Protecting Our Whakapapa

After an intense few months of vaccinating, and training our whanau to be isolation support workers, and setting up a community SIQ facility, establishing a rapid antigen testing program for our community, we hit a huge milestone this weekend – we were finally able to start vaccinating our children.

This is a momentous step in our protection journey for all parents, I think, but for us in Matakaoa, with one of the highest ratios of children to adults in the country, it holds particular relevance. Let me give you a bit of background korero for you to better understand why:

Similar to covid, in 1918, influenza was imported and first experienced by Non-Maori, and then crossed over to the Maori population. When the influenza epidemic arrived in Tairawhiti district in October 1918, cases were consistently reported upon within Gisborne township, for the duration of its spread through the colonial population. There are numerous articles that testified to the way in which Gisborne residents came together to support each other through the outbreak.

Poverty Bay Herald article (16 November 1918) showing the community spirit and mutual support within the Gisborne community to overcome “the scourge” of influenza

Once it exhausted its colonial hosts and crossed over to the Maori population in mid to late November, the Poverty Bay Herald shifted its reporting, it returned to focusing on the war, trade, and other places where influenza was still impacting upon “the whites” (as the newspaper called it).

At this point, when influenza was mentioned in the Poverty Bay Herald, it was no longer framed as an effort for people to support each other through – rather it reported on the need, and council discussions, to ban Maori from entering the township.

Article from Gisborne Times (5 December 1918) titled: “Should Natives be banned from entering the township?”

This is a well known part of our pandemic history, and it is echoed in our experience today. Infectious diseases imported by non-Maori, with media and government calling for a “team effort” by everyone, but with impacts upon Maori being under-reported, and eventually with Maori being blamed. In fact were it not for the work of Rawiri Taonui, it’s unlikely that the disproportionate nature of the infections, hospitalisations and deaths would have been picked up or highlighted at all. No other media outlet has pointed out that within the last month there have been “zero Pakeha infection” days in the current outbreak.

Even today, if you read the official figures for Maori loss over that time, the numbers are nowhere near what we as Maori know them to be. The Gisborne Herald just recently reported that 160 died in our district in 1918, and the NZ History website reports that there were no recorded deaths in Waiapu County, and 11 Maori deaths reported across Cook County. If you look to the Maori newspapers of the time, they tell a very different story: thousands of Maori lost, and hundreds of Maori children laid upon just the one marae alone, here in Wharekahika. We have numerous mass burial sites dotted along our small section of coastline, from typhoid, from smallpox, from influenza. At least one of them is dedicated to children, alone.

Article from Te Kopara (19 March 1919) written by Matakaoa ancestor Wi Paraire Rangihuna: “Collectively, the bodies of children lain upon the marae of Tu (Tumoanakotore, Wharekahika) numbered 300 over recent years. Maori who died from the influenza, over just the past three months alone – 1300. And this was just the registered deaths. Were we to add on the unregistered deaths, we would likely surpass 2000”

It’s hard to overstate the impact that so much loss can have on a people – but still, our tipuna were determined that we not forget what has happened. The photos of those lost still hang in our wharenui, babies in beautiful crisp white christening gowns, children in attire of the day. The names Materoa (the great loss), Mamaeroa (the long grief) were re-embedded into our family lines, laments were composed, all so that we would not forget, and would not allow it to happen again.

A lament for a loved one passed from influenza, recounted by Ngati Porou ancestor Maharata Te O Wai (Piriote) of Makarika

And this has been our commitment, to our elders and our tipuna, that we would not allow this to happen again, not to our people, and certainly not to our children. We already know that we have disproportionate levels of child asthma and rheumatic fever in our region, and some of the poorest access to health services in the country. We don’t need modelers to know that it will not bode well for our children. It’s for this reason that we have, like the government, gone hard and gone early to prevent Covid coming to our region.  For this reason, I have pushed hard for supported conversations for Maori parents to ask the questions they need, and when they are ready, for priority access to vaccines for tamariki Maori. It’s for all of these reasons, a number of us have been working hard to ensure that tamariki Maori, who hold higher rates of respiratory illness, diabetes and rheumatic fever, are not left til last as many of their parents were in the Covid vaccine rollout.

Excerpt from story by Ruwani Perera on The Hui

Just like before, longer, and more indepth conversations will be required for Maori parents to feel comfortable about vaccinating their children – and to avoid Maori being blamed and in particular Maori parents being blamed. These conversations need to be supported, and held in a context that appreciates the journey we have been through as a people. As we gathered on Saturday morning to say our karakia for the commencement of child vaccinations in our community, I looked up at children’s burial site that overlooks our community and I thought of them all – those we have lost in past generations, who never had this opportunity of a vaccine, and gave thanks to all those involved in keeping us safe til we could get to this point, and all of those who have been involved in us being able to protect our babies now.

Heoi ano, after a long wait – what feels for some of us like the longest wait – our children can now be vaccinated, and in spite of whatever else could have been done, there are still things that we, ourselves, can do to prepare our children for their vaccination. I’ll leave us with these recommendations, built from amazing conversations with health experts as well as our incredible and inspirational community covid response team (all mothers and grandmothers ourselves). Have a wonderful sacred week, everyone, as we embark on this, most precious and special step in our nation’s journey of protection. Kia kaha tatou katoa xx

Supporting your children’s vaccination journey:

For planners of clinics:

  1. Some whānau want to be done together. Have adult doses ready for parents/grandparents.
  2. Children pick up on fear/nerves. Provide loads of opportunities for parents to ask their questions of experts BEFOREHAND (you might want to consider group Q&A sessions with GPs/experts or even one on one sessions if parents request them). They need to be calm & confident on the day for their child. Have clinically approved advice handouts for planning staff to pass on to parents when clinical staff are not available so the advice is consistent and correct.
  3. Recommend to your community BOOKING in for child imms, and if possible call the parents the day before to check if they have any other questions about the imms and that they understand what to look out for afterwards, and the nature of normal after-effects.
  4. Similarly if you can, go with Wellchild/Tamariki Ora nurses. They’re already familiar with child imms techniques, and may also be familiar with the children (ours is). More confident nurses make for calmer child patients.
  5. Have a whanau-friendly space set aside for child observations. Coloring in resources, movie space, tamariki friendly kai, music, and a celebratory atmosphere for them.
  6. Follow up with a phonecall in the next day or so if you can. Check in on how the children are doing, reassure parents for the expected aftereffects and remind them of when their children’s second vaccination will be due, and how to book it.


  1. Have lots of discussions with children in the lead up. Frame it positively, they’re helping everyone be protected, a part of the kaitiaki team just like Mummy & Daddy.
  2. Be honest about it hurting (I pinched her quickly to show how fast it passes) Plan a postvaxx treat.
  3. Be prepared for the next couply days after vaccination. Lethargy, sore arm, slight fever, headaches, generally blah are all normal after effects. Have pamol, water bottles, movies, blankies, games, treats ready and plan to be available for extra attention and cuddles.
  4. Ask all you have to ask before the day, so you can cede all Q&A space to your child ON the day. Let them ask all the questions, you’re there to support.
  5. Carefully consider your child’s exposure to antivaxx content. This includes their online time & yours (especially when posting vaccination photos and most especially when children are able to see and read the responses). Antivaxx narratives regarding children are particularly nasty so be proactive & vigilant in your online protection of your tamariki.
  6. Check in with your child over the following days and talk about what is happening inside their body in an age-appropriate way. For my 5 and 7 year old we discussed how the vaccine is now teaching their tinana how to block and punch the virus (just like The Karate Kid which is one of their fave movies), and even though it might not feel like it, that’s a lot of learning going on which is why they can sometimes feel tired. Reassure them that some after effects are normal (sore arm, feeling tired, a slight fever or headache), and of course don’t be shy to go to the doctors if there are more concerning symptoms like difficulty breathing or a sore chest. Here is some information about side effects that you need to take into consideration.
  7. Again, take the time to check out trusted, reliable sources. Protect Our Whakapapa and Te Roopu Whakakaupapa Uruta are great starting points for your journey towards making a good, informed decision about your child’s vaccination.

    Below are some clips from a recent parents’ Q&A session we held online with health professionals (Health Researcher Dr Donna Cormack, GPs Dr Rachel Thomson and Dr Rawiri Jansen, and Starship Hospital Pediatrician Dr Jin Russell).
Dr Rawiri Jansen discusses child health and Omicron
Dr Jin Russel of Starship Hospital discusses the importance of child vaccination
Dr Rachel Thomson discusses important things parents can do now to prepare for Omicron
Dr Jin Russel provides some crucial advice about children with pre-existing conditions, and after-effects of the child vaccine.
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One thought on “Protecting Our Whakapapa”

  1. As a tauiwi I am shocked and saddened to read of the ‘Materoa’ and ‘Mamaeroa’.

    Thank you too for demonstrating correct research, because there is confusion in the community about research.

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