24 Aug 2020

Cautious optimism 'triumph of community' can beat Covid-19

11:11 am on 24 August 2020

A Pacific health leader is cautiously optimistic New Zealand may be witnessing the "triumph of community" wrestling Covid-19 back under control.

Auckland's skyline, from Devonport.

Photo: 123rf

Dr Collin Tukuitonga, Associate Dean Pacific at Auckland University's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, believes the focus for the country now needs to be on ensuring we have systems in place to stamp out any future outbreaks without resorting to lockdown.

But he says there needs to be more effort to include meaningful input from all sectors of the community at the highest planning level.

"Three quarters of the cases we've seen in the Auckland cluster have occurred in the Pacific Community, we've seen an impressive response from church leaders, community, the Pacific healthcare providers, the media and communications people all coming together to endorse and reinforce the message from government, and clearly we've made an impact."

Yesterday there was just one case linked to the Americold cluster. The other two cases were people entering the country who are now in quarantine.

SPC Director-General, Colin Tukuitonga.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga. Photo: Pacificwomen.org

Have official actions to control the virus been culturally jarring for Pacific communities, or appropriate? "It's patchy," Dr Tukuitonga says.

"Overall it's been good, but there have been concerns from some... some of the decisions that have been taken, with Pacific expertise being the add-on in advisory groups as opposed to being central to the decision-making. And our colleagues in the Māori health area feel the same, I think.

"We keep saying to ourselves 'we're all in this together', but some of us are not actively participating in the critical decision-making that goes on to form the response of the nation.

"But that's not to discredit what I think has been overall a reasonably effective response for New Zealand."

Tukuitonga says there has not been any indication yet that Pasifika and Māori representatives were part of the government's new testing oversight group that was announced by the Prime Minister on 19 August.

"That was the trigger for the latest round of concerns from some of my colleagues; that one would have expected a suitable Pacific individual in that group but we're yet to find out if that's the case. I know that some of my colleagues have been lobbying for that to happen," he said.

"And not just for academic reasons, but for genuine partnership decisions around what is essentially a difficult challenge for us all.

"One would have thought that we're much more of an enlightened country now, there's plenty of Pacific and Māori expertise around the place that we could jointly take responsibility and ownership and accelerate what we're doing."

Tukuitonga wasn't worried about questions over whether racial or socio-economic prejudices had played into the decision to require supervised quarantine for the Americold cluster cases, unlike early clusters. The response and the treatment of those affected has been appropriate, he said.

"It's the right thing to do, to be much more disciplined in putting cases into quarantine. I think the first time round we were rather lax asking people to self-isolate, and this time round I think it's the right thing to do from a public health viewpoint.

"There are some in the community who say it's coercion and not really negotiating suitable options with families, but as a public health practitioner I think it's the right thing to do."

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