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Harawira: Avian flu - Can we Hongi?

Law Reform (Epidemic Preparedness) Bill

Hone Harawira; Maori Party MP for Tai Tokerau

Tuesday 5 December 2006

Three weeks ago the warning bells rang, when Professor Paul Zimmet said that left unchecked, diabetes could make all Polynesian races "extinct" before the end of the century.

And in the uproar that followed, I was reminded of the message from an early colonial administrator, who said that his role was to "smooth the pillow of a dying race", because there can be no denying the fact that the ferocious epidemic of diabetes raging through our communities right now, may indeed decimate our Pacific way of life.

And so in turning to this Bill, we raise the urgent need to ensure that in preparing for an epidemic, Maori are targeted and included in the response, and I turn here to the history and demographics of influenza in this land to give us clear reason as to why this is so very important.

About 100 citizens of Aotearoa die from influenza every year; every year that is except 1918, the year that the so-called 'plague of the Spanish Lady' overran our country, and killed more than 8000 people.

And of those, Maori died from flu at a rate more than seven times higher than that for non-Māori.

Indeed Sir Peter Buck said that in three months, influenza killed more Maori in Aotearoa, than the military campaigns of Gallipoli, France and Belgium, in WW1.

Every Maori community bears the scars of lives lost to the black plague, and that’s not black for black is beautiful - that’s the black colour of the skin from victims dying from a lack of oxygen.

The stories are truly gruesome.

People queuing to be sprayed with zinc-sulphate; they called it 'fumigation' but it didn't stop the flu.

Cinemas, churches, halls, schools, whare hui, whare kai - all the places where people gathered - were closed; families were left isolated for weeks; and people stopped visiting for fear of catching the disease.

The Ellerslie racecourse was turned into an emergency hospital, Victoria Park was turned into a massive morgue, and special trains were enlisted to haul bodies out to Waikumete Cemetery for burial.

One of my tupuna in Whakapara was delegated to live alone in the cemetery to bury his relations; one of Rangitane’s main hapu lost 75% of its population to the epidemic; Otorohanga’s two hotels were turned into hospitals: one for European and one for Māori; and Princess Te Puea herself was called in to carry coffins up the river for burial.

Mr Speaker, I have taken the time to remind the House of the 1918 flu epidemic, because in many respects it was Aotearoa’s forgotten disaster, during the world's worst ever recorded pandemic of influenza.

And it can just as easily happen again in a world where low standards of health, overcrowding, poor diet and bad housing, mean a disproportionately high Maori death rate in any pandemic is guaranteed.

And so I acknowledge the enduring patience and commitment of people like Kathrine Clarke of Hapai Te Hauora Tapui; of Ngaire Whata of Korowai Aroha; and Dr Lorna Dyall from the Division of Maori Health at Auckland University, for highlighting the desperate need for full and frank communication with Māori communities.

Our people have many, many questions, and nobody is giving them any decent answers. Will our marae be closed? Who will care for our kaumatua and kuia? What will happen to our tangi, which Te Arawa Maori Trust Board’s Anaru Rangiheuea has described as being our most important cultural practice? Will we even get our loved ones back? Will they be sealed? Can we meet to grieve? Can we hongi?

Mr Speaker, we can not allow our future to be driven by fear, ignorance and a lack of information.

And we will not allow our pillow to be smoothed out by this epidemic.

There are steps that we can and must take, and crucial to our survival, must be Maori participation at all levels of emergency planning.

A good place to start might be simply putting the word Maori into the Bill.

The Bill talks about anxiety around parliamentary sitting days, whether to recall Parliament during an emergency, and the need for flexibility in legal proceedings, but for some strange reason, does not even mention the race that is most likely to be decimated by a flu pandemic.

Maori have been calling for a body that can directly access Maori leadership, make immediate use of Maori infrastructure, and recruit Maori health workers to engage with iwi and Maori communities.

In fact, developing a plan to respond to an epidemic with Maori interests at its very core, is a matter of urgency that Maori must be actively involved in, if we are to even have a future.

We must use our history and our expertise to plan wisely, and we must mobilise all of our resources and creative talents, to protect Maori interests and Māori wellbeing.

This is not just essential for the future of Maori, but also for the proper development of our whole nation, for if Maori are to commit to the growth of Aotearoa, then Maori must also be an integral part of a strategy for it’s survival as well.

Mr Speaker, 100 years ago, the Maori population was at 45,000 and thought to be close to extinction. 100 years later, we are more than half a million, and in another 50 years, fully 33% of all children in our nation will be Maori.

We have survived the threat of extinction in our past – and we owe much to the vision and impact of leaders such as Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana; Te Puea Herangi; and Sir Peter Buck, who responded to the savage impact of the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, malnutrition, pneumonia, goitre, child mortality, and a host of other infectious diseases, by fighting for the right of our people not just to survive – but to thrive.

This Parliament has a chance to demonstrate the courage shown by Māori leaders of yesteryear, by ensuring a proper education and information campaign, to manage the possible effects of an outbreak of avian influenza, or any infectious disease capable of becoming an epidemic.

The Maori Party will support this Bill in the hope that the Minister will listen, that Parliament will consider our solemn duty to care for all citizens, and that we politicians will display the courage needed to ensure that those who will suffer most, are not bypassed in this legislation, or the bureaucracy responsible for putting it into effect.


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