NZ covid inquiry must look at response to specific communities, Pasifika health leader says

Cook Islands drive through vaccination community event in Auckland
Cook Islands drive through vaccination community event in Auckland in September 2021. Image: Getty Images/RNZ News

RNZ News

A Pasifika health leader hopes the Royal Commission into the Covid-19 pandemic will look into the equity of the response and resource allocation.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced a Royal Commission into the government’s covid-19 response which will be chaired by Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist working at the University of Melbourne.

He is joined by former National Party MP Hekia Parata, and the previous secretary to Treasury, John Whitehead, as commissioners.

Pasifika Futures chief executive Debbie Sorensen said Pasifika people were essentially left to form their own response during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

That was despite Pasifika people working a large proportion of jobs in MIQ facilities and at the airport and other front line locations, she said.

Many affected Pacific families experienced a great deal of hardship, she said.

It was important for the inquiry to look at the covid-19 response in regards to specific communities, she said.

Slowness of response
“We’re really clear that equity in the response and in the resource allocation is an important consideration.”

One issue was the slowness of the government’s response to both Pacific and Māori communities during the height of the pandemic, she said.

“Advice was provided to the government, you know cabinet papers provided advice on specific responses for our communities and that advice was ignored.”

An important aspect of the inquiry should be reviewing how that advice was given to the government, its response to it and how the government’s sought more information, she said.

The inquiry’s initial scope appeared to be very narrow, but it could be broadened as it went along, Sorensen said.

“The impact on mental health and the ongoing economic burden for our communities is immense — you know we have a whole generation of young people who have not continued their education because they were required to go in to work.”

Sorensen said often young people had to work because they were the only person in their family who had a job at that time due to covid-19.

Mental health demand
The pandemic also increased demand for mental health services which were already under pressure, she said.

Anyone who was unwell unlikely to be able to get an appointment within six to eight months which was shameful, she said.

Sorensen would have preferred the inquiry had been announced earlier, but it was an opportunity to better prepare for the future, she said.

But Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority, chief medical officer Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen told Morning Report he had some concerns that the probe into the covid-19 response was coming too soon to gain a full picture.

The pandemic was ongoing and starting the inquiry so early may obstruct a complete view of it, he said.

“I understand that there’s people champing at the bit and [saying] we should’ve done it before but it’s very difficult to do that and adequately learn the lessons.”

Understanding how to get a proper pandemic response was in everyone’s interest, but the pandemic was now still in its third wave, he said.

About to begin
Nevertheless, the inquiry was about to get underway and it could make a large contribution if it was done well, he said.

“I’m sure there will be many Māori communities that want to have voice in the inquiry and you know contribute to a better understanding of how we can manage pandemics really well.

“We’ve had pandemics before and they’ve been absolutely tragic. We’ve got this pandemic and the outcome for us is something like two to two-and-a-half times the rate of hospitalisations and deaths, so Māori communities are fundamentally very interested in bedding in the learnings that we’ve achieved in the pandemic.”

Dr Jansen hoped the inquiry would provide enduring information about managing pandemics with a very clear focus on Māori and how to support the best outcomes for the Māori population.

Inquiry’s goal next pandemic
The head of the Royal Commission said the review needed to put New Zealand in better position to respond next time a pandemic hits.

Professor Blakely said the breadth of experience and skills of the commissioners was welcome, and would help them to cover the wide scope of the Inquiry, ranging from the health response and legislative decisions, to the economic response.

Reviewing the response to the pandemic was a big job, he said.

“There’s already 75 reports done so far, I think about 1700 recommendations from those reports, New Zealand’s not the only country that’s been affected by this cause it’s a global epidemic, so there’s lots of other reports.”

The inquiry panel would have to sit at the top of all that work that had already been done “and pull it altogether from the perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand and what would help best there.

The inquiry needed to make New Zealand was prepared for a pandemic with good testing, good contact tracing and good tools that the Reserve Bank could use to support citizens in the time of a pandemic, Professor Blakely said.

“Our job is to try and create a situation where those tools are as good as possible, there’s frameworks to use when you’ve entered another pandemic, which will occur at some stage we just don’t know when.”

Professor Blakely said he was flying to New Zealand next week and would meet with Hekia Parata and John Whitehead to start thinking about the shape of the inquiry going forward.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

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