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Recession hits Māori and Pasifika harder. They must be part of planning New Zealand’s COVID-19 recovery

As schools and businesses reopen and attention shifts to the longer-term repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that Māori be involved in decision making more equitably than has so far happened.

The failure to include Māori in strategy discussions throughout the pandemic has already been roundly criticised, most recently over tangihanga (funeral) restrictions and the Public Health Response bill, which sets up a new legal framework for responding to COVID-19.

Māori public health specialists have repeatedly challenged a one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic recovery. There is also growing unease about who has the authority to make decisions in the best interests of Māori collectives. The sidelining of Māori as Te Tiriti (Treaty of Waitangi) partners cannot continue through our recovery and rebuild.

First do no harm

As restrictions are relaxed under level 2, it is Māori and Pacific communities that carry a higher risk – both to their health and livelihoods.

According to modelling by research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini, infection and death rates would be highest for Māori and Pasifika of all ages if community transmission were to rebound.

Emerging international evidence also suggests the social and economic impacts of the pandemic will be felt for longer and more intensely for people living in precarious conditions – more likely to be racial minorities.

Read more: The answer to Indigenous vulnerability to coronavirus: a more equitable public health agenda

In Aotearoa we know previous economic recessions hit Māori and Pacific communities hardest, with consequences across generations. Even with the government’s NZ$50 billion COVID-19 budget plan, one Treasury forecast says unemployment will peak nationally at 9.6% in June this year.

Māori unemployment was nearly this high even before the pandemic (8.2% in the March quarter) and economists predict levels will surge over the next two years.

Unsurprisingly, last week’s budget was firmly focused on job creation. Among the suite of investments, NZ$900 million was earmarked for specific Māori initiatives, including $NZ136 million for the Whānau Ora programme and a NZ$200 million Māori employment package that includes boosting youth employment.

These will help address short-term employment needs in the most affected regions. But the opportunity to take a long-term transformational view that enables Māori to thrive, not merely survive, was lost.

Local decision making is vital

While there is immense pressure to fast-track economic recovery, the risk is that responses designed by and for largely Pākehā (non-Māori) constituencies will maintain, or deepen, pre-existing inequities.

Decisions must be based on evidence – but evidence takes many forms. New Zealand should draw on its dual knowledge systems: the richness of mātauranga Māori – Māori knowledge and ways of knowing – and “western” science. Now more than ever we need diverse sources of expertise, experience and leadership.

Over the past month, iwi (tribal groups) and Māori communities have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to anticipate and respond to the needs of their people – from setting up checkpoints to protect vulnerable and remote communities, to providing online support for grieving whānau (families) and delivering care packages to elders.

Indigenous communities in Aotearoa and elsewhere demonstrate powerful distributed leadership and a deep capacity to care for each other, based on the strength and knowledge of kin and kin-like connections.

Read more: Five key values of strong Māori leadership

These adaptive capacities have always existed within Te Ao Māori (Māori worldview). The pandemic placed them in the full view of mainstream New Zealand. Māori communities have strong social networks and infrastructures (especially marae – tribal meeting places) and long experience of dealing with the impacts of ongoing colonialism, natural disasters, pandemics, and mass death.

With worldviews that are inherently long-term and holistic, Māori are well positioned to lead circular economies. Māori models of regenerative agriculture and ecotourism can help shape a globally distinctive Indigenous sector that puts inter-generational and environmental well-being first.

Where local solutions have been properly resourced, such as in the development of traditional bassinets to help prevent sudden infant deaths, outcomes have been positive for everyone.

We can learn from such examples and build this evidence systematically into our response with co-determined strategies and solutions.

Reimagining our futures beyond coronavirus

As te Tiriti or a treaty partner, the government has an important role to play. But everyone will lose out if Māori and Pacific community agency and local solutions are not used.

By re-imagining our futures we can address unjust and unsustainable inequities. An unrelenting and system-wide focus on equity is clearly needed. We also need to amplify and support what is strong including a respectful treatment of te taiao (environment) and mana motuhake (self-governance, autonomy) in diverse communities and households.

Read more: Strong sense of cultural identity drives boom in Māori business

Our youthful Māori and Pacific populations are a demographic gift. It must not be squandered in the post-COVID-19 reset. Ongoing investment in their potential will not only benefit wider and future whānau, it will also future-proof regional economies.

If the pandemic has taught New Zealanders anything it is that our well-being as individuals is intimately connected to the well-being of those around us and our environments.

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