6 Dec 2021

Covid-19 response: Waitangi Tribunal hearing into whether Te Tiriti breached begins

7:41 pm on 6 December 2021

The Waitangi Tribunal has heard that Māori were on the back foot right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Iwi leader Mike Smith described the level of engagement from the government on the Covid-19 response as insulting (file image). Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Today was the first day of a special hearing into whether the Crown has breached Te Tiriti in its Covid-19 response.

The Delta outbreak has seen more than 3000 of the country's active cases being Māori. For much of the previous months, Māori accounted for the most number of daily cases, and by far the most deaths.

The Māori vaccination rate, while climbing, is still well behind the general population at only 72 percent fully vaccinated.

The application for the hearing was brought by the Māori Council, arguing that the Crown had breached its obligations of partnership and protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Māori Council chair Peter Fraser said an inequitable age-based vaccine rollout, followed by a rush to the traffic light system, had left Māori the worst-affected by the coronavirus.

He said a response tailored to Māori would have benefited everyone, but the government succumbed to the threat of a political backlash.

"The risk about Māori getting left behind because of a slower uptake in vaccinations for a range of reasons, also the real concern that there needed to be a Māori target, and so there is a decision somewhere within government, and it's not for me to speculate, where that was explicitly rejected."

The government has long insisted it has not failed Māori in the Covid-19 response, and that Māori leaders, iwi and other organisations have been regularly consulted.

But one of those iwi leaders, Mike Smith, described the level of engagement as insulting, calling it patsy consultation with pre-made decisions.

He said an Iwi Leaders Covid-19 Response Forum was established early in the pandemic, and it sought regular engagement with the government.

There were regular meetings in early 2020, Smith said, but these soon fell by the wayside.

"The engagement was characterised by micro-aggressions, sort of sense of Wellington exceptionalism, a somewhat cynical view that 'what [do] iwi have to offer to this process, we are the government, what do you think you're going to do about it?'

"That was the overall feel of it."

Smith said it was not until the government lost control of the Delta outbreak that their opinions were sought.

"They realised, 'we're going to have to rely upon the community now. We've failed in terms of rollout of the vaccination to Māori'. There was a lot of bias in regards to that," Smith said.

Hamilton's Te Kohao Health managing director Lady Tureiti Moxon said her organisation had to run one of Waikato's largest responses on the smell of an oily rag.

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Lady Tureiti Moxon says resourcing to Te Kohao Health has been a huge problem during the pandemic response. Photo: Supplied

She told the tribunal resourcing had been a huge issue.

"Every response that we've ever had in terms of resourcing and funding has been slow. We have basically used our own resources to make things happen ourselves, and that's been the big issue all along."

Lady Tureiti warned that it would only get worse, and that overcoming bureaucratic barriers was taking far too much of an exhausted workforce's time.

"If you think the tsunami is here, it's coming and it's coming big time," she said.

"I'll tell you, even though Māori and Pacific providers have demonstrated our ability to be able to do this mahi, we still need to be resourced to the point where we can do this without worrying [about] if you get one FTE here, or two FTEs there, because someone in their great wisdom at the ministry has decided that that's enough for you."

The government has bolstered the amount of funding for Māori health providers, recently announcing $120 million for the vaccine rollout and for Māori communities to prepare the move to the traffic light system.

Nurses in the Far North Vaccinating during the lockdown

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

But National Hauora Coalition head Simon Royal said the funding had been piecemeal.

"The simple fact of the matter of this is far too little money, far too late. This needed to be invested in right at the beginning of the pandemic."

Royal pointed to screeds of evidence about the unequal funding of Māori health providers, and previous rulings that they were severely underfunded compared to other services.

Another member of the National Hauora Coalition, Tammy Dehar, said the government had seen the extent of work Māori providers had been doing, yet "no alleviation has been given to Māori to be part of the policy response."

A South Auckland Whānau Ora provider and member of the Māori Council, George Ngatai, proposed a Mana Whakahaere council to work with the government, and jointly design a response for Māori communities.

The hearing is set down for the rest week, with the Crown delivering its response and evidence on Thursday.

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