TOAuckland is in the middle of another Covid-19 lockdown. This is the second time that an outbreak has occurred in our part of the region: Manukau, in the south of the city. Its youth, Maori, ethnic and Pasifika population is generally much higher than the rest of the city. It is also the area with the highest level of socioeconomic deprivation.
The reaction of people across New Zealand to the closure announced on Saturday night was a mixture of frustration, anger, shock and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, the recriminations against the people of Manukau quickly inflamed social media and emboldened the hardliners to call for more punitive measures against violators of Covid rules.
I am the local Manukau councilor, and have been for the past four years: a second-generation Samoan, the son of a taxi driver who preaches on the street, and the daughter of a pastor, who was told by teachers that he would not be worth much. . My hometown of Otara is probably better known to Guardian readers for articles covering youth gangs and poverty than for stories about captains of industry or city councilors.
The real cause of the outbreaks in South Auckland is that our nation’s largest international airport is located here. That means most of our border workforce and managed isolation quarantine hotels are here too. New Zealand all but eliminated Covid-19 last year, but cases continue to pour in across our borders, prompting a series of small outbreaks.
Our government deserves a lot of credit for how we have contained these outbreaks. One of Jacinda Ardern’s great regulars is that we are a “team of five million” who have helped keep the virus at bay. But there are still obstacles to overcome to ensure that Covid-19 messages are received by diverse communities with clarity and full understanding. The bureaucracy needs to understand that relationships are key in our community.
You could argue that within the five million team, hard yards are being put up by a key group of players in my area. It is our people who work in the hotels, keeping them clean and safe for all our returning kiwis. It is our people in border related jobs, doing the logistical and airport work that ensures that our link with the outside world works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And it is the healthcare professionals in our region who are doing much of the monitoring and testing to see if Covid is working. Many of these jobs are poorly paid, menial, involve difficult shifts, and carry an additional layer of risk due to Covid.
Manukau is well known for its less than satisfactory healthcare infrastructure after years of underinvestment. Our main hospital is one of the busiest in the southern hemisphere, and the levels of diabetes, obesity, gout, and other noncommunicable diseases constitute a rather unique crisis in our region. Our medical services are stretched to the limit to treat all kinds of problems related to our population with chronic diseases.
All of these issues have created the perfect, unholy storm for our area, fueling stress and social issues like antisocial behavior, youth gangs, and domestic violence.
When the prime minister announced another week-long lockdown, my phone was flooded with messages requesting interviews and talking about what it would mean to our locals. Juggling the parenting duties of a one-year-old and eight-year-old with my wife, in our comfortable but small two-bedroom apartment, often means setting up Zoom calls in my daughters’ room. The way I see it, if I don’t say something, maybe no one will.
But working with the media also brings with it a fair amount of criticism. I received messages from people saying that the church should excommunicate me, calling me to repent, for supporting the launch of a vaccine. I have been called by all kinds of people wanting people to have a little more patience and grace for those who are fighting the virus. All of these criticisms reflect the frustration people feel at being taken away from their control and the new normal that many are still coming to terms with.
But speaking to many of my constituents, I remember our resilience. These are difficult times, but with the opportunity to breathe deeply, slow down our thinking, and stay connected with our whanau, family, and friends, we can exhibit a deep level of understanding and friendship that will help remedy our anxiety.
Regardless of what this new normal looks like in the future, we know from history that these great crises do subside. New Zealand is in a unique position, especially when we look at the pain and devastation facing many other nations due to the coronavirus. I hope that the example of patience, grace and determination of the people of Aotearoa will offer a ray of hope and light to those who look at our island on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Fa’anana Efeso Collins is a Samoan born in New Zealand and is a Manukau Councilor in South Auckland.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism