Why forcing Covid-19 vaccines on Māori could turn people away altogether

The New Zealand government is under pressure to improve its engagement with Māori communities as the nationwide rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine gets underway.

The government has just bought enough of the Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate the entire adult population, but research shows about one in three people remain sceptical or hesitant about Covid-19 vaccines. The health ministry reports that there is even more scepticism about its safety among Māori communities.

This is particularly concerning given Māori overall have the worst health outcomes in the country, and recent data shows they are at a much higher risk of being hospitalised with the coronavirus than non-Māori.

There is an urgent need to get people on board with the vaccination rollout to increase its effectiveness – so it was a surprise last week when Māori party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said he would not tell Māori communities that they must get the vaccine.

“Because that’s what mana motuhake is all about, mana motuhake is about everybody being able to freely make that choice,” Waititi told Radio 뉴질랜드. “We’re not going to make it mandatory and I would be against that.”

Waititi’s comments did not sit well with a lot of people, including Māori ministers such as Peeni Henare, who challenged Waititi’s interpretation of mana motuhake.

Mana motuhake manifests itself in many ways for individual hapūiwi,” Henare told media. “For my whānau [가족] 예를 들면, mana motuhake is about protecting our whānauI think in the main part [Waititi’s] comments are unhelpful.”

But whilst Waititi’s comments may not align with the government’s approach, his views of mana motuhake are not wrong. At the heart of it, mana motuhake is about the right to choose for yourself what is right for you and your whānau or family. It is an expression of Māori self-determination and speaks to the value that our people place on having autonomy.

It is something Māori hold in high regard after our disempowering experience of colonisation, which stripped us of our decision-making powers.

What we are seeing with the coronavirus rollout is what happens when a group of people have suffered intergenerational harm through colonisation and continue to have negative experiences with authority. A lot of Māori people do not trust authority and will not follow suit blindly.

The numbers show that anti-vaccination sentiment is not driven by Maōri alone (a survey by Ipsos earlier this month found that only 51% of New Zealanders intended to get the jab). Nor is it a “Māori problem” – but it is important to note that there is a unique and deep-seated context for Māori that will need a considered approach.

People are worried about the safety of the vaccine, given it moved through clinical trials so quickly, as well as the potential side-effects.

But for many Māori, that is coupled with a distrust of the health system – which makes sense. Māori still die seven years earlier than non-Maōri and continue to receive poorer treatment and outcomes across the board.

This tension has put a lot of Māori and iwi leadership in a precarious position. They are one of the most trusted sources of information for our people – if they try to shove the vaccine down people’s throats, they could turn them away altogether.

All you need to do is look at an iwi Facebook page to see the furore that erupts at the mention of the vaccine in Aotearoa. People think eating vegetables will protect you from Covid. The distrust is palpable.

The rise in Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the rampant spread of misinformation is not helping. And the fact that New Zealand has not felt the full force of Covid-19 is also making people feel safer than they should.

The health ministry’s lack of effort is not helping either. The messaging available does not instil a huge amount of confidence in the vaccine. We do not know if it will stop people from spreading the virus. We do not say for sure that it is safe.

While I support the vaccine and will be getting it, the ministry’s messaging is not landing with many. Young people and Māori have already criticised it for being out-of-touch. There are complaints that the ministry has not developed a targeted communications plan for Māori.

Iwi communications specialists are scrambling for support and resources that do not exist yet and even worse, they are having to fight for a seat at the table to help design solutions for their communities.

A week ago, the ministry announced $39m towards developing a Māori Covid vaccination strategy that includes funding for communications. This is a positive move, but it has come late in the mix.

Taking the vaccine is a personal choice. We need to work with that and at the very least ensure that our people can make informed decisions with all the information at hand. Only then can we have true mana motuhake.

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