New Zealand’s lockdowns have been a disaster for some. As they lift, another threat looms.

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – On Saturday, New Zealand reported the highest number of new coronavirus cases in a single day: 160.

The South Pacific island nation was virtually free of the virus for most of the pandemic, getting rid of it through a combination of border restrictions, quarantine requirements, testing, contact tracing, and extended lockdowns. In August, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a nationwide lockdown following the discovery of a single case, the first in six months.

More than two months later, the lockdown continues in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, but the outbreak triggered by the more contagious Delta variant of the virus has grown to more than 3,000 cases.

With little hope of returning to zero-covid, New Zealand is now moving away from its policies and following other Asia-Pacific countries such as Australia and Singapore as they try to find a way to live with the virus after they do so long largely escaped.

The lockdown measures are expected to end as soon as 90 percent of people aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated, which is expected by the end of next month. But if restrictions are relaxed, the number of cases is expected to rise, and critics say New Zealand minorities, including the indigenous Maori people, will pay a higher price.

Compared to New Zealanders as a whole, Maori have higher rates of poverty, less access to health care, and are more likely to live in larger households where the virus can spread more easily.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will receive her first Pfizer Covid vaccine in Auckland in June 2021. Alex Burton / AP file

“We are on the verge of seeing many Maori die,” said Joe Trinder, an activist for indigenous peoples’ rights.

New Zealand’s lack of cases has kept the Covid-19 death toll among the lowest in the world at 28. But government models suggest that the number of cases in the greater Auckland area could reach 5,300 a week by next year, almost as many as New Zealand has seen since the pandemic began.

That has raised concerns among Maori and Pacific Islanders, another minority group, both concentrated in Auckland. The two groups make up about a quarter of New Zealand’s population, however three quarters of the cases and hospital stays in the current outbreak. you also have lower vaccination rates, with just over half of eligible Maori fully vaccinated, compared to over 73 percent of the total population.

“There will be a lot of tangi,” said Trinder, using the Maori word for funerals.

Health workers and a Maori overseer at a Covid testing site in Christchurch, New Zealand. Adam Bradley / SIPA USA via AP

Dr. Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, blamed social inequalities for the recent expansion of the Delta among Maori and Pacific islanders.

“Many lived in precarious living conditions,” he said, “in some cases with mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction. Tracing contacts in these populations proved very difficult and the infections continued to spread despite tremendous efforts to control the outbreak. “

Government medical advisors have argued that high vaccination rates will limit the number and severity of virus cases as more New Zealanders are exposed to the disease, and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed like the United States.

“Ninety to 95 percent of people who get Covid-19 will have a mild viral illness that doesn’t require treatment but usually requires home monitoring,” said a consultant, Dr. Jeff Lowe, this month.

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Sally Dalhousie, Chief Operating Officer of The Fono, an affordable healthcare provider in Auckland, said such a plan weighs on the community.

“It works when you have a small family and a decently sized home,” she said. “When you have a lot of people in a small house, that’s just not a viable solution.”

Critics say New Zealand’s lockdowns have been disastrous for low-income households in other ways as well. Even before the outbreak in August Estimates Auckland-based Child Poverty Action Group suggested that 18,000 more children were pushed into poverty as a result of the first lockdown last year. Maori and Pacific Islanders carried the brunt of this wave, the group said.

Officials said last week that more low-income households are eligible for weekly cash grants.

They also announced tens of millions in spending to increase the Maori vaccination rate, which got a big boost this month with a “Super Saturday” mass vaccination campaign for all New Zealanders this month. However, efforts have been hampered by the spread of vaccine misinformation among Maori and Pacific islanders, who, according to Trinder, have high levels of suspicion of the government due to their experiences of injustice and oppression.

Candice Luke of Pataka Kai, a national pantry program, said she was reluctant to tell her Maori colleagues that she had been vaccinated “until someone taller than me got it”.

“When you are part of a larger community, like a church group or a cultural group, and you have made a collective decision not to vaccinate, it is very difficult to go against the tide because this is your support system, this is yours Family. “Said Luke, who lives in Auckland.

A volunteer at a vaccination campaign last month in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Experts say efforts to vaccinate Maori against Covid-19 have been most successful when led by respected members of the community. In Te Whanau a Apanui, a Maori community on the North Island, more than 70 percent of residents were fully vaccinated before the outbreak in August, said Dr. Rachel Thomson, general practitioner at the local health clinic.

Thomson said the clinic worked with the community, including the local tribal council, to vaccinate selected members of each of the 13 Hapu or sub-tribes, who then relay the message to others.

If Maori nationwide had “been empowered to do their own early service,” she said, “we would be in a better position.”

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