Kahu Phillips guards Rāpaki Pā in the South Island. Nicholas Agar writes that the thinking of Māori is more collectivist - beneficial in a situation like Covid-19. Photo: Supplied

A mission for universities in the coming decade will be a deep understanding of the meaning of the coronavirus pandemic for Aotearoa New Zealand. This is essential as we move into a future shaped by new technologies and likely shaken by new nasty surprises.

Here’s a question. How should we explain our success against the pandemic? Clearly, there are a few factors. The virus arrived comparatively late, meaning we could learn from other nations’ successes and messes; we had inspirational and scientifically-informed leaders; we are an affluent island-based nation with a comparatively small population.

I offer as a conjecture that our success can be partly traced back to our defining Treaty of Waitangi relationship and the way it brings together two peoples with different ideas about the world and how to inhabit it.

Some Americans are seeking deeper explanations for the train wreck that is their response to Covid-19.

When Anthony Fauci, recently announced as chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, reflected on the angry response of many Americans to the very idea of a mask mandate, he pointed to deeper cultural facts. He offered the careful understatement that the “independent spirit in the United States of people not wanting to comply with public health measures has certainly hurt us a bit”. The individualism celebrated in so many of America’s national myths, stories about strong men who defy the rest and build Standard Oil or Microsoft Corporation, is an obstacle to a successful response to a pandemic.

We can view the proliferation of Covid conspiracy theories as a flailing way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of refusing to wear masks – a proven response to the virus – after more than 400,000 deaths. If Covid-19 really is just a government-perpetrated hoax, that makes perfect sense of rejecting both masks and vaccines.

Kiwis avoided this path. But we also avoided the path taken by another Covid success story, which admittedly faced a much bigger challenge. Scientific consensus points to China as the origin of the virus. A series of seemingly extreme measures – the welding shut of doors, the erection of barricades and strict surveillance by police and army enabled China to control Covid-19. The number of deaths that densely-populated China might have suffered had they opted for the individualistic “don’t tread on me!” attitude of many Americans doesn’t bear thinking about.

We chose neither the welded-shut apartment doors of Wuhan nor Florida’s unmasked Trump rallies. I propose that a deeper explanation for the Kiwi Covid success story may lie in our founding document.

The Treaty brought together two peoples with different ideas about how to live both as individuals and together. My ancestors brought some largely individualistic ideas when they boarded a colony ship in England. I look at the chaos of the British response to the pandemic and wonder if this might have been my experience had these ancestors hesitated to board that rickety ship and instead settled in Plymouth, the town from which they set sail in the 1850s.

The thinking of Māori is more collectivist. This doesn’t mean Māori would have responded well had police followed the Wuhan plan and welded shut the doors of people diagnosed with coronavirus. But the notion that individuals might be expected to make sacrifices for whānau and iwi is something Māori find familiar. When a Māori person cites their whakapapa, they look beyond themselves and to historical relationships that strongly connect them with others. The suggestion they might accept a vaccination to benefit others is less likely to elicit an indignant “don’t tread on me!”. A selfish refusal to help in a time of crisis might prompt the baleful stare of Kaumātua and Kuia.

These ideas aren’t my direct cultural inheritance. But the social proximity of Māori and Pākehā allows ethical ideas to rub off. This exchange of ideas happened both ways. As a Pākehā in New Zealand, I’m familiar with talk about the importance of whakapapa in a way my British ancestors couldn’t have been. Some formerly alien ethical ideas become easier to entertain.

Will this conjecture crediting Māori ideas with New Zealand’s successes against the coronavirus pan out? That is up for debate among academics and other interested parties. But I think it would be excellent if we arrived at an understanding that gave credit to them.

We rightly celebrate the contributions of the Māori battalion in an earlier time’s defining crisis. The sacrifices of Māori in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy are central elements our World War II national myth. When we construct our national myth of how we as a nation confronted the pandemic, we would celebrate not Māori sacrifices in war, but instead Māori ideas that enabled us to make it through without tens of thousands of deaths and without welding doors shut.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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