An iwi collective whose mobile Covid-19 caravans are vaccinating street by street in hard-to-reach communities says the government has a lot to answer for.
The Ranga Tupua collective of iwi in Whanganui, Rangitīkei, Ruapehu and South Taranaki is working under pressure, sending out its four new mobile clinics at least five days a week in an effort to boost vaccination numbers before Whanganui, Rangitīkei and Ruapehu move from red to orange under the traffic light framework at 11.59pm tomorrow (December 30).
Te Ranga Tupua Rapid Response Operations co-lead Elijah Pue says he agrees with Waitangi Tribunal criticism of the government's Covid-19 response for Māori. He says the country is transitioning too quickly between alert levels without properly considering Māori vaccination rates.
"I think the government's got a lot to answer for. You look at places like Raetihi where vaccination numbers are the lowest in the country. Had the government poured in more resource and given more consideration to areas like this where you've got high deprivation, a high Māori-Pasifika population, before you change from alert level to alert level.... I almost feel like we're being abandoned, left behind.
"I feel the same way about the change from red to orange. You know: 'We're going to change to orange, kia kaha, keep up!' It's really disappointing."
Pue said Māori health providers, whānau ora partners, and individuals like Te Whānau o Waipareira chief executive John Tamihere, who had challenged the government for Māori vaccination data to use in targeted efforts, were picking up the slack.
Taranaki has been at orange since the traffic light system was launched on December 3 but has been dealing with two significant community infection clusters, including in the South Taranaki town of Eltham. A single case in Whanganui and five cases in Taumarunui have recently recovered. The Whanganui DHB region, which includes most of Rangitīkei and the Ruapehu regions, remains among the least vaccinated areas in New Zealand.
Pue said the iwi collective's mobile units were working full tilt. Apart from statutory holidays over Christmas and New Year, they were continuing to vaccinate with urgency, including outside of business hours and at weekends.
"We haven't got much time left until we go into orange and infections start to rise," Pue said. "Time is ticking and we need to get vaccinated.
"In small communities like Raetihi, the only social service provider here is Ngāti Rangi. There's no one else … so just a little bit of consideration for our workforce and the pressures that we are under. To expect one organisation to just get on with it … we can do it, but there's never any consideration for actually what's happening on the ground.
"The real challenge for all of us, in government and even for the tribes and Te Ranga Tupua, is to understand what are the real issues that our people are facing on the ground and how can we address them?"
Pue said the mobile units are delivering steady numbers of vaccinations and would continue to target the lowest-vaccinated areas over the holiday period.
"We're all following the same approach: we're targeting the low-vaccination mesh blocks, the hard-to-reach areas. We're partnering with different organisations like [the iwi] Tūpoho in Whanganui, who can really inform and support us to get to those hard-to-reach families that might want the vaccine but might not necessarily have good access to it – for example, might not be able to get to a clinic."
The mobile units are based out of Whanganui, Marton and Ohakune and are working in with community initiatives. In Whanganui last week, a drive-in clinic and movie night for rangatahi drew scores of young people and families.
The Waimarino unit had been delivering mostly first doses, Pue said.
"We're outside the fish and chip shop in Raetihi – Thursday and Friday are their busiest nights, so they're also our busiest nights. We parked out there for three days [last] week. You've got a gift shop collective on the left, the fish and chip shop on the right and across the road you've got the dairy.
"People are going there to get their groceries, their milk and bread and their fish and chips so naturally they're going to see us there. They're going to see our own people and they're going to say I'll go and have a kōrero or I'll go and get my vaccine.
"We're doing an average of between 30 and 40 vaccinations a day. On the big scheme of things that is probably relatively low, but in Raetihi, for example, those numbers are really good and the majority of them are first-timers.
"We're getting people who we didn't think we'd ever see coming to get their vaccinations. Some of that's to do with work and mandates, others wanted to take their time to understand what this means for them. We're really happy to see everyone coming through.
"In Ohakune, we're seeing a lot of tourists and visitors. Our message from Te Ranga Tupua and the tribes is that if you are coming then please do so responsibly. If you want to get your vaccination or your booster, come along and see us."