CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – New Zealand reported its highest number of new coronavirus cases in a single day on Saturday: 160.
The South Pacific island nation has been virtually free from the virus for most of the pandemic, wiping it out through a combination of border restrictions, quarantine requirements, testing, contact tracing and extended lockdowns. In August, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a nationwide lockdown after the discovery of a single case, the country’s first in six months.
More than two months later, the lockdown continues in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, but the outbreak caused by the more contagious delta variant of the virus has grown to more than 3,000 cases.
With little hope of returning to “zero Covid”, New Zealand is now moving away from its policy, following other Asia-Pacific countries like Australia and Singapore trying to find a way to living with the virus after largely evading it for so long.
Lockdown measures are expected to end once 90% of people 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, which is expected by the end of next month. But as restrictions are relaxed, the number of cases is expected to rise, and critics say a higher price will be paid by New Zealand’s minority communities, including the indigenous Maori population.
Compared to New Zealanders as a whole, Maori have higher poverty rates, less access to health care, and are more likely to live in larger households where the virus can spread more easily.
“We are on the verge of seeing a lot of Maori die,” said indigenous rights activist Joe Trinder.
The lack of cases in New Zealand has kept its death toll from Covid-19 among the lowest in the world, at 28. But government modeling suggests that by next year, the number of cases in the great Auckland region could reach 5,300 per week, almost as much as New Zealand has recorded since the start of the pandemic.
This has raised concerns for Maori and Pacific Islanders, another minority group, both concentrated in Auckland. The two groups make up about a quarter of New Zealand’s population, but three quarters of cases and hospitalizations in the current epidemic. They also have lower vaccination rates, with just over half of eligible Maori fully vaccinated against over 73 percent of the overall population.
“There’s going to be a lot of tangi,” Trinder said, using the Maori word for the funeral.
Dr Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, blamed social inequalities for the recent spread of the Delta among Maori and Pacific Islanders.
“Many were living in precarious housing,” he said, “in some cases with mental illness and addiction to alcohol and drugs. Contact tracing has proven to be very difficult in these populations, and infections continued to spread despite a huge effort to control the epidemic. ”
Government medical advisers have argued that a high inoculation rate will limit the number and severity of cases of the virus, as more New Zealanders are exposed to the disease, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed as they go. ‘were in the United States.
“Ninety to 95% of people who contract Covid-19 will have a mild viral illness that does not require treatment but will require monitoring, usually at home,” counselor Dr Jeff Lowe said this month.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
Sally Dalhousie, Chief Operating Officer of The Fono, an affordable health care provider in Auckland, said such a plan places a strain on the community.
“It works if you have a small family and a reasonably sized house,” she said. “When you have a lot of people crammed into a small house, that’s just not a workable solution. “
Critics say New Zealand’s lockdowns have been disastrous for low-income households in other ways as well. Even before the August epidemic, estimates by the Auckland-based Child Poverty Action Group suggested an additional 18,000 children fell into poverty following the first lockdown last year. Maori and Pacific Islanders have borne the brunt of the wave, the group said.
Officials said last week that more low-income households had been eligible for weekly cash grants.
They also announced tens of millions of spending to increase the Maori vaccination rate, which got a big boost this month during a mass ‘Super Saturday’ vaccination campaign for all New Zealanders. . But efforts have been hampered by the spread of vaccine misinformation among Maori and Pacific Islanders, who Trinder says have a high level of mistrust of the government due to their experiences of injustice and oppression. .
Candice Luke of Pataka Kai, a national pantry program, said she was hesitant to tell her fellow Maori that she had been vaccinated “until someone older than me received it.” .
“If you’re part of a larger community, like a religious group or a cultural group, and they’ve made a collective decision not to vaccinate, it’s very difficult to go against the grain because it’s is your support system, it’s your family, ”said Luke, who lives in Auckland.
Experts say efforts to vaccinate Maori against Covid-19 have been most successful when led by respected members of the community. In Te Whanau in Apanui, a Maori community on the North Island, more than 70% of residents had been fully immunized even before the August outbreak, said Dr Rachel Thomson, a general practitioner at the local health clinic. .
Thomson said the clinic was working with the community, including the local tribal council, to vaccinate selected members of each of the 13 hapu, or sub-tribes, who then spread the word to others.
If Maori across the country had been “allowed to provide service to their people very early on,” she said, “we would be in a better position.”