Māori are being vaccinated at a rate nearly half that of Pākehā and Asian New Zealanders despite expert recommendations they be prioritised and Government assurances it would happen.
A leading public health expert has called it a “crisis”, particularly with the looming threat of the more-infectious and deadly Delta Covid-19 variant sweeping the globe.
It comes as the latest vaccine data shows New Zealand’s stocks due to run close to zero next Tuesday before a new shipment of 150,000 Pfizer doses arrives.
Data analysis by the Herald cross-referencing Ministry of Health vaccine data with Stats NZ population data has found just 5.4 per cent of Māori have been fully vaccinated, compared to 9 per cent of European/Other, 9.3 per cent Asian ethnicity, and 7.3 per cent Pacific Peoples.
Modelling released on Wednesday found 83 per cent of New Zealanders would have to be vaccinated against less-transmissable virus strains for measures like lockdowns and 14-day quarantine to be no longer needed.
However, the modelling – which was yet to be peer reviewed – suggested 97 per cent would need both Pfizer jabs if the country was hit by a wave of a strain as transmissable as the Delta variant.
Initially the Government said the different rates were due to less Māori in frontline health jobs, who were the first to be prioritised, however the gap has not lessened despite being nearly five months into the rollout and nearly 1.2 million doses having been administered.
Due to differences in recording ethnicity between the departments – Stats NZ allows multiple ethnicities while the ministry records just one in order of priority with Māori first – the Māori percentages are likely to be the most accurate while the Pākehā percentage would likely be higher.
Overall, 41,947 Māori have been vaccinated, compared to 298,185 European/other.
In Auckland, which has been the centre of the country’s largest outbreaks and where majority of managed isolation centres are located, Māori rates are just slightly more than half those of Pākehā, taking into account population.
The rates are also significantly lower for Māori even in parts of the country with high Māori populations such as the Bay of Plenty and Tairāwhiti.
In the Bay of Plenty, Māori make up about 25 per cent of the population but just 12 per cent of those vaccinated. Those identifying as Pākehā are around 75 per cent of the population, yet over 80 per cent of those vaccinated.
In Tairāwhiti, where the population is close to 50 per cent Māori and 50 per cent Pākehā, Māori are 36 per cent of those vaccinated and Pākehā 58 per cent.
“It is hugely concerning,” said public health expert Dr Rawiri Jansen.
“When it starts inequitably and then you have the performance decline it is a crisis.
“None of our experts are saying we will not have another outbreak, and if we do it will be Delta.
“It will be catastrophic, and so vaccines are a really important part of protecting Māori and Pasifika, who due to social conditions and the historically racist health system are more likely to have those pre-existing conditions making them more vulnerable.”
Modelling on the initial Covid variant found Māori could be twice as likely to die from the virus, and were more likely to catch it.
Jansen quit the Government’s expert immunisation advisory group in April, saying he considered it an “overwhelming failure” on his part and the Government’s the vaccine rollout did not prioritise Māori below 65.
Cabinet was advised by the group to give higher vaccine priority to Māori and Pacific peoples aged 50-64, and to those in residential care, including the imprisoned, the homeless and the addicted.
But this was rejected, and Māori and Pacific peoples up to the age of 64 were instead part of the general rollout, while those aged 65 and over having the same priority as the others in that age group – even though they are much more likely to catch Covid-19 and have more severe outcomes.
Instead, Cabinet agreed to give 40,000 vaccine doses to Māori and Pacific health providers for group 2 for older Māori and Pasifika cared for by whānau – though Cabinet was advised to do this as well as prioritise those aged 50-64.
Jansen said the Government needed to start taking action.
“Rather than just asserting that it will be equitable or Treaty compliant it actually needs policy settings, programmes to deliver to our communities.”
Dr Chris Tooley, chief executive of Te Puna Ora o Mataatua in Whakatāne, said the low rates for Māori was not surprising.
“Vaccinations are being delivered from fixed sites that tend to mirror set up of current GP system where engagement by Māori has been historically low anyway.
“Once we go mobile and deliver out in community we will expect numbers to increase then.”
At Te Puna Ora o Mataatua they had taken a “local interpretation” of the Government’s guidelines and began vaccinating Māori at younger ages earlier than the general rollout.
Tooley said this had seen their area get higher levels of engagement.
Asked about the low Māori vaccination rates Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it was concerning.
Part of the discrepancy was due to over-representation of Pākehā in the healthcare system, with the 57,000 health workers on the frontline prioritised for the vaccine, he said.
Ten per cent of first vaccine doses have gone to Māori and 9 per cent of second doses over all, he said. That was below the population for Māori proportionately, Hipkins said.
“We do need to see those numbers increasing for Māori, and that will be our focus as we get to groups 3 and 4,” Hipkins said.
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