The past week in lockdown has been tumultuous for many in my community. I was on my way to pick up my daughter from school when media outlets began reporting that New Zealand was headed for a possible level 4 lockdown, suggesting the Delta variant had breached our borders and there was a probable case in the community. By the time I arrived at the school, notifications were filling my messenger feed with supermarkets packed to the brim as the rush for toilet paper began. New Zealand went into full lockdown that night in its fight against Covid-19.
Within a matter of hours, news emerged that a person from the North Shore of Auckland had tested positive followed by people who had attended a large church gathering in south Auckland. Church plays a pivotal role in the Pacific community. It serves as a hub to express our faith, language and culture, where we reconnect with friends and family. It grounds us and allows us to recharge before we head back into a society that is different to what we knew in our home islands dotted around the Pacific.
Recent census data shows that Pacific people make up 40% of the area I represent, in south Auckland. In comparison to other Aucklanders, Pacific people earned less than 60% of the average income. According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, industries employing the most Pacific people are in manufacturing, utilities and construction, wholesale and retail and the health sector; jobs that are both essential and involve regular contact with incoming travellers, or those requiring healthcare. Research shows that the Pacific population living in homes with at least seven people is more than six times that of the non-Pacific population in New Zealand.
Just a day into lockdown and glued to news media with their breaking updates, it didn’t take long for the comments sections of various online platforms to light up with derogatory slurs aimed at my community. It felt like deja vu as only a month prior to this latest Covid outbreak I addressed a large church gathering about my own confrontation with the extreme end of racial discrimination. I shared how my family was the subject of a bomb threat after my criticism of a reality television show which I believe unfairly stigmatises Māori and Pacific youth.
While it is always a minority who perpetrate these attacks whether in the form of detestable social media posts or an anonymous bomb threat, what’s more concerning is the underlying public indifference to these incidents. Prior to the news of an emerging Covid cluster connected to a Samoan church, the general public sentiment was supportive of those infected. As subsequent and related cases were revealed, they weren’t subjected to any extra scrutiny as their most recently visited locations were published online. And why should they? This is the 21st century, we’re a modern, progressive country and New Zealand hasn’t had a major nationwide community outbreak like this in over a year.
But public sentiment wasn’t so generous with news of a “super-spreader” event – held before lockdown – at the church concerned in south Auckland. Instead, commentary focused on why Pacific people spread this insidious virus so quickly. Whatever the intent of this there are important factors to understand.
Churches are places of worship and connection, where people gather in song, prayer and reflection. There are few activities, excepting nightclubbing, casinos or sex shops, that would spread a highly contagious airborne virus better than a church, but as I’ve already said, attending church is an intrinsic part of Pacific culture.
Many Pacific people in New Zealand are first or second generation migrants. Like many migrants, we have found ourselves in roles that often bring us face to face with the virus like transport, hospitality and retail. These are essential roles that are particularly pronounced during lockdown. It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: we are on the frontlines of New Zealand’s battle against Covid.
Disappointingly, the vaccine rollout has been disjointed for large parts of our community. Pacific health providers should have been leading our large-scale vaccine events, staffed by health professionals with existing relationships in the community. Increasing our coverage and ensuring people can navigate the booking system noting their issues with language barriers and connectivity are vital. These challenges are not insurmountable which has been evidenced in the last couple of days, by a much-needed turnaround in the vaccination approach. Early signs indicate a telling increase in the uptake for Pasifika which is most encouraging. We would have been here earlier, had our voices been heard at the planning and design stages.
In any case, we can take real hope from the Samoan congregation that’s been in the news this week. Last week members of the church gave their first public interview to the media and when asked how they felt about the vitriolic abuse they had received responded with, “may God bless you”. If they can wish a blessing on those who curse them, that same courage is something we can all aim to live up to. Our character as the team of five million is being tested and we will all need to dig deep to get through this crisis … and draw from our collective well of compassion, forbearance and empathy.
Fa’anana Efeso Collins is a New Zealand-born Samoan and is a councillor for Manukau in south Auckland