Concerts, bars, movie theaters, and indoor dining seem like a different world to those living in the United States, where COVID-19 has upended normal life for nearly a year. Yet, across the globe in New Zealand, public life has resumed in full. The country has had a 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases between 0 and 10 since late April 2020, and it has totaled 26 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. By contrast, the United States’ current 7-day average of new cases is over 74,000, with a cumulative total of over 500,000 deaths.
New Zealand’s success hinged on its COVID-19 elimination strategy. It set an early goal to limit cases within the nation´s borders to zero, with the allowance of occasional outbreaks as long as they were stamped out within a defined period. The country implemented strict lockdown measures in March and required incoming foreign travelers to quarantine in government-managed isolation centers for 14 days. New Zealand acted early and aggressively, and it paid off. Natasha Frost writes about visiting New Zealand and experiencing bars, crowded buses, and concerts in a world that felt far removed from the “new normal” of social distancing and masks that she had become accustomed to in New York City. Beyond social measures, New Zealand’s effective control of COVID-19 has saved thousands of lives and prevented people from experiencing the heartache of losing loved ones.
However, beating COVID has had ill-effects on New Zealand as well. Prior to the national lockdown, 5.5% of New Zealand’s total GDP came directly from tourism, as well as an additional 3.8% indirectly from industries supporting tourism. In total, that’s 27.4 billion NZD or 19.8 billion USD. Additionally, as a critical industry, tourism accounts for 20.1% of New Zealand’s total exports. However, one subset of the population was hit especially hard: the Indigenous Māori community.
As a settler-colonial society, the Māori community has been marginalized for centuries. Margaret Mutu, a professor of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland, expands upon this by noting that the Māori have been driven into a state of poverty and deprivation. The non-Māori majority in New Zealand uses English law, derived from English tradition rather than Māori, to diminish Māori power and authority while simultaneously abducting their land and resources. Māori are also disproportionately represented in negative social and economic statistics in New Zealand. For example, more than 51% of the incarcerated population is made up of Māori individuals, even though they compose only 15% of New Zealand’s total population.
New Zealand has capitalized on the successes of its Māori community without adequately acknowledging or protecting them. Roughly 20% of competing Olympic athletes from New Zealand in 2016 were of Māori descent, yet their communities continue to face discrimination throughout the country. Additionally, Te Hono, a business movement that focuses on improving New Zealand’s food and fibre sector companies, has developed and bolstered major innovations in these sectors, including revolutionary fishing technology that allows for the humane capture of fish and eradicates the need for more harmful trawl nets. While the Māori have contributed immensely to New Zealand’s culture and global status, they continue to be underrepresented – only 5% of seats in New Zealand’s parliament are designated for Māori individuals, which is only one third of the population proportion of Māori in New Zealand.
Furthermore, Māori culture places emphasis on community, or Manaakitanga. This emphasis has been credited by some for aiding New Zealand in effectively controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has contributed to key aspects of New Zealand governance, such as universal healthcare and gun and safety laws. Individualistic approaches to the pandemic have been significantly less effective, as demonstrated by countries like the United States, England, and France, all in the top 10 countries with the highest number of cumulative COVID-19 cases. One Māori proverb summarizes this cultural focus on community succinctly: “He waka eke noa,” meaning we are all in this canoe together.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the discrimination and marginalization faced by the Māori. While the Government of New Zealand released an Initial COVID-19 Māori Response Action Plan, it has been called “all words, no action” by Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, a Māori rights activist. The plan is vague and makes no mention of the economic cost that the Māori community would have to bear due to the drop in tourism. The government released the plan in April 2020, yet in August, Nadine Toetoe, co-owner of Kohutapu Lodge and Tribal Tours, grimly noted the sharp decline in tourism that her business has faced. Even after the domestic lockdown ended, only “one Stray backpacker bus” made its way to the award-winning lodge. Takurua Mutu, owner of MDA Experiences, shared Toetoe’s sentiments, noting that his business experienced a “massive blow” and he was unsure about his capacity to keep his staff on for the duration of the pandemic.
The Māori continue to face economic struggles after the lockdown ended due to New Zealand’s closed borders. In 2019, 1.6 million international tourists experienced Māori cultural tourism and made up 81.7% of all tourists visiting Māori tourism enterprises. Meanwhile, domestic tourists made up only 18.3% of Māori site visitors and spent three times less money. Because of New Zealand’s closed border policy, domestic tourists are now the only source of tourism to Māori sites. Due to this category of tourists’ more conservative spending habits, Māori enterprises are continuing to struggle. However, even amid pandemic-induced hardships, Māori strength and bravery persists. Toetoe powerfully states: “We have warrior blood running in our veins, so we’re never going to give up.”
As unfortunate as things sound for Māori economic well-being, the New Zealand government has stepped up. While the Māori Response Action Plan was not singularly effective, their extensive aid programs have saved many Māori enterprises from bankruptcy. New Zealand’s government aid programs have provided both Māori and non-Māori individuals with up to 2,340 NZD, or 1,692 USD, per month, as well as implemented tax delays for small businesses to offset the economic devastation incurred due to the pandemic. By providing aid and subsidies, the Government has demonstrated its ability to value human life above people’s capacity to work. While there is still a long way to go in establishing equity between New Zealand’s different communities, the Government started to bridge this gap by providing critical support in the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. New Zealand emanates a beacon of hope in the midst of this global crisis, reflecting the heights that society can reach if it empowers people over the economy.