Māori and other vulnerable children must be prioritised in today’s strategy to roll out the Covid vaccine to children, says paediatrician Dr Danny de Lore

Analysis: Delta was an elbow in the ministerial ribs. Omicron is a poke in the eye. The emergence of the more transmissible variants has shocked the Government into motion on its previously slow vaccine rollout.

Today’s urgent Waitangi Tribunal Report is a rude slap in the face. It will be front of mind as Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announces the acceleration of the vaccine booster rollout today.

For a Labour Government that prides itself on having more Māori MPs than the other parties combined; for a Cabinet that was repeatedly advised by health advisors and Māori leaders of the need to better target Māori, the Tribunal report highlights an embarrassing and indeed dangerous failure. 

Dangerous, because as each new variant spreads (and there are already 22 cases of Omicron peering over the wire fences of our MIQ hotels into the community) those communities with low vaccination rates are ever more exposed. Dangerous, too, because the delays have created a vacuum that has been filled by misinformation from conservative evangelical leader Brian Tamaki and others. And dangerous, because Māori have faced a racist backlash from some who blame a slow return to any normalcy on their low vaccination rates.

The Prime Minister had cited the risk of such a backlash as grounds for not setting more ambitious targets for Māori. That’s a cop-out. “Given there was a clear public health rationale for the prioritisation of Māori in the vaccine roll-out, fear of a racist backlash against Māori is not a good enough justification for failing to take all reasonable measures to ensure equity,” the report says.

Moreover, the delays in getting the vaccine into Māori communities, while the Government first targeted older (European and Asian) people had created space for anti-vaccine fake news to flourish.

“Definitely, we should target children are most at risk, and that includes Māori children – they should be prioritised.”
– Dr Danny de Lore, paediatrician

Hipkins will this afternoon announce a speedier booster rollout. Professor Michael Baker and others are suggesting it should be available as early as four months after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine – that’s two months earlier than at present. The minister is also due to detail the vaccine rollout for 5-11 year olds.

A Māori boy under the age of 10 , who had tested positive for the virus, died last week – the youngest New Zealander to die with Covid, the Ministry of Health has confirmed. It is unclear whether Covid-19 was the cause of the boy’s death, but certainly had the virus.

Dr Danny de Lore, a Ngāti Tuwharetoa paediatrician based at Rotorua Hospital, has advised on the rollout for children, and is at the announcement.

“The number one thing is, we think tamariki Māori have a right to the protection that the vaccine provides,” he says, “because without it they are likely to bear a heavier burden than other children. And we think they’ve got a right to participate in the protection of the whole community, which is what vaccination does as well.”

“The critical thing is that it is available to them, and that parents and caregivers who are deciding about it have access to reliable information, so that void get filled with good information.”

“We think that the children who are at higher risk of being more severely affected by Covid-19 should have prioritisation.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean vaccines available to them first, but it means where resources are deployed and where money is spent. So that might be, for example, a communication campaign and who we’re going to target. So definitely, we should target children are most at risk, and that includes Māori children – they should be prioritised.”

This time round, with no need to ration Pfizer supplies, there will be no targeting of the elderly at the expense of younger and more exposed Māori communities. But that’s not enough – the Govt must make up the ground it has lost; even after today’s Tribunal report, there is still no indication it will target Māori.

How should the Government avoid repeating the mistakes it made in the initial vaccine rollout? Clearly, for both Māori and Pacific peoples, handing responsibility for delivery to their own hauora and community groups has significantly improved the uptake. That should continue – for instance, by inviting kura kaupapa to inform and support Māori whānau considering the wellbeing of their tamariki.

“When so many younger Māori don’t yet have their first or second dose, the booster is actually exacerbating inequality,” Baker says. “So it’s very important we ask Māori communities how we can get it right this time, to make sure that we are getting the first, second and booster doses out to them.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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