6 Sep 2021

Māori vaccine equity scheme criticism blows back on Seymour

8:06 pm on 6 September 2021

ACT leader David Seymour's public sharing of a priority vaccine code for Māori is disgraceful and disgusting, and undermines efforts to improve Māori and Pacific health outcomes, doctors and politicians say.

Act leader David Seymour

Act leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

Seymour this morning released a written statement with an attached image displaying the priority access codes, which allow Māori and Pacific people to receive the vaccine at Whānau Ora locations without needing to book ahead.

"The virus doesn't discriminate on race, so neither should the rollout," the statement said. "Access to vaccination has been the same for people of all ethnic backgrounds. If fewer Māori are vaccinated it can't be a problem with access, but this move by the government insinuates that Māori have trouble making a booking."

However, the virus does discriminate. The New Zealand Medical Journal has found that after controlling for age and underlying conditions Māori and Pacific people have 2.5x and 3.06x higher odds of being hospitalised for contracting Covid-19 than other ethnicities.

Researchers estimated risk of death for Māori from Covid-19 was at least 50 percent higher than European New Zealanders and infection rates are also significantly higher while vaccination rates have languished.

Auckland GP Dr Rawiri Jansen has been on the government's expert immunisation group, and said the move by Seymour to share the code was "actually very unhelpful and quite harmful".

"I think it's disgraceful, it's really disappointing. I think he's showing complete disregard for our efforts to improve the vaccination programme to reach Māori who happen to be the lowest vaccinated population in the country, and Maōri are the most at risk population in the country from Covid."

Dr Jansen - who is also the director of the National Hauora Coalition, a clinical network of 57 General Practices - said the vaccination programme needed a lot of improvement to get it working well for Māori.

"The booking system has worked well for people with data plans on their phones and home computers with fibre. People who have been able to work from home, have gas in their car. All of those things work really well for a certain part of our population.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen said the premature death statistics from Counties Manukau Health highlight the state of the healthcare system.

Photo: LDR / Stephen Forbes

"But if the only car you've got is being used by an essential worker who's going out to stack grocery shelves and really struggles to find the time to be able to get out to the vaccination centre, and struggles with the booking system, and struggles to understand the messaging that's coming from the centre, I think we can understand why the vaccination programme hasn't worked well for Māori.

"We're working diligently to try and bend it towards equity and one of those ways will be to have booking codes that help Māori get to places that prioritise them and get them through the system as effectively as we can."

He said the shift to Whānau Ora and Māori organisations having control of their own rollouts was having a fantastic effect on vaccination rates.

"The more Māori organisations we have involved in delivering, the more Māori intelligence that we have involved in the messaging to Maōri communities, the more Māori media we have involved in it, we've seen the Māori vaccination numbers double in the last two weeks.

"Absolutely sensational. Vaccine acceptance is surging and we can do this job - and I think we've got to be absolutely committed to getting the best outcome for Maōri communities and for the whole of Aotearoa."

Seymour rejected the idea he was being divisive, pinning that term on the government instead.

"For the government to start categorising and identifying people purely based on race rather than need is an enormous mistake. It is divisive, it infantilises some New Zealanders and infuriates the rest, and we believe that such an initiative can only lead New Zealand to a worse place in the long term," he said.

"Wanting people to be treated equally regardless of ethnicity is the opposite of racism.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with all New Zealanders knowing what the government's up to ... the alternative is that the government continues to pursue divisive policies and that is much more damaging to New Zealand in the long term."

He said people who were not Māori using the code would undermine racial discrimination, and "if it undermines racial discrimination then that is well worth doing".

ACT would have focused instead on rolling out the vaccine faster, he said.

"What we would've done is partnered with a whole range or organisations in business and civil society to get the delivery done faster. Here's one thing that might've helped, most people trust their GP ... GPs have been on the outer of this vaccine rollout all the way through."

However, it does not help that the health system is also biased against Māori.

The head of Te Whānau o Waipareira - the Whānau Ora commissioning agency which announced the no-booking code policy - John Tamihere has been a Māori Party leader and Labour minister, and suggested Seymour was just trying to score political points.

"We've got a nanny up here that passed away three days ago ... the first Delta death. [Seymour], he's got no respect, none.

"We are way behind on vaccination rates - way behind, right at the bottom of the barrel. His constituency are first-movers, first shakers, and they're first to get everything, entitled and privileged. And all we want is equality of access to vaccine rates that he takes for granted.

John Tamihere at Te Whānau O Waipareira's new Covid-19 vaccination clinic.

John Tamihere at Te Whānau O Waipareira's Covid-19 vaccination clinic. Photo: Twitter / Te Whānau O Waipareira

"I'm over guys like him using our brown political football to advance his own interests in our Covid environment."

He said many non-Māori people were visiting vaccination centres without appointments,

"What we have to do is design different approaches to onboard and engineer our people to have the same rights of equality. That's what this is all about and this person has wilfully sabotaged, in a most difficult moment in our time, the ability for Māori to get vaccines."

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said she was disgusted by the move Seymour had made.

"This is about taking a targeted approach in a real crisis period to draw the inequities, bring some balance back, and most importantly focus again on the whole team, you know, protecting the nation.

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Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"What we've got really is a situation that wasn't designed by Māori and thankfully amazing providers like Waipareira ... have been on the front line from day one have come up with ways to address that.

"Look, I am just disgusted at David. He never surprised me to be really honest but he's hit an all-time low today."

Seymour's claim that access to vaccination had been the same for people of all ethnic backgrounds also did not wash.

"Where I live, in South Taranaki in Pātea, our average income here is $19,000, our closest urban area is an hour to and hour and a half away ... you're making day to day decisions on 'should I afford kai or fuel my car up to travel two to three hours to get vaccinated'. So these are real lives. These are lives that are daily making tradeoffs of what's important.

"Just because he doesn't see that doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

In a statement, Green Party Te Mātāwaka chair Dr Elizabeth Kerekere said the move by Seymour was leaning on a racist narrative, and it was totally unacceptable for him as an MP and party leader to do so.

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