Covid-19 modelling showed risk to Māori but Government failed to act, Waitangi Tribunal hears

It’s a mystery to the Government’s Covid-19 modeller why decision makers chose not to prioritise Māori for vaccinations when he presented them with projections that showed a significant risk to Māori, the Waitangi Tribunal has heard.

Professor Shaun Hendy was the second person to present evidence on day two of a special hearing into whether the Crown has breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi in its Covid response.

Hendy, a physicist and applied mathematician, said he and his team had been assisting the Government with projection models of the likely spread of Covid-19 in New Zealand for two years.

Hendy said the modelling showed a significant risk for Māori health outcomes. When he presented the findings, they showed ethnicity needed to be taken into account when planning the vaccine roll-out and public health measures.

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“The modelling has been important for the decision-making processes, but it hasn’t always been the most important factor from time to time,” Hendy said.

“It is particularly clear that the work that we did on the impacts for Māori, particularly around the health risks, was not taken into account in the vaccine roll-out, and it’s hard to understand why.”

Hendy said a report was lodged with the Ministry of Health detailing the increased risks of Covid-19 to Māori, showing the population was 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalised than non-Māori and non-Pasifika, which his team believed would inform the vaccination roll-out by prioritising Māori.

“It is a scary number and should have been taken seriously,” Hendy said.

“We certainly believed it was being taken into account, the report was tabled with the Ministry of Health, there was approval of the report by an advisory group, but we didn’t see the impacts of that in the roll-out the following year, and that was a bit of a mystery to us.”

About 40 claimants from across New Zealand will make presentations to the special Waitangi Tribunal hearing this week, detailing the circumstances that they say have disproportionately exposed Māori to Covid-19, and explore any changes that could improve equity in the Government’s pandemic response.

Following Hendy, Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen, lead claimant for Te Ohu Rata o Aotearoa – the Māori Medical Practitioners Association and co-chair of Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā – the National Māori Pandemic, and experienced central government policy adviser Dr Bryn Jones presented their evidence.

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How vaccination helps prevent the spread of Covid-19 (with te reo Māori subtitles).

Jones said the Government hadn’t accepted the advice of Māori leaders across the course of the pandemic.

“I’ve experienced trying to incorporate input from Māori voices and disadvantaged groups, and my experience of that is very difficult.

“We find ourselves in this position always, where we don’t have any authority. And we feel the arguments and the rationale we put forward is just so compelling that it would be racist to do otherwise, but we still see those things happening.”

The situation now facing the Māori population was predictable and preventable, but not a surprise, Jones said.

“Inequity has been the pandemic of Māori and other disadvantaged groups for decades,” Jones said.

“It’s not until Māori are dying at home alone that we have that conversation, that we are able to, that’s when it’s considered important enough.”

Jansen, who left the Government’s Immunisation Advisory Board in April after he felt his advice went unheard, called for the Ministry of Health to find a way to work with Māori experts and take their advice seriously because they knew best how to serve and care for their communities.

“Mātauranga has the potential to make a very real difference for Māori, and it seems we battle most of the time to get influence, and we certainly don’t get the significant deliberate and determined influence that we intend.

“It’s not equity if we get vaccinated last, it is not partnership when the Crown ignores advice because we are only in advisory positions, it is not active protection if we are in harm’s way.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen hopes the Government will change its way of working with Māori once the Waitangi Tribunal’s report is finalised.

SIMON O’CONNOR/Stuff

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen hopes the Government will change its way of working with Māori once the Waitangi Tribunal’s report is finalised.

“Over time, the Crown has invested more money into supporting Māori health providers, so I think that’s important, I think it’s insufficient and it’s late, so now we need much more investment.”

A Māori-led, not a Māori-advised approach at every level of the pandemic response was needed to ensure a Treaty of Waitangi-consistent decision and equitable outcome, Jansen said.

“Being an advocate and challenging and disrupting is drawing the attention from the Crown, that is required.

“We hope that the report from the Tribunal will help the Crown to see the importance of changing from the current response.”

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