Struggles of Māori people during Covid-19: Who is there to blame?

By VALERIIA VAKHITOVA

As the Covid-19 curve flattens, many of us are compelled to celebrate the fast-approaching end of hardships. But for Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, the hardships will continue. Today they face unemployment and malnutrition; tomorrow, further discrimination.

In the 14th century, Māori were the first settlers of New Zealand. When Europeans arrived five centuries later, the indigenous populations were forced to move to remote, marginalized lands. Since then, Māori have been unprivileged, enduring a legacy of structural violence — harm inflicted on individuals by social structures that preclude them from meeting their basic needs. 

Today more than ever, Covid-19 brings to light the unnatural patterns whereby certain groups in society are impacted the most by unprecedented and disastrous situations. The pandemic perpetuates the injustices, systematic racism, and ecocide the Māori people face. 

After centuries of discrimination, Māori were left with the lands that nobody wanted. A large group of them were reluctant to settle into the areas around the Auckland Airport, an area thought to be noisy, polluted, and less desirable by “Europeans” (New Zealanders of European descent). Many Māori ended up working for the airport since the poorly paid jobs only required a basic skill set and little training to qualify.

Now that the airport is closed, the Māori population under its employment has not had income for weeks. In addition, other side jobs have ceased as a result of Covid-19. A lack of tourists (often attracted to the traditions and rituals of Māori) exacerbates the financial struggles that beget depression, alcoholism, and domestic violence. As a result, the image of Māori being poor, unreliable, and violent is reinforced.

Poverty forces people to turn to fast food, which causes obesity and malnutrition. To prevent that, a community-based nonprofit has started a new initiative, Kai-ika (which literally translates to “food-fish” in Te-Reo) project, that involves collecting fish heads, backbones and offal leftovers from the fishermen and giving them to the marae (sacred and cultural places for Māori gatherings) for free instead of throwing them away at the landfills. Such an approach in addressing the food problem of Indigenous people’s food accessibility is supposed to both eliminate the waste from the fishing industry and help the poor Māori population fight food insecurity. But it only works halfway.

Māori become even more vulnerable as they start to rely on this organization more and more during the pandemic. Even though they have access to the leftovers, they are not able to fish independently. In these times, this imbalance between the access to fish and the power to catch it is especially grave. Sudden unemployment has caused financial instability, so the demand for Kai-ika surged dramatically. Econ 101 students would know that the fall of the supply curve and an increase in demand leaves strong competition among the consumers. Māori are left with no food. 

Additionally, the dominating narratives in the media place emphasis only on the benefits of the Kai-ika program. Although the program is doing a lot of good, indigenous people struggling with food insecurity do not receive enough attention. A structured form of ignorance is reinforced by the government, turning the public attention instead to the great achievements that are accomplished. 

In the meanwhile, because their land was stolen, the Māori people lack an extremely necessary connection to the land, rendering them more vulnerable in the day-to-day, but especially in a situation like the one we see today. Because of the ecocide perpetuated by Europeans, entire ecosystems were destroyed and the lands of the indigenous people were taken away from them. As a result, Māori were cut off from their culture and traditions that so intimately connected them with the environment.

Māori used to grow kumara (sweet potatoes) and taro as their main crops. Having been forced to resettle, the indigenous people forgot the symbolism of traditional agriculture. Nowadays, the local community has tried to revitalize ancestral practices in the food system and encourage people to grow their own food to reconnect people with papatuanuku (Mother Earth) again. However, cultural ecological patterns have been disrupted: the land where kumara and taro are grown today do not have the same sacred meaning to Māori, the soil is not as fertile, and the spiritual linkage with the crops is gone.

The Māori community has embarked on this program. The food grown helps to feed the local population. Besides, the leaders of this initiative dedicate time to teaching others how to implement the skills to grow their own food. Unfortunately, the revitalization of ancestral agricultural practices has not received the governmental support that it deserves. As a result, the community relies on the voluntary work, which often leaves the project short-handed and limits their potential progress. 

What the Māori people actually need is land, strong financial standing and governmental support. Maori are doing more than their part to improve their socioeconomic standing in the country: what is missing is public attention, the return of ancestral and sacred lands and monetary aid.  

There is no single person we can name, and yet everyone is to blame for the struggles of Māori people during the pandemic. Their social status today is a result of historical events and present development projects failing to give indigenous people their agency. We are all responsible for that. So if you are able to lend a helping hand, do so by following this link and learning more about the struggles they face during these difficult times! If there is something good about Covid-19, it is realizing that we are all connected.

Acknowledgement: For this assignment I have interviewed Abigail Karparis, a grad student at the University of Auckland. She has introduced me to the programs of Kai-ika and the revitalization of ancestral crops and has helped me edit this piece. 

Valeriia Vakhitova is a member of the class of 2020.5.

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