The Delta outbreak in Aotearoa: ideology and inequality

by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe. Note that this article was completed before the Omicron strain of COVID-19 emerged in the NZ community.

Official NZ Government messaging on the pandemic

In a recent Twitter post, a Canadian law professor expressed his amazement at Aotearoa New Zealand’s COVID-19 website (covid19.govt.nz) for providing detailed and comprehensive information on the virus.[1] In one of the wholesome interactions that sometimes occur on NZ Twitter, he received a response from Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, thanking him for his comment.

At the time of writing (7 January 2022) Aotearoa New Zealand has a total of 51 deaths due to COVID-19, and 819 active cases with 37 people in hospital. This, compared to the corresponding worldwide figures of around 500 million cases and nearly 6 million deaths, has drawn similar admiration from many at the NZ government’s response to the pandemic. As I commented in a previous article, compared with the government’s response in countries such as the USA, Great Britain and Australia, any reasonably competent response would look good.[2] However, the Labour government headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deserves credit for following a policy that relied on science and overall prioritised the health of people over the demands of business. But, rather like the widely-discredited claim that Aotearoa NZ is “clean and green”, the reality is that the government’s pandemic response is not quite as impressive as it seems.

Alert levels and traffic lights

The initial Coronavirus outbreak in 2020 was controlled through a four-stage alert system. “Level 4” was a lockdown with all public facilities and most retail closed, and all but “essential” workers working from home. This approach was successful and by summer things were back to normal, with people able to socialise, travel within the country, attend concerts and return to work. The development of COVID-19 vaccines, which became available in March 2021, increased confidence that Coronavirus could be eliminated or at least confined to Managed Isolation in Quarantine (MIQ) for those entering the country.

However in August, the first case of the Delta variant was detected in the community, and the Government announced a Level 4 lockdown from August 17 for the whole country. The lockdown was accompanied by a ramping up of efforts to encourage vaccination. While the lockdown, and generally widespread take-up of vaccination, undoubtedly prevented widespread deaths and hospitalisation, it proved to be less effective against the more transmittable Delta strain. Eventually the majority of the country was downgraded to lower alert levels, but Auckland, the largest city and the epicentre of the Delta outbreak, remained in lockdown for almost 100 days.

On October 22, Arden announced the government’s new COVID-19 Protection Framework. This replaced the previous Alert Levels with a “traffic light” system centred around vaccine certificates and to be implemented once 90% of the eligible population had received the two vaccinations required to protect against COVID 19. Under the traffic light system, workplaces, schools, public facilities and businesses stay open with capacity limits, but entry to gatherings, hospitality venues and close-proximity businesses such as hairdressers will require a vaccination certificate. Masks are compulsory in most public spaces under “red” and “orange” levels. At “green” there is still COVID-19 in the community, but community transmission is limited and hospitalisations at “manageable” levels.

The government also instituted vaccine mandates in education, health and allied sectors, which have also been taken up by a number of NGO and private employers.

These measures were greeted by predictable howls of outrage from anti-vaxxers and protests which, while smaller and less violent than those in Australia and elsewhere, also showed the right using the issue to pull in anyone who disliked the Labour government, Māori, women in leadership roles, etc. The majority of people did in fact vaccinated – even if it was just to keep their jobs – and the threat of mass resignations didn’t eventuate.

Systemic racism

However, response to the new system from those who had supported the government’s approach was divided, with some epidemiologists warning that the health system could be overwhelmed by an explosion in cases. Many saw the move from an “elimination” strategy to a “live with the virus” strategy as a concession to the business sector’s demands for “certainty” and an end to lockdowns.

The decision to move to a traffic light system was also strongly criticised by Māori organisations, who pointed out that an overall target of 90% vaccination ignored the fact that Māori had been lagging behind in vaccination rates, and were already over-represented in COVID-19 statistics. The New Zealand Māori Council lodged a complaint with the Waitangi Tribunal, arguing that the government was leaving Māori more vulnerable to infection, thereby breaching Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), the agreement signed between representatives of the British Crown and most iwi (tribes) in 1840 and ratified in 1975. The Waitangi Tribunal, in a report released on December 21, agreed. In a letter to Government ministers accompanying the report, panel chair Judge Damian Stone wrote:

As at 13 December 2021, although Māori comprised 15.6 percent of the population, Māori comprised over 50 percent of the Delta cases, 38.6 percent of Delta hospitalisations, and 45 percent of associated deaths. The statistics speak for themselves.

Māori health providers told the tribunal that they were sidelined, ignored and underfunded. The tribunal was also told by experts and officials, including Bloomfield, that they had advised Cabinet of a need to prioritise Māori from the beginning of the vaccine rollout. While the initial rollout targeted people over 65 and those with chronic health conditions, Bloomfield and others argued that Māori over 50 should be included, as Māori die earlier and have more health vulnerabilities than Pākehā (NZ Europeans). However, this was rejected by Cabinet, apparently due to fears of a racist backlash if it was seen to be giving special consideration to Māori.

The tribunal also considered whether the rapid move to the COVID-19 Protection Framework put Māori at increased risk. It agreed that the change in tactic was necessary, given the economic and social impact of lockdowns, but that:

The rapid transition into the framework – which happened faster than the Crown’s officials and experts recommended, and without the original vaccination thresholds for each district health board being met – did not adequately account for Māori health needs.

The tribunal concluded that the government had breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in particular the principles of active protection and equity, as well as those of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) and partnership. While the tribunal’s decision is not binding on – and was disputed by – the government, it was a political embarrassment for Labour, which has historically branded itself as committed to Māori interests. The government and the Māori Council have set up a new consultative body, but how much difference that will make is uncertain, given the Government’s reluctance to give more than lip service to tino rangatiratanga.

The vaccination rate among Māori has improved (currently around 82% fully vaccinated), largely due to increases in funding announced earlier this year, which has enabled Māori health providers to invest in mobile vaccination clinics or do door to door outreach. However, some providers report that they are struggling to recruit enough Māori nurses to administer vaccines.

Inequality and pandemic

The issue of Māori disadvantage is not just due to racism. It intersects with the other outstanding failure of the government – to address poverty and inequality. While the economy has overall improved, the improvement has not been equally distributed. Some economists refer to the economic recovery as a “K-shaped” recovery, where those with assets (especially property) are doing well, while those without are struggling.[3] This is due to structural inequality that preceded the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it worse. The housing bubble, which has put owning a home out of reach for most working people, has resulted in a shortage of rental property and a corresponding rise in rents. Calls for the government to do more than tinker around the edges have been ignored. Some amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act which took effect last year have improved the rights of tenants, including restricting the number of times rent can be increased during a tenancy, but there has been no attempt to put a cap on rents. While more public housing is being built, there are still nearly 25,000 on the social housing waitlist.

The housing affordability crisis coupled with the pandemic has caused an increase in homelessness. The latest available figures (for November 2021) show that over 10,000 people were staying in emergency accommodation. Children made up almost half that number. Emergency accommodation is mainly in motels and meant to only be for a week or two, but many families are staying for six months or more. There are also a large number of people in transitional housing, which is meant to be for up to 12 weeks while residents are supported to find permanent accommodation, but many are staying for longer due to the lack of affordable accommodation. These figures do not include those who are living in cars or staying with relatives. This makes the transmission of COVID-19 more likely. The majority of people affected by housing stress are Māori or Pacific peoples. Many are the “essential workers” who have kept society functioning through lockdowns – health workers, cleaners, supermarket workers and so on.

While most “non-essential” office workers and professionals were able to work from home during lockdowns, those in sectors like hospitality or manufacturing have lost jobs or had their hours reduced. Many of them were unable to access support from Work and Income because they are receiving just enough through wage subsidies to put them over the income limits, but not enough to afford to pay rent or mortgages and buy food. While the government has increased funding to food banks, many are stretched to capacity; and food parcels are not a long-term solution to poverty.

The government has still not acted on the recommendation of its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group in 2019, that benefits be increased to provide a liveable income. An increase of $20 per week to main benefits in July 2021 was nowhere near enough to cover the increased costs of housing, food and other necessities.

The role of Ardern and the NZ government in responding to COVID-19 with a science-based approach, countering misinformation, and a focus on protecting people’s lives over the demands of business deserves praise. However, it is far from being the “transformational” government that it claims to be.

So far, the Omicron variant has been confined to cases from overseas in MIQ, but experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before it begins occurring in the community. Fortunately, booster vaccinations have been made available and vaccination of children aged 5 to 12 is due to begin from 17 January, but the spread could also be reduced by increasing wages and benefits, providing adequate and affordable housing and increasing funding to Māori and Pasifika health providers. However, this would force the Ardern government to take a stand against big business – which seems unlikely.


[1] https://twitter.com/UbakaOgbogu/status/1478489062042333186

[2] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/09/08/being-kind-the-ardern-government-and-covid-19/

[3] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/money/2021/04/explosion-of-wealth-inequality-as-housing-boom-leaves-many-behind-economist.html

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