The identification of the family at the centre of the latest Covid-19 outbreak as Pasifika served no health purpose and caused hurt and anguish in the community, writes Kim Meredith
True story: I was a journalism student at Manukau Polytechnic in Auckland. It was 1988, possibly winter, and I was much younger than I am now. Don Milne, the deputy editor of the New Zealand Herald at the time, was the guest lecturer and we were discussing a Herald front page with the headline – ‘Islanders Flood into New Zealand’ or something close to that. This stemmed from the controversy around the citizenship status of Samoans under New Zealand administration before Samoa finally gained independence in 1962.
Although the Privy Council ruled that Samoans born between 1924 and 1948 (and their descendants) were New Zealand citizens, the idea of naturalising some 100,000 Samoans was unappealing to the New Zealand government. The hastily drawn up 1982 Act resulted in only Samoans already in New Zealand from September 14, 1982 onwards being eligible to apply for citizenship. President Trump would only drool over such draconian immigration measures.
I asked Milne what seemed to me an obvious question… why had the Herald taken an angle that inadvertently accused Samoan arrivals of being opportunists over a New Zealand law specifically designed to dishonour New Zealand’s obligations to Samoa? To his credit, Milne expressed surprise at not having considered the article’s bias and how the situation had been reframed to paint New Zealand as the wronged party. That headline dehumanised Samoans and unfairly played into a colonial narrative.
So now we come to the identification as Pasifika of the family at the centre of the most recent Covid19 outbreak from South Auckland. What’s the connection to a headline from more than three decades ago?
Last week across social media, Pasifika people around the country expressed hurt and bewilderment over the ethnicity revelation; a perceived tut-tutting and finger wagging from all over New Zealand. One such example; “… your identifying the family as Pasifika has stigmatised them and the South. You don’t speak for an entire community.” Worse, an onslaught of harmful untruths and offensive comments were unleashed against the family. Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s numerous statements last week served to remind everyone that the real enemy is Covid-19, not infected people. With the volume of traffic circulating on social media blaming this family for getting infected, many including myself have asked, why did media make the decision to reveal ethnicity?
We heard from TVNZ journalist Barbara Dreaver that revealing ethnicity was done specifically to help Pasifika people themselves. Yet the Government’s data on Covid-19 from the first outbreak show infection rates running at much higher levels for the categories ‘Asian’ and ‘European/other’ than for ‘Pacific’ and ‘Māori’. It would be easy to grab data and perhaps make sweeping generalisations about risks and behaviour within hugely diverse populations. But what would that achieve? We don’t want to stereotype or condescend, because we’re a team of five million, right? Dr Bloomfield said Pasifika and Māori have continued with high testing rates during this second outbreak, readily coming forward and, as of last week, Pasifika had the highest rates of testing in the country. “Nothing in the description of this outbreak suggests there’s anything about this community that is a problem and in fact they have been incredibly cooperative and supportive, and we should be thanking and supporting them.”
The decision to identify ethnicity was supposedly justified as being needed to protect and help Pasifika people, including the index family. The very same family who took all the right steps and did everything required of them. They considered the status of their health (not good), they reconciled that with Covid-19 symptoms, they then took the initiative to get tested, which required them leaving the house and travelling to get swabbed. They managed this all by themselves!
However, TVNZ chose to reveal their ethnicity and informed the public that disclosing this was crucial, life-saving information, despite the ethnicity of all other Covid 19 cases kept confidential. I’m not even going to get into whether it is the role of the media to determine what is life-saving information, I’ll save that for another time. What I will say is there has been widespread hurt felt within Pasifika communities, not just in South Auckland but from across the country.
For example: For Anastasia Tuatama, of Weymouth, who manages a not-for-profit youth development agency in South Auckland. When we talk on the phone, she’s relaying the whakamā (shame) and anger from her team and the many organisations and individuals that they reached out to across the region. Tuatama says there’s a collective feeling of posing a threat to the rest of New Zealand. As with Monica Deakin of Three Kings who works for one of the District Health Boards. She recalls the physical reaction of the revelation, immediately phoning her vast network of family members, finding all equally shaken and upset. Deakin said the many nasty and hateful comments targeted toward the family have shown cracks in the team of five million.
It’s worth remembering that for every close contact of the index family, the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) is hunting them down with all the tenacity of a bloodhound. Meaning almost every person who needed to be informed, and we can add in this situation almost every Pasifika person, has been contacted and informed resulting in isolation and testing, if necessary. The Ministry of Health, through Dr Bloomfield’s messaging, has stressed that only people displaying Covid19 symptoms front-up to testing stations or to local GPs in order to prioritise testing and not overwhelm the system.
Therefore, the pretext of the ethnicity disclosure as a health message to support Pasifika communities simply doesn’t add up.The naming of ethnicity is a paternalistic reinforcement of the colonial narrative, reinforcing prejudice. I doubt that was the intention behind the decision.
I can still picture Don Milne’s face on that sunny morning all those years ago, his expression of surprise at the hurt I was expressing. I relayed this story to a friend, and he asked if anything had changed, did the newspaper write a retraction? If only it was that easy, given there are decades of colonial narratives that need to be unwritten for Pasifika and Māori to be no longer dehumanised. It was important to write this, as a message for agents of media, to create awareness to treat Pasifika people with dignity and respect, just as they have with every other Covid-19 case in New Zealand.