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Op-ed Lisa Tumahai, Co-Chair, National Iwi Chairs Forum

There is nothing like a crisis to focus attention on what is most important to us all. It is whānau – it is people.

For many weeks, the Pandemic Response Group (PRG) formed by the National Iwi Leaders Forum, has been working to ensure the voice and needs of our people are being heard and that the health and well-being of iwi Māori is paramount in decisions being made by the Government in response to a pandemic which has taken millions of lives across the globe.

I am proud of the dedication and commitment of those across Māoridom including those on the PRG - ably supported by our technical experts - who have and continue to put the best interests of our whānau, of our most vulnerable and in need of a voice and support, at the very heart of deliberations and all that we do.

Our PRG members, like those across many iwi and Māori providers, have been heavily involved with efforts on the ground to vaccinate our people, to support those who have been impacted by lockdowns and disruptions to their jobs, in helping with support, and in dealing with fear and uncertainty and the myriad of challenges that face those already battling to keep whānau fed and a roof over their heads.

We welcomed the opportunity to talk directly with our Te Tiriti o Waitangi partner the Crown to guide an evolving national Covid-19 strategy and response, to ensure the needs, safety, and wellbeing of all our people and communities are being considered in the path being taken and decisions made.

Too often in such processes there is a focus on numbers, on timelines, on comparing our performance against that of others.

It must be much more than these things, because when these numbers represent iwi Maori, they are so much more. They represent whānau, they represent my kaumātua, my tamariki, those I love. They represent the two adorable additions to my whānau in my twin moko who are so new to Te Waipounamu, that their wee precious little lifetimes have only known a country in lockdown.

I have grave concerns for the impact of Covid and the new Delta strain on our people, concern that gets only worse if greater tolerance for Covid-19 in our communities continues to be embraced.

Māori make up 16.7% of the population. On September 1, Māori accounted for just 5.7% of all Delta cases. By last weekend, Māori rates have blown out to: 44.9% of new cases since Auckland went to Alert Level 3, 44.7% of all active cases in Managed Isolation and Quarantine, 26.7% of cases during the Delta outbreak, 24.1% of those who have been hospitalised, and 21% of all deaths.

Just 37.6% of Māori are fully vaccinated and 20.8% have received their first dose. More than half of 12-34-year-olds, a large part of our population, are unvaccinated.

The PRG along with many other leading Māori organisations have raised concerns with the Government's proposed new "traffic light" for Covid-19 restrictions. I want to make it clear that our concerns and subsequent opposition to the Crown proposal is not one driven by a preference to criticise or obstruct - we understand the many complexities and challenges the country faces in trying to return to a new kind of normal. Anyone who has gone through the settlement negotiation processes understands very heavily the need to make immense compromise and the need to accept compensation of a fraction of what was lost.

But where I and my fellow iwi leaders retain our bottom lines, is around the health and sanctity of our whānau, of those we love, and their paramountcy in our decision making.

Iwi must be part of the solution, we want to work proactively with the government to co-design a system that works for Māori, and non-Māori.

Already by empowering and supporting Māori to provide Māori led solutions, we have seen a major improvement in Māori vaccination numbers. We must be allowed to play our essential part in helping bring our people on this journey. They for many valid reasons are cautious, and resistant to demands from the majority, including demands from the Crown. They are in some cases scared and overwhelmed by too much information. There are numerous solutions, and it requires engagement to determine which one will help them chose the right path.

Here on the West Coast, Poutini Waiora, an organisation owned by my iwi through Poutini Ngāi Tahu (Makaawhio, Ngāti Māhaki and Ngāti Waewae), is leading the push in partnership with the West Coast District Health Board to get more young local Māori and those in rural communities, vaccinated.

We're using 4WD’s as our mobile clinic so we can reach rural communities throughout the West Coast. It's about bringing the clinics to coasters and making them accessible by running clinics during the day and evening. Last time, a whānau of four turned up at 6.45pm for their vaccines, after they had finished milking.

Rangatahi are our next generation of Ngāi Tahu leaders, and we need to increase the vaccination rate to protect the future of our iwi.

In Tāmaki Makaurau, the efforts of Ngati Whatua Orakei, of Te Whanau o Waipareira, and many other iwi and Māori health providers across Aotearoa, played a huge part in the strong turnout by Māori during Super Saturday, with 21,815 doses delivered to Māori nationwide.

There is serious risk for Māori if vaccination numbers do not increase significantly. But this is not the only challenge. We need to see greater focus on increasing the vaccination rates for rangatahi - teenagers through to 34-year-olds. Details around the implementation of the framework must be co-designed with iwi Māori if we are to shift to a new framework successfully.

Any communications must be clear about the aims of the new framework, and Māori must lead the communications to Māori communities, if we are to shift out of any framework successfully.

There are some important aspects that must be the focus, including how home isolation will work for whānau with multiple families or whanau members in one home. How do we access data to be able to target those communities most in need of support and assistance to get them onto the vaccination kaupapa?

How do we ensure all communities have adequate access to health care including ventilators, and trained staff, so there is support in place for them when infection rates inevitably grow across Aotearoa?

Iwi are doing our job, and that is to ensure the voice of our people, our most vulnerable and in need, are being heard, and are informing decisions which have such significant consequences for them. We ask the Crown allows us to fulfil our most essential job, to protect our whanau, by working with us. This will ensure an outcome that benefits everyone.

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