30 Aug 2021

Māori health providers push for accelerated vaccination

6:07 pm on 30 August 2021

Māori health providers are accelerating efforts to close a gap that's left far fewer Māori vaccinated against Covid-19 than any other group.

Covid-19 vaccination generic.

file image. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government and Ministry of Health have been under fire for a vaccine rollout which critics say has ignored equity and left Tangata Whenua vulnerable.

Associate health minister Peeni Henare conceded the rollout had not been good enough for Māori, with too few vaccinated. But he defended the government's approach.

"Clearly we can't be happy with the fact that Māori are lagging behind in the vaccine uptake," he said. "I am frustrated."

According to the Ministry of Health's latest data, those aged over 60 are vaccinated roughly in line with the rest of the population, but that equity quickly falls away.

Only 38.9 percent of Māori between the ages of 40 and 59 have had a first dose, while just 20 percent are fully vaccinated. That is far lower than every other ethnic group.

In Whāngarei, Ngāti Hine Health Trust is pulling out all the stops to close that gap and get whānau vaccinated.

It has set up drive-through centres, and teams are loading up vans and heading out to communities and low-income suburbs with what chief executive Geoff Milner calls a no-barriers approach: no groups, no age restrictions, no sign-ups.

"We're now activated and delivering to make sure that the 47,000 eligible Māori people in Northland get access to that vaccine," Milner said. "If that trend continues as it has, particularly this week, we're gonna vaccinate a lot of our whānau."

And with Delta in the community, hauora organisations like Ngāti Hine's are acting with increased urgency.

Down the road, Ngāti Whatua has also been working at a blitzing pace, vaccinating thousands of whānau in the past couple of weeks.

Its chief operating officer Antony Thompson said the trend is looking promising, but the gap isn't closing fast enough for his liking.

"In the last five days [we've had] phenomenal vaccination, we're really starting to turn the curve," he said. "But if they were just in the first place trusted and given the authority just to go out and vaccinate we'd be in a different situation right now."

Thompson said any vaccine hesitancy in the community had melted away. The main issue, in his view, was whānau knowing how to access the vaccine.

Several Māori health providers have long argued that the vaccine rollout has not prioritised equity, which has left Māori and Pacific communities particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

Thompson said Māori providers -- who know their people and how to reach them -- should have been included in the rollout much earlier. He said they have only been taken on board in the last couple of months, which made the vaccine gap predictable.

"It feels like there's this sense in the executive, in the Crown, that Māori providers are still stuck in the 1970s. That's not the case," he said.

"It's the underestimating, or maybe the sheer ignorance, that could be the deficit."

Associate health minister and MP for Tāmaki Makaurau Peeni Henare insists that is not the case, saying the government has worked closely with Māori throughout its vaccine planning.

But he concedes the gap is not good enough.

"No doubt about it, that's a systemic thing, right. Battling those systemic failures I acknowledge that things could have been more equitable," he said.

"But I can say that we've been working with Māori health providers since February to try and get this among our people."

The largest gap is among rangatahi - only 5.8 percent of Māori between 12 and 39 are fully vaccinated. Again, this is well down on the rates for other groups.

With vaccines opening to group four at the end of this week, Henare said targeted campaigns were about to roll out to get rangatahi vaccinated.

"There are some kaupapa messaging, some of that's social media," he said.

"But I'll tell you one of the most effective things ways, for example, my grandmother who is in her 80s just simply said to her grandkids: 'you must be vaccinated if you want to come see me'."

"I'll tell you what, all the mokopuna got vaccinated."

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