An open and pragmatic approach is being taken by government and non-government agencies in response to the recent decision by Te Whānau a Apanui to restrict movement through their tribal lands on the East Coast of the North Island. Ōpōtiki District Council will be working alongside iwi leadership to ensure essential services continue in isolated communities but the risk of transmission of COVID-19 into at-risk communities remains as low as possible.
Ōpōtiki Mayor, Lyn Riesterer, said that the parties met on 22 March 2020 to work through what this might mean for essential services and to shape an informal 'working group' around the table.
"Today we met with iwi leaders, district and regional council, and the police, to make sure we were all on the same page. It was really important that we approached this with open minds and community well-being at the front of all our thinking.
"Once you put people first, then all other actions flow from that. I completely understand Te Whānau a Apanui's desire to protect their greatest taonga, their Kaumātua, and we want to work alongside them as, at the end of the day, that is what we all want to do.
"Our Māori communities have been disproportionally impacted by disease and previous pandemics have hurt our communities more than can ever be counted. And Te Whānau a Apanui have a unique set of circumstances around access, land ownership, and geographical isolation. This is the action they have decided is necessary to protect the vulnerable and elders," Mayor Riesterer said.
Te Whānau a Apanui leadership have said that the rahui would be ready to start from 8am on Wednesday 25 March 2020 and would track and, where necessary, restrict travel through the rohe from Hāwai to Pōtaka in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
Iwi leader, Rikirangi Gage, explained that it was a direct response to the risks posed by COVID-19 and in line with ancient traditions protecting the vulnerable in dangerous times.
"This rāhui is a measured and logical response to the risk posed by the coronavirus to protect the older and more vulnerable members of our community. Implementing this community safety zone is part of it, but it goes much wider and there are rules in place around social contact and engagement as well all centred on respect and care for our most vulnerable. At the same time, we are preparing care packages to be delivered to each of our Kaumātua and ensuring they are being looked after physically, mentally and spiritually.
"Our demographics and our circumstances mean that this was the strongest measure we could take at this time. For us, it is about creating a safe zone and avoiding the spread of the virus. Knowing who is coming through our tribal lands is part of that, tracking movements and contact, and giving advice to workers and so on about only stopping at the public toilets or not visiting Kaumātua. At the end of the day, common sense will guide our actions to stop the spread.
"We are working with various agencies and industries to make sure that this is implemented practically – we have plans in place for kiwifruit workers, workers who leave our lands for their own work, council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council services like drinking water testing and rubbish. We'll need to talk further with other agencies like health and transport authorities to ensure we are on the same page. We have also been working with the Police and they have indicated their willingness to work alongside us through this process," Rikirangi Gage said.
Deputy Police Commissioner, Wally Haumaha, had met with Te Whānau a Apanui and other agencies to work through what this meant for police activities.
"No one has set out to establish illegal roadblocks, this is about community police and Iwi taking the lead to ensure rural communities that don't have immediate access to support services are well protected.
"We are all coming to this kaupapa from the same place – out of a need to protect the most vulnerable in the community. This is Te Whānau a Apanui taking a strong leadership role and we want to model what it looks like when iwi, police, councils and other agencies work in partnership. Our role is supporting this cultural response to COVID-19," Mr Haumaha said.