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Dr Rawiri Taonui Covid Update | All Maori need to know about the Papatoetoe Cluster
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Alert Levels

The cluster associated with LSG Sky Chefs and Papatoetoe High School was detected on Sunday 14 February. The government responded immediately placing Auckland on Alert Level 3 and, because two cases had travelled through the Taranaki and Waikato, ordered the rest of New Zealand tot Alert Level 2. Given the infection was the hyper-contagious Kent (British) B117 strain and the immediate source unknown, this was the correct decision. There are now seven cases in the mini-cluster.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield moved Auckland down to Alert Level 2 and the rest of the country to Alert Level 1 until midnight Sunday. On Monday, Auckland will move to Level 1 and Papatoetoe High School re-open. The logic behind the decision is that the Papatoetoe cases have been quickly ring-fenced in one mini-cluster with a single chain of transmission. And based on 25,000 tests conducted since Sunday and the testing of South Auckland wastewater, they were confident that a broader outbreak with multiple chains of transmission was not occurring. No cases had been detected stemming from travel by the first two cases in the Taranaki or Waikato between 6 and 8 February.

The Papatoetoe Response

The source of the cluster remains unknown. LSG Sky Chefs is a global aviation company providing laundry and catering services to both international and domestic airlines, so it is thought the source relates to the Auckland Airport precinct. Alternatively, Ministry staff are investigating a possible genomic link to a B117 case that left the Sheraton MIQ facility in December. The most likely scenario is that someone has come across the border undetected and the virus been passed one or possibly two transmission generations to the first Papatoetoe case.

The Ministry of Health response has been strong. As of Friday, 1,926 of 2,253 close personal contacts, Sky Chefs work colleagues, staff and students at Papatoetoe High School, and persons associated with the possible Sheraton MIQ source, had tested negative or otherwise been cleared. 245 are tests pending or require clearance, such as now being overseas (grey). On balance, this affirms the government’s calculated decision to move alert levels, subject of course to whether other cases eventuate.

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There are caveats. There are still 245 to clear. More broadly, earlier this week, the Ministry advised that there were 500 persons associated with the locations of interest in Taranaki, the Waikato, and South Auckland. However, as with the Northland-Auckland cases in January, where in just two days numbers grew from 620 to 1500 to 1 February, the number of people who visited locations of interest in the Taranaki, Waikato and South Auckland must surely now be significantly larger. As with the Auckland-Northland instance, the data for this group has not been updated regarding overall numbers, the number of positive, negative, and pending tests or internally differentiated between Auckland, the Waikato and Taranaki. This absence will foster uncertainty, anxiety and mistrust among vulnerable lower socio-economic Māori, Pacific and ethnic communities in South Auckland and regional and rural communities in the Taranaki and Waikato.

Advice - Taranaki and the Waikato

We know that locations of interest have a lower risk of transmission because the overlap of the time is often brief. Nevertheless, Taranaki and Waikato should remain vigilant. Iwi groups, depending on circumstance, might decide to manage Māori over 50 years of age as if at Alert Level 2 until Monday, then re-assess.

Advice - Papatoetoe Cluster

In line with the higher risk profile for Māori, Pacific and other lower socio-economic ethnic communities in South Auckland, families and whānau might maintain a precautionary higher than Alert Level 2 until the status of the 245 pending tests/statuses are known and there is detail, clarity, and transparency around the testing numbers of those who have visited locations of interest. The locations of interest in South Auckland are a significant concern because they include large, exceptionally high-volume foot-traffic sites like Manukau Westfield, Manukau Pak-n-Save and Bunnings Manukau, Takanini, and Botany.

The government and the Ministry need to rebuild trust. The South Auckland community will recall that 149 Māori and Pacific, three of whom died, made up 81% of the Auckland OutBreak in August last year, an event ultimately made worse because of an absence of random testing in cities with MIQ facilities during the month immediately before the outbreak, particularly those with high Māori and Pacific demographics such as in South Auckland, Hamilton, and Rotorua.

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On balance, there is a continuing chance that there will be further cases. If so, the number is likely smaller rather than large. However, if multiple chains of transmission do emerge, then there is a risk to disadvantaged Māori, Pacific and other tāwāhi (my term - new ethnic communities) populations in South Auckland. According to a 2018 ERO report, the ethnic profile of Papatoetoe High School is 37% Indian, 27% Pacific, 16% Māori and 14% Chinese and Southeast Asian students. Sky Chefs also has a significant tāwāhi profile.

Hyper-Infectious Strains

We are also not seeing updated detail about the numbers of the hyper-infectious B117 and B1351 in New Zealand. The Kent (British) B117 strain arrived in New Zealand on 13 December followed 13 days later by the South African B1351 strain on Boxing Day.

The last update from the Ministry (21 January) advised there had been 29 cases of B117 and seven of B1351 in New Zealand. With the ex-Pullman Northland-Auckland and new Papatoetoe cases, there have now been at least 35 B117 and 11 B1351 cases. Are there more? We do not know. The lack of transparency is concerning. To allay and assuage the community, the Ministry of Health must regularly update the case numbers for variants of concern.

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Photo Supplied.

Defeating New Variants

There has been speculation that the new variants have not been as virulent as feared. One reason is that some of the Northland-Auckland cases were in the Pullman MIQ or isolated at home while infectious rather than in the community. This reduced the opportunity for the virus to spread. In the Papatoetoe case, our testing, contact tracing and isolation regimes appear to have intercepted and isolated the cluster early, again preventing the virus from spreading further.

Overseas data also shows the new variants require between one to three months to build a reservoir of infection before their hyper-infectivity fully manifests. One or two cases intercepted early are unlikely to have infected more than one to two other people. If, however, the variant can build a pool, for example, 10 cases, will four later have infected another 114 people.

Dodging 1913 on White Waitangi Day

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of remaining ‘cautious’. That was not the approach Labour took at Waitangi Day. During Waitangi week, the Ministry of Health was vague about the 1,500+ people associated with the Northland-Auckland locations of interest possibly to not cast a shadow over the orchestrated announcements at Waitangi of $150 million to support the Ngāpuhi settlement, Matariki Day 2022 and legislation to facilitate the introduction of Māori wards.

The subsequent detection of the Hamilton case (6 Feb), the Auckland hospital case (13 Feb) and the Papatoetoe mini-cluster (14 Feb) vindicated the decision of the Māori Party, the Te Kahu o Taonui tribal collective, the Iwi Chairs Leaders Forum, the Kīngitanga, Hauora Māori Collective, and Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei, Waipareira Trust, and Manukau organisers not to proceed with large gatherings over Waitangi weekend.

By attending Waitangi, the government not only set aside Dr Bloomfield’s advice on Monday 1 February not to travel unnecessarily, but it also signalled to New Zealanders that travel over the long weekend was acceptable. Had the first two Papatoetoe cases decided to travel to Waitangi for the crowded dawn service and breakfast, instead of the less populated tourist sites in the Taranaki and Waikato, then we may have seen an event unfold like that in 1913. Richard Shumway, an American missionary infected with smallpox, attended a large gathering of Māori in Auckland leading to multiple simultaneous outbreaks across the country causing more than 50 deaths as representatives returned to home communities.


Last year, iwi groups on the East Coast, Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Northland established checkpoints to protect their people and the wider community from Covid’s first wave and motorists breaking rules around travel.

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Photo Supplied.

The roadblocks were successful. They roadblocks tabulated thousands of lawbreakers, mainly Pākehā. And all areas with checkpoints had lower rates of Māori infection than elsewhere in the country.

Overseas, other indigenous people also used checkpoints to beneficial effect in Africa, through Asia, Latin and South America, and with the explicit support of their governments in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Not so in New Zealand. Political parties National, Act and New Zealand First opposed them as unlawful. The Labour government did not condemn the checkpoints but did not endorse them either, except for Associate Minister of Health Peeni Henare who lent his moral support.

During the Northland-Auckland event, a caring young northern man, Hone Harawira, set up checkpoints to distribute educational information. The Police quickly shut them down. In a country whose racism says it is unlawful to do something if you are Māori but lawful if you are Pākehā, Police took over the roadblocks.

Police roadblocks were in place around Auckland for three days this week. The Tokerau Border Control attended as observers. To their credit, the Police were respectful and diplomatic. Reports say there was tension with Ngāti Whātua who had sent their own observers.

Ngāti Whātua and the Tokerau Border Control are necessary observers. One to check their citizens are not polluting the whenua of their fellow iwi, the other to check the Police are doing their job. A team of 5 million, rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga, working in harmony.

Kia noho haumaru - stay safe and self-sovereiegn.

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