Monday, June 24, 2024

OPINION | Don’t blame one suburb for NZ’s COVID problems

Councillor Fa’anana Efeso Collins is a Ward Councillor for Manukau. 

The patience and grace shown by health, hotel and airport workers in South Auckland and Aotearoa overall offers a beacon to those suffering overseas.

Auckland is in the middle of another COVID-19 lockdown. This is the second time there’s been an outbreak in our part of the region: Manukau, in the south of the city. Its youth, Māori, ethnic and Pasifika populations are generally much higher than the rest of the city. It is also the area with the highest level of socio-economic deprivation.

The reaction of people all over New Zealand to the lockdown announced on Saturday night was a mix of frustration, anger, shock and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, recriminations against the people of Manukau quickly inflamed social media and emboldened hardliners to call for more punitive measures against COVID-19 rule-breakers.

I’m the local councillor for Manukau and have been for the past four years: a second-generation Samoan, the son of a street-preaching taxi driver and a pastor’s daughter, who was told by teachers I wouldn’t amount to much. My home town of Otara is probably better known to Guardian readers from articles covering youth gangs and poverty, than for stories on captains of industry or city councillors.

The real cause of the outbreaks in south Auckland is that our nation’s largest international airport is located here. That means the majority of our border workforce and managed-isolation quarantine hotels are here, too. New Zealand virtually eliminated COVID-19 last year, but cases continue to arrive via our borders, leading to a number of small outbreaks.

Our government deserves much credit for how we’ve contained these outbreaks. One of Jacinda Ardern’s excellent regular lines is that we are a “team of five million” who have all helped keep the virus at bay. But there are still hurdles to be overcome in ensuring diverse communities get the COVID-19 messages with clarity and full understanding. The bureaucracy needs to understand that relationships are key in our community.

It could be argued that, within the team of five million, the hard yards are being put in by a key group of players in my area. It’s our people who staff the hotels, keeping them clean and safe for all our returning Kiwis. It’s our people in the border-related jobs, doing the logistical and airport work that ensures our link to the outside world operates 24/7. And it’s our region’s health professionals who are doing much of the monitoring and testing to see whether COVID-19 is getting through. Many of these jobs are low-paid, menial, involving difficult shifts, and carry an extra layer of risk due to COVID-19.

Manukau is well known for its less than satisfactory health infrastructure after years of underinvestment. Our main hospital is one of the busiest in the southern hemisphere and the levels of diabetes, obesity, gout and other non-communicable diseases is a crisis quite unique to our region. Our medical services are stretched to breaking point dealing with all manner of issues related to our chronically ill population.

All these issues have created the perfect unholy storm for our area, fuelling stress and social issues like antisocial behaviour, youth gangs and domestic violence.

When the prime minister announced another week-long lockdown, my phone was flooded with messages requesting interviews and takes on what it would mean for our locals. Juggling the parenting duties of a one-year-old and eight-year-old with my wife, in our comfortable but small two-bedroom apartment, this often means setting up Zoom calls in my daughters’ room. The way I see it, if I don’t say something, maybe no one will.

But the media work also brings with it a fair share of criticism. I’ve received messages from people saying the church should excommunicate me, calling me to repent, for supporting a vaccine rollout. I’ve been called all sorts of names for wanting people to have a bit more patience and grace for those battling the virus. All these criticisms reflect the frustration people are feeling at having their control taken away and the new normal that many are still coming to terms with.

But in speaking to many of my constituents, I am reminded of our resilience. These are difficult times, but with the chance to breathe deeply, slow our thinking and stay connected with our whānau, family and friends, we can exhibit a deep level of understanding and friendship that will help remedy our anxiety.

Whatever this new normal looks like going forward, we know from history that these great crises do subside. New Zealand is in a unique position, especially when we observe the pain and devastation many other nations are facing because of coronavirus. I am hopeful that the people of Aotearoa’s example of patience, grace, and determination will offer a beacon of hope and light to those looking in on our island at the edge of the Pacific ocean.

This opinion piece was first published on The Guardian online

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