Security guard Sam Brown guides a constant stream of cars past rows and rows of orange cones to a makeshift Covid-19 test station in the middle of the parking lot.It’s a long wait of four hours, but he has found that if he breaks this news to the locals with a smile, they are happy to wait.
“People say ‘Oh man, it’s been a long time’ and then they walk by and wait anyway,” Brown says.
“In Polynesian culture, especially with the church, you learn to learn to wait.”
Auckland, particularly the south of New Zealand’s largest city, is home to the world’s largest Polynesian population. Last week it became the epicenter of New Zealand’s latest Covid-19 outbreak.
Carry the load, carry the stigma
The first wave of the virus in New Zealand, which was reportedly eradicated on June 8, was generally associated with Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans) returning from overseas travel. But the most recent cluster has hit closer to home.
Of the 58 new cases linked to public transmission, the community of Pasifika suffered the brunt of the blow, accounting for 74% of active cases. Maori also behaved poorly, accounting for 16% of cases.
Pasifika’s health leaders – already grappling with high rates of poverty and historically poor health outcomes – fear the epidemic could constitute a dangerous cocktail.
“It has nothing to do with the virus, it is the socio-economic conditions,” Dr Colin Tukuitonga, chief executive of the Pacific Community, told The Guardian. “It is these factors that cause the virus to disproportionately affect Pacific Islanders.”
The disproportionate impacts are evident in the statistics. Te Pūnaha Matatini’s modeling projects that the death rate from infection for Pasifika people will be more than double that of Pākehā.
“It is clear that Covid is at high risk of having a devastating impact on our population, which is why it is even more important that we eliminate it now,” said Dr Maryann Heather, general practitioner at the South Clinic Seas in Ōtara.
On August 12, Auckland went to Alert Level Three, restricting movement through the city and ordering its resident to maintain a tight domestic “bubble”. However, health officials are seriously concerned that many households in South Auckland may not be able to insulate effectively.
Without specifically naming the Pasifika community, New Zealand’s Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield last week mandated a government-run quarantine – rather than home isolation – for all active cases in the current cluster, claiming that household cross-infection was to blame for continued transmission.
Data from New Zealand’s Environmental Health Indicators shows that 48.5% of Pasifika households in South Auckland are overcrowded, meaning at least one extra bedroom is needed.
According to Heather, job losses and additional financial pressures from Covid-19 are causing these typically multigenerational homes to become even more overcrowded, as families look for ways to cut bills.
“Most of our Pacific families live in huge homes, and right now a lot of those homes accommodate over 20 people,” Heather said.
“Even before the last lockdown, even before Covid, it was a big problem causing very big problems with infectious diseases.”
Pacific Islanders have long struggled with systemic racism and entrenched inequalities in New Zealand’s healthcare system.
Last year, the country experienced a major measles epidemic that wreaked havoc on Pasifika communities, before being transported to Samoa, where it left 83 people dead.
Situations like this do little to gain the trust of those most affected by this latest viral outbreak, Tukuitonga said.
“It’s very difficult in our communities. There is often mistrust of public servants.
To reassure the community, places of worship like the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in Auckland’s Māngere East have set up their own pop-up testing stations to serve church members.
“We learned a lot from the last lockdown, and I think this time around we’re a lot more prepared for what we need to do to get the services up and running,” Heather said.
For Sam Wook, who steals a lunch break time between shifts at a local warehouse, he knows intergenerational education will be key to maintaining government lockdown orders, especially with seniors.
“I spoke with my parents and they know that when we come to drop something off, we just wait on the lawn and don’t go inside,” Uoka says.
“It’s difficult, especially with the preparations mom makes on Sundays.
The combined efforts appear to be working, as Pacific Islanders lead all ethnic groups in screening rates.
If that’s bad news, blame South Auckland
As South Auckland bears witness to New Zealand’s rich ethnic diversity, there have been a series of insidious and baseless rumors on social media about the first family identified as contracting the virus on July 31.
Racism and vitriol have complicated health messages and made it harder for community leaders.
“We’ve seen a lot of misinformation over the last few days and people aren’t that nice on social media, so I’m very focused on making sure we’re giving out the correct information,” Heather said.
This is nothing new for Uoka, who has seen years of negative rhetoric tarnish the South Auckland region.
“For me, I got used to it, ae,” Uoka said.
“All negative publicity is ‘South Auckland’, something good is coming and it’s just ‘Auckland’.”
Regardless of the rumors circulating on social media, Heather is convinced that the spirit of community and altruism she feels so strongly about the Pasifika community will help them triumph over the virus.
“It doesn’t matter which island we are from, we have this bond that we share and I think a lot of it depends on our faith. We will always try to take care of each other and take care of each other.