In Kawerau one thing impedes the effort to vaccinate Māori: New Zealand’s history

One of my earliest memories is racing up a flight of hollow stairs in Kawerau’s town hall as Tiwi, my first friend, counts down from 20. “Ready or not, here I come” he roars from the stage. I slide through the doorway to the makeup room, carving a two-lane highway into the dusty floors. The lighted mirrors paint the room in yellow and gold. I wriggle my tiny body into one of the cubby holes for bags and belongings. The doorknob turns. The door creeps open. “Found me”, I yell at Tiwi. After a three-second delay he yells back “but where”, still searching behind the velvet curtains on stage.

Dad’s boxing gym is hidden below that stage. The heavy bags, the leather pads, the medicine balls, and the sparring gloves wash the stage in the smell of rubber and sweat. Tiwi and I tutu (fidget) with the flood lighting most weeks, waiting for the boxers to finish their cardio session on stage and head for sparring and pad work downstairs. Dad screams at that perfect decibel level where the soundwaves crash against your ear but the background violence scrambles the electrical signal to your brain. Is he saying “right, left, right” or “left, giusto, left”? For most of Kawerau in the 1990s the town hall was a boxing gym with cosmetic facilities. For Tiwi and I, it was our playground.

Kawerau now competes with Murupara for the lowest vaccination rate in New Zealand. This is partly a function of ethnicity. The district is one of the few in New Zealand with a Māori majority, e il Māori vaccination rate lags behind the national vaccination rate. It’s also an issue of access. When one Kawerau district councillor rang the vaccination hotline he was told to book an appointment in Whakatāne, an almost thirty-minute drive east. For most New Zealanders this wouldn’t amount to a major problem, but in Kawerau – where almost one in four people are out of work – this is a practical barrier. Not everyone can access a vehicle, and small towns struggle to sustain public transport of any kind, let alone an intra-regional network.

Over 130,000 thousand New Zealanders made their way to a vaccination centre over the weekend, smashing the government’s goal and lifting Auckland’s vaccination rate to just shy of 90%. But underneath that success, shocking inequities remain. The vaccination rate for Pacific peoples still lags the rate for Pākehā, or European New Zealanders, and the Māori rate lags further still. Only 63% of Māori have had their first shot. For Pākehā, suo 84%. This is partly due to geography. If you inspect the government’s vaccination map, a national register laying out every vaccine centre in New Zealand, you might notice something startling: there are barely any vaccine centres in rural Māori communities. This essay asks why.

In Kawerau’s prime, from the early 1950s to the late 1980s, when the Tasman pulp and paper mill was responsible for producing 20% of New Zealand’s exports, the hall was home to travelling plays, a “picture theatre” screening the latest foreign films, and concerts classic and popular. This is where the country’s chief crooner, Sir John Rowles, who would go on to a concert residency in Las Vegas, picked up his craft performing for the American mill managers, who made their mansions on “Knob Hill”.

Kawerau was a town like few others. The population of only 8,000 also had access to a full-service supermarket – a consumer luxury in the mid-20th century – a department store (quite the posh amenity), a video game parlour, and even competing cosmopolitan clubs.

Underpinning this prosperity was a government guarantee: import controls, industrial subsidies, and competition policy would ensure the Tasman Mill maintained an effective domestic monopoly. With that lucrative corner of the pulp and paper market the town’s residents would enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. But in return for this generosity the local hapū (sub-tribe) had to make three agreements. Primo, that they would sell the land above their ancient geothermal fields, providing the industrial zone where the mill sits, and the electricity to power it. Second, they would consent to the mill accessing the crystal clear Tarawera river. Pulp and paper productions requires fresh water by the tonnage. And third, that they would help provide the manpower to fell and process the timber from the Kaingaroa pine kingdoms.

I was born to a family with five living generations. My sisters and I knew our great-great-grandmother. This breeds a healthy respect for whakapapa – ancestry – and it nurtures a good knowledge of history, and how quickly things change. Nana Olga, my great-great-grandmother, was born before the Great War, into a political and economic world we can scarcely imagine. She was in work before turning thirteen while her brother was packed off to Europe to fight in the Māori battalion in the second world war. Nana Jean, my great-grandmother, was born between these upheavals – the first and second world wars – and the sacrifices from that time still shape her habits and preferences today. Nothing goes to waste at Nana Jean’s.

My great-great-great-grandparents were told that these sacrifices – dispatching their young women to work and their young men to war – were, in Sir Āpirana Ngata’s words, “the highest demonstration of citizenship”. The losses of the second world war would ensure Pākehā respect. It was a neat recruitment tool, and true enough in parts. One of the first Labour government’s principal achievements was removing discrimination in the welfare state, ensuring post 1945 that Māori had access to benefits paid at the same rates as Pākehā. Yet hidden underneath this technical equality was discrimination in its application. Few Māori in the early 20th century had birth certificates, per esempio, meaning that only a small number were ever able to qualify for the old age pension.

In regional New Zealand discrimination was more enthusiastic, as opposed to the lazy discrimination in Wellington. In Gisborne, loan officers would turn down Māori for no other reason than they were Māori. In parts of the Waikato, Māori were barred from cinemas and refused service in high-end stores. In Tauranga, some public restrooms were off limits to Māori women and children. It took a decade after the war – and in some places longer – to tear down formal and informal discrimination.

And Kawerau was, in its own small way, part of this project to bring discrimination crashing down. The land the government acquired to build Tasman was sold on the promise, made by Sir James Fletcher, the great 20th-century industrialist, to the local hapū, that the mill would offers jobs to their children and grandchildren.

For the thirty years between 1954 e 1984 this promise held. The mills put thousands of hapū members to work. For some, it made modern living standards possible, from hot water to ovens and microwaves. But underneath this prosperity were rigid inequalities. Those same hapū members were more often than not the mill’s manual labour. When the thousands of Kawerau men punched in each morning Māori would form one line – to the sawmill, to the manual professions – while Pākehā would form another – to the better paid paper mills, to management, to engineering. My ancestors who made the decision to sell were possibly told that the wealth would trickle down. Nel 2021 we know better. The proper direction of wealth is that it bubbles up.

The worst violence is structural, because it’s necessarily inescapable. The mad genius of a boxing ring is it reproduces this. When an ordinary person is hit their first instinct is flight. But the boxing ring, its four corners roping opponents in, removes that choice. What separates the ordinary person from a boxer is that the latter’s purest impulse is to hit back. This is why boxing attracts the cast of characters that it does. Fitness freaks, naturally. But just as often men who are out of work, resentful. Gang members, traumatised. I remember one of Dad’s best boxers, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, whose later life came crashing down as the accumulated stress of joblessness and homelessness chipped away at his sense of worth and personhood.

In Kawerau it’s not unusual for people to go one of two ways. Of Dad’s boxers, most went on to good, secure work, prosperous families, and the peculiar dignity that comes from pummelling and getting pummelled. But others took the second way, falling into gang traps and poverty cycles. Before the 1960s New Zealand’s street gangs were more or less unheard of. But when the “borstal boys” came of age in the late 60s and early 70s – that is, the young men who were taken into state care in the 1950s – the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, the Filthy Few, and the bikie gangs became national boogeymen. Gangs exist where the state fails, and it was left to communities like Kawerau to pick up the pieces.

I grew up mostly with the sons and daughters of those people who took the second path, and we spent our childhoods in the ghost of Kawerau’s past. When we were growing up in the 1990s the Tasman mill’s workforce was cut in half, falling to fewer than 1,000 employees from a high of over 2,000. Roger Douglas’s callous decision to remove the government guarantee – import controls, industrial subsidies, and competition policy – meant the mills, with their well-paid workforce, were uncompetitive in international markets. Hundreds of hapū members were out of work. This was, in micro, what New Zealand was undergoing in macro. According to economist Brian Easton between 1989 e 1992 up to half of the New Zealand workforce went through a period of joblessness.

This was tough enough, breaking hundreds of families, but Ruth Richardson’s social reforms would break hundreds more still. Nel 1991 the National party finance minister made cruel cuts to the welfare state, removing the universal family benefit, slashing the unemployment and sickness benefits, and introducing a “user pays” system in hospitals and other public facilities. After the job cuts at Tasman, the Kawerau population went into decline and the men who were out of work – often Māori – found only the bones of a social support system. For those who were keen to retrain, they found an education system that they had to pay for out of their own pocket.

In the space of a decade Kawerau went from perhaps the country’s most prosperous town to its poorest. Small business owners shut up shop and in their place government departments would open. Work and Income in the mall and the probation office in the business centre. The major development I remember in 1990s was the new police station. Nel 1996 more people were employed in community and social work – 17% of the workforce – than the wholesale and retail sectors – 16%. From the 1950s to the 1980s the government’s role was to guarantee Kawerau’s prosperity. But from the 1990s onward its role was to supervise the town’s dysfunction.

Māori, including Māori in Kawerau, maintain good reasons for distrusting the Crown and its successive governments. These are, Dopotutto, the same governments who broke their promises to the world war generations and the Māori battalions. These are the same governments who broke their promises to the local hapū, throwing thousands out of work for reasons of national policy. These are, ovviamente, the same governments responsible for consistent Treaty of Waitangi breaches over the same decades too. With these histories in mind, Māori in Kawerau are probably rather sensible to interrogate the vaccine message.

This is hardly an excuse for wretched anti-vaxxers, whose idiocy endangers everyone. Every Māori who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated. Instead this is a challenge to the government. There are forces beyond ethnicity and access that are impeding the vaccine effort. History is. And to overcome that requires resourcing communities to deliver their own vaccination programs. In closed-off places like Kawerau or Murupara, only people the locals trust will be able to get the job done.

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