourners pack the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere.

Mourners pack the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere. Photo: Christine Rovoi