Samoa and its Covid-19 response have taken a surprisingly large role in New Zealand’s election debates. But while many jokes have been made, there is serious history driving the decisions taken by the Pacific country, as Sam Sachdeva writes

It was the line that launched a thousand jokes: “Actually, don’t disrespect Samoa.”

National leader Judith Collins directed her barb towards Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during The Press leaders’ debate last week, as the latter disputed the former’s allegation that Samoa had gone “hard and early” a month before New Zealand in its Covid-19 response.

Collins’ comment was a watered-down version of her earlier, inaccurate claim during Newshub’s debate that Samoa had closed its borders a month before us (it in fact did so a day after New Zealand).

The “disrespect” line amused the Christchurch crowd, as much for its strange intensity as anything else, and while the National leader doubled down the next day, many of her critics had a field day.

Jokes abounded on Twitter, and in the real world: welcoming the crowd as the MC for Labour’s campaign rally on Sunday, Samoan-New Zealand actor and writer Oscar Kightley said “Talofa,” leaving a pregnant pause before adding: “I’m Samoan, I can say that.”

But beneath the laughs, how does New Zealand’s Samoan community feel about their homeland playing such an outsized role in the election campaign?

“We tend to listen to a lot of our community leaders, whether they are politicians or sports people … over a decade ago, the John Key-led government, a lot of us did take on board what former rugby players and greats said to kind of push out around National.”

Aaryn Niuapu, an independent commentator for Māori and Pasifika communities and former spokesperson of Racial Equity Aotearoa, told Newsroom he didn’t share Collins’ sense of offence.

“I didn’t find that [debate] dynamic disrespectful, and I know a lot of my ‘aiga [family] and a lot of my community didn’t find it disrespectful either.”

More concerning, Niuapu said, was how Pasifika communities were sometimes used for political capital, such as Collins mentioning the ethnicity of her Samoan husband David Wong-Tung to “get a leg up” as he put it.

But if Collins was trying to win votes for her party, it was with a demographic that has not shown a predisposition towards supporting National.

According to a 2017 research paper using Colmar Brunton polling data, Pasifika voters were 6.6 times more likely to intend to vote for Labour than National heading into the 2014 election.

That was not to say the Samoan community had been unwavering in its support, Niuapu said.

“We tend to listen to a lot of our community leaders, whether they are politicians or sports people … over a decade ago, the John Key-led government, a lot of us did take on board what former rugby players and greats said to kind of push out around National.”

But this election, there was not as much traction for Collins and National, with support largely staying behind Labour and some movement on the fringes towards minor parties like the New Conservatives, whose values-driven messages resonated with some religious members of the Samoan community.

Samoan actor and writer Oscar Kightley says Samoa’s history with previous pandemics and disease outbreaks has guided its strong response to Covid-19. Photo: Getty Images.

But while Collins may not find much favour with Samoan voters, Niuapu said they do have a sense of pride about Samoa’s Covid-19 response.

The Pacific country is one of just 10 across the world with zero confirmed cases of the virus and recently extended its state of emergency, while Samoan Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi reportedly considered tightening already-stringent quarantine and social distancing requirements.

Speaking to Newsroom, Kightley described Samoa as “probably more hardcore than anyone” in the actions it had taken to combat the pandemic, in large part due to its history with deadly disease.

Just last year, a measles outbreak in the country killed 83 people, the overwhelming majority of them children, after an infected passenger from New Zealand brought the virus with them.

But further back in history is an even darker tale.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the New Zealand passenger and cargo ship SS Talune was allowed into what was then known as Western Samoa, after New Zealand administrators controlling the territory allowed sick passengers to disembark without quarantine.

More than a fifth of the country’s population died in the weeks that followed, with Kightley saying the death toll was “deeply imprinted in our DNA”.

“We view these things, I reckon, in a different context: when you think that took out a fifth of the population, how many people, how many future generations is that that aren’t here? …

“When you land at Faleolo Airport and you’re driving to Apia, you pass mass graves that – you don’t even know it’s there but there’s a very real and concrete reminder of the kind of devastation that’s possible.”

‘Never waste a good crisis’

Given that history, Samoa’s strong response is easily understandable.

But while there is pride and relief among the Samoan diaspora that the country has not been hit by Covid-19, there is also a sense that there are more pressing issues for the community here that Kiwi politicians could be discussing instead.

Niuapu said he was eager for New Zealand to have greater engagement with Samoa around the idea of a travel bubble, similar to discussions with Australia and the Cook Islands, “just honouring our families’ connections with our families back in the islands”.

Kightley agreed, saying many Samoans in New Zealand were hanging out to go home and visit their family, particularly with Christmas coming up – but he noted last year’s measles epidemic could lead to a more cautious approach from Samoan authorities.

“We saw what measles did: you know, one case of measles that arrived from outside of the country and [it took] 83 lives, mostly children.”

He also wanted politicians to focus more closely on the health and economic inequalities faced by the Pasifika community in New Zealand, while Niuapu said many Samoans were deeply interested in improving the country’s housing stock.

“Even before Covid-19, we still had families, huge families, living out of garages and what-not, and even our family, we were living in an overcrowded house.”

While it is good to talk about what Samoa is doing well, it is also important to talk about how the lives of Samoans here could be improved. As Kightley puts it: “What do they say, never waste a good crisis?”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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