Over half of cases in Delta outbreak are Pacific people – Expert Reaction

More than half of cases in the current COVID-19 outbreak are Pasifika people after an infected person went to a church service.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said an August 15 rally at the Māngere church remains the event with the highest number of Covid cases this outbreak.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“As this current outbreak involves the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is highly infectious and easily transmissible, we’re now dealing with a more dangerous version of the virus within the community setting. That more than half the reported COVID-19 cases in Aotearoa New Zealand are affecting Pacific peoples with numbers projected to rise, is also devastating news.

“Given the inequities that have persisted in health for Māori and Pacific peoples already, it was known from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic that Pacific peoples and Māori communities were vulnerable to being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and would require prioritisation, especially for the vaccination roll-out. Vaccination rates for Pacific peoples collectively across Aotearoa New Zealand, remain of significant concern.

“The implications for the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and priority-setting moving forward is that more work and support is needed to ensure Pacific and Māori peoples and communities are indeed being prioritised.

“Pacific health staff, Pacific health providers, Pacific community, family and church leaders, and many others who have already been working incredibly hard behind the scenes to encourage and ensure Pacific peoples and their families to get vaccinated and tested for COVID-19, also need to be supported to continue doing this work. Delta virus cases continue to surge in other countries and we cannot allow the same to happen in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Apisalome Talemaitoga, GP in Manukau, South Auckland, and Chair of the Pasifika GP network and the Pacific Chapter of the Royal NZ College of GPs, comments:

“The meningococcal vaccination campaign nearly 20 years ago is probably a good example of how the Ministry of Health and DHBs can work with communities with high needs to tackle a deadly disease. It was hailed a great success in terms of vaccination rates of Pacific children and it was the engagement with Pacific communities that was able to use the infrastructures already present within Pacific communities – the churches, the ethnic nursing organisations, the Pasifika Medical Association etc.  The combination of the health authorities, health organisations and trusted Pacific health professionals who were known within their communities gave the push needed to get vaccination rates to a high level.

“Last year during the height of the pandemic, Pacific people showed how they can heed the call to help protect their communities by consistently getting the highest Covid swab testing rates per head of population for the country.  Again it was the Ministry of Health working with trusted Pacific health providers in the community, and using the church ministers who called on their congregations to heed the health message and get tested.

“This approach has sadly been lacking with the vaccination rollout, although the good news is that things are beginning to change – better late than never.  This week the 0800 Pacific vaccination phone-line allowing families to make group bookings in their languages for their bubbles, and the announcement of ethnic community vaccination clinics (e.g. Niuean peoples vaccination clinic run by Niuean health professionals) are great examples.

“We all know Pacific peoples carry a higher burden of disease and at – on average – a lower age.  This is why if we as a country were serious about ‘equity’, then the push for vaccination for Pacific peoples right at the start (using all the tools available to us as described above) would have been done – but this approach unfortunately wasn’t used.

“Now in addition to carrying the burden of Covid cases in this most recent outbreak, the Pacific community are bearing the brunt of targeted racist vitriol from a few racist small-minded key-board warriors on social media.

“Thankfully, a community where respect for each other is paramount, which practices reciprocity and communitarianism, and does things for the greater good of all concerned – has shown we will lead the way in testing rates to help the country – not just Pacific people – to contain this deadly virus.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Debbie Ryan, Principal, Pacific Perspectives, comments:

“The susceptibility of Pacific communities to the devastating impacts of infectious diseases is well documented in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The reports that Pacific people make up more than 50% of the cases in this COVID19 outbreak (but only 7% of the total population) are depressingly familiar. Pacific people made up nearly 60% of the community cases in the August 2020 COVID-19, and more than 60% of the measles cases in the 2019 outbreak that affected more than 2000 children and young people.

“The Health Quality and Safety Commission launched a comprehensive report Bula Sautu A Window on Quality earlier this year that brings together evidence about Pacific health and recommendations about the priority actions required of the health system and services to improve health of Pacific people. We have seen these reports before.

“No doubt we will get through the current crisis – Pacific communities and health providers and health workers have again pulled together brilliantly to do what is required.

“But we need a circuit breaker to address these unacceptable disparities. The policy statements about health equity as a priority need to be backed up with real action at all levels of the health system. Clear accountability for action along with measures that demonstrate change, are required. Urgent action must be taken now to ensure that Pacific communities have the same right to good health as the rest of the team of 5 million.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am the Principal of Pacific Perspectives, an independent research and consultancy specialising in Pacific health and education. Pacific Perspectives holds contracts with the Ministry of Health. I am also working part time with the Transition Unit for the Health System Reforms with DPMC. The views expressed are my own.”