17 Aug 2020

Covid-19: Pacific health leader warns of potential for 'wildfire' spread in Pacific community

12:45 pm on 17 August 2020

Pasifika health leaders fear a 'wildfire' outbreak of Covid-19 in the Pacific community if the government doesn't act fast.

Testing being conducted by health workers at a COVID-19 testing station setup at Eden Park, National Sports Stadium, in Auckland on August 14, 2020.

Cars lining up at the Eden Park testing station for Covid-19. Photo: AFP

Pasifika people account for 69 percent of the current Auckland cluster despite making up less than 10 percent of the population.

It's a baffling statistic that's left those who work in Pacific health worried Covid-19 will become yet another poor health outcome for the community.

The Pacific community was proportionally under-represented during the country's first Covid-19 outbreak that began in late February.

The outbreak was made up of mainly New Zealand-European people, between the ages of 30 and 50, who were returning to New Zealand from other countries.

However, the current Auckland cluster is 69 percent Pasifika, 16 percent Māori and 14 percent other.

Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland Dr Collin Tukuitonga said the over-representation of Pacific people in the Auckland cluster was cause for serious concern.

"The conditions for a wildfire community transmission are rife in South Auckland; crowded housing, poverty, poor social conditions, people not being able to readily access healthcare, higher prevalence of comorbid conditions like diabetes.

"In other words, the recipe for a really bad outbreak is there which will threaten the whole community."

Research shows Pacific communities are more at risk of infectious diseases. This was seen during the measles outbreak just last year when Pacific people were 14 times more likely to contract measles than someone of European descent.

Dr Debbie Ryan, principal of health and social policy consultancy Pacific Perspectives, said this susceptibility can be put down to a range of social health determinants, such as lower incomes, crowded housing and poorer engagement with the health system.

She said Pacific people were also more likely to work in service industries, like managed isolation facilities, supermarkets and factories.

Because of all of these factors, the odds are stacked against the Pacific community in this second outbreak and the risk to health is much more serious, Ryan said.

"The living conditions that many Pacific families experience put them at higher risk of serious disease and as a result Pacific people have higher rates of chronic conditions which we know makes people more susceptible to Covid-19 once they catch it."

Ryan said poor health outcomes could also reinforce racism, stereotypes and stigma with few health reports canvassing inequities also considering the strength, resilience and success of Pacific people.

Tukuitonga said the Pasifika community was already worried about public backlash, the index family having come under stress and bullying since going into quarantine.

"There's a lot of anxiety around being identified as a community and the potential for more nasty stuff online, racism and all of that sort of stuff, and there's been quite a lot of that in recent days."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield condemned any backlash, saying at yesterday's media briefing there was nothing to suggest the community was the problem.

Far from it, he said. The Pacific community had been incredibly cooperative and supportive over the past week.

Tukuitonga said if anything, the country should show gratitude to the index family for taking the initiative to get tested.

"The problem is the virus, it's not the people. If you look at the fact that this index family went off and got tested; they did us a favour. Because otherwise we would have blindly carried on doing what we did in alert level 1, unaware the virus was getting deep into the community."

CEO of The Fono - New Zealand's largest by-Pacific-for-Pacific health service - said not only is the Pacific community at the centre of this outbreak, it's most likely going to be hit the hardest financially.

"It's also more in terms of just getting the basic needs to some of these families that are just getting food on the table. It's something that we also want; a hardship assessment with these families, whether they're close contact or one of the affected families."

Funaki said The Fono's work - be it health messaging, testing and welfare assistance - had really ramped up over the past few days.

The government is continuing to work with Māori and Pasifika agencies - that have clear channels into affected communities - as part of its response.

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