MĀORI VACCINATION RATES are plummeting. The percentage of 8-month-old Māori babies in Counties Manukau receiving their primary course of immunisation on time has fallen from 85 percent in May 2020 to 68 percent in May 2021. The data for Pasifika also shows a fall-off in timely immunisation. From 93 percent of babies receiving their primary course on time in October 2020, to 82 percent in May 2021. Those New Zealanders who do not fall into the Māori, Pasifika or Asian categories – presumably the Pakeha population – also registered a slight fall-off. From around 92 percent in 2020 to just under 90 percent in 2021. Only Asian New Zealanders immunised their children in numbers above the 95 percent target rate. Fully 98 percent of their 8-month-olds are receiving their jab on time.
These statistics are grim. Clearly, something important has happened over the course of the past 18 months to discourage Māori parents from immunising their children on time. The most obvious suspect is, of course, the Covid-19 Pandemic. Its disruptive effects tend to be concentrated among the poorest sections of any given population: African-Americans in the USA; peasants and slum-dwellers in India. After the elderly and the chronically-ill, it is the poorly-paid, the poorly-housed and the poorly-educated members of society that Covid-19 strikes down.
An evaluation of the immunisation services provided to the Counties Manukau DHB does not, however, blame Covid-19 for the sudden drop-off in the Māori vaccination rate. The failure to maintain the pre-Covid percentage is, instead, attributed to: “Cultural microaggressions, white privilege, stereotyping and prejudice.” The authors of this evaluation identified “a failing and culturally incompetent system” as the culprit. “Whānau were in a constant state of stress forced to engage in a system that is inherently racist. Implicit and explicit biases, as forms of racism, were present in both whānau and staff interviews.”
The NZ Herald (whose investigative efforts are responsible for bringing the report of the Counties Manukau DHB’s innovation and improvement centre, “Ko Awatea”, to the public’s attention) suggests that its authors are firmly of the view that the racism identified can only be remedied by setting up a framework for radical cultural change within the institution:
“This should aim to decolonise dominant discourse and biases … Understanding of the journey from historical trauma to the manifestation of Māori health status today is integral for staff to increase cultural competency and responsiveness.”
One can only assume that, in this instance, the “dominant discourse and biases” in need of decolonisation is medical science itself. The obvious implication being that the whole notion of “medical science” is a white supremacist construct which arrogantly denies the possibility of any other rational system for understanding and managing the health of human beings.
The scientific method does not, however, acknowledge a place for this kind of relativistic thinking. Quite correctly, scientists warn that if we say that vaccination is just one way among many of successfully controlling potentially fatal communicable diseases, then we are effectively giving anti-vaxxers carte blanche to spread their dangerous lies far and wide. Indeed, one could argue that it would be a particularly pernicious form of racism that pretended to acknowledge the efficacy of indigenous medicines while quietly ensuring that those who placed their trust in “White Medicine” enjoyed measurably better health outcomes than those who were encouraged to believe otherwise.
One might further speculate that the attribution of all Māori misfortunes to the effects of ‘colonisation’, up to and including the transmission of colonial-era trauma (presumably genetically) through successive generations of the colonised, is almost certain to foster a deep-seated mistrust of the colonialists’ descendants. That being the case, there is scant reason for any Māori accepting this explanation to trust a single word the Pakeha Plunket nurses/vaccinators, contracted by the Counties Manukau DHB to lift the level of Māori immunisation, might say.
If so, then the consequences can only have been made more serious by the contemporaneous global upsurge in anti-racist activism driven by the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd by a White American police officer in May 2020. These protests intensified dramatically the conviction (among Whites as well as Blacks) that the evils of White Supremacy were both universal and irreversible. The Day of Jubilee would only come when People of Colour took their futures into their own hands. As that unfolds, they advised, the best thing Whites can do is shut up and get out of their way.
Though essentially unrelated to the anti-racist upsurge, the rapid spread of outlandish conspiracy theories which accompanied the intensification of the global Covid-19 Pandemic contributed hugely to a growing loss of faith in all forms of authority. Not only scientists were challenged, but so, too, were mainstream politicians and journalists. Social-media-generated conspiracies filled the vacuum which this widespread rejection of “the system” had created – especially among those who felt excluded from the good life so many others seemed to enjoy.
Overlay these deep-seated feelings of social inferiority and rejection with ethnicity, and you have the makings of a perfect storm.
That the very health-sector groups most likely to benefit from the Labour Government’s radical plans to restructure the New Zealand health service, might seize upon this opportunity to offer up yet more evidence of the urgent need to create a health service run by Māori, for Māori, within an aggressively decolonised co-governance structure, is hardly surprising.
Most of all, it was important for the decolonisers to keep at bay the most obvious socio-economic explanations for the sudden drop-off in Māori vaccinations. Any notion that the failure to vaccinate their kids on time might have less to do with the fact that they were brown, and a lot more to do with the fact that they were poor, had to be excluded from the explanatory framework.
Certainly, the contribution of Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, would not have been welcomed by the ‘It’s All the Fault of Colonisation’ brigade. In this respect, the final paragraph of Nicholas Jones’ Herald article is the clincher:
“There were many factors behind the drop off, Turner said, including badly stretched health services, the need for more cultural sensitivity, and increasing poverty and stress on families, who move more because of the housing crisis.”
Tragically, the interests tied up in the transformation of the New Zealand health system have little incentive to alienate the economic elites with whom they are, for the moment, collaborating. Māori-Pakeha co-governance may be possible under Capitalism, but the elimination of social and economic injustice is not. The system change we need is not the one foreshadowed in He Puapua.
It was the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, who said it best:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Like plummeting Maori vaccination rates.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 July 2021.