COVID-19 and the Māori duty to protect

Over the past six weeks, as Aotearoa faced the threat of COVID-19, communities and individuals around the country responded in a myriad of ways. Early stages saw panic buying whereas some thought the whole thing was a bit of a joke, laughing at those in face masks, and laughing even more at any suggestion they should cancel their holidays. Others still were irritated at the intrusion into their plans and insisted they had a right to continue their daily affairs. My own East Coast community and many others responded early with direct action to stem non-necessary travel by reminding people directly of the alert level laws as they entered our region.

In the past two weeks, political forces and some factions of the media have branded our action as ‘unlawful roadblocks’ by ‘vigilante groups’. Like so many cases, attacks are founded on fear, which is, in turn, rooted in ignorance, and so to understand our motivations, you must first understand our history.

As strongly as the term ‘unprecedented times’ has featured in recent weeks, facing deadly epidemics is hardly unprecedented for Māori or our nation. Waves of epidemics decimated Māori from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s. Most of these were either introduced by early explorers or through imported animals, or originated as a result of unsanitary colonial settlements. Low immunity to introduced diseases left Māori at highest risk, and the consequences were grave: from first European contact to 1840, Māori lost an estimated 30 per cent of our entire population, mostly to epidemics. A further 30 per cent were lost in the twenty years that followed. The influenza epidemic of 1854 killed over 5000 Māori. Further epidemics continued to batter us through the 1800s and into the 1900s.

There are stories of the death rates for small communities being so high, that eventually they could not contain them in the urupā (burial ground), resulting in mass graves. In many urupā around the country today, you can still see the graves of children and their young parents – rows of them, still cared for, still remembered.

You see, we don’t forget our dead. We hang their photos in our meeting houses, and we sleep beneath these photos of young babies, in christening gowns, who never made it to adulthood. The young mothers and fathers who passed away before becoming elders. We immortalise their stories in carved pou on our marae so that we speak of their experiences when we gather. We keep our ancestors close, their memories live on with us, and their lives become our lessons.

Pou whakamaumahara (memorial) at Te Kōura marae, Maniapoto, in memory of those who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, carved by Tene Waitere of Ngāti Tarāwhai. A similar pou was carved for Te Ihingarangi marae, Waimiha. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

Nor are our responses without precedent. When the first wave of the global epidemic of 1918–1920 came through, Māori were again hit hardest, losing nearly 5 per cent of an already decimated population – one of the highest influenza death rates in the world. In addition to low immunity, political bickering and a fear of economic disruption led to state inaction, the price for which were thousands of Māori lives. When the second influenza wave came, small townships took action.  In the Coromandel, checkpoints were set up at all roads coming into the district, and temperatures were taken. In Te Araroa, my own ancestors also manned the entry points to control traffic coming through. Consequently, Coromandel and Te Araroa were two of the very few townships around the country that escaped the ravages of the second wave.

When you consider how closely Māori hold our ancestors, our reverence for history, and the scale of the loss we have suffered from epidemics, it is easy to understand the unease Māori communities felt when COVID-19 arrived on our shores. When you further consider that not only has the state historically failed to protect our ancestors, but that the common Indigenous experience of colonisation includes the use of disease as a genocidal weapon, then you can understand why we could not wait for anyone to come and save us.

When we heard that the COVID-19 risk factors were illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and chronic respiratory illnesses, we already knew that this related to nearly our entire population. Research and reports aside, we know this because we live the reality every day. We are the ones burying our loved ones from chronic illness year after year. We are the ones struggling to navigate a health system that was never built with us in mind. We didn’t need a statistician to paint a picture for us. We already knew, in our bones, what COVID-19 meant for our families. In a horrific and potent reminder of our history, Pacific people in Los Angeles are dying twelve times faster than white people from coronavirus, for exactly the same underlying factors of chronic illness listed above. If you have ever looked to the face of your elders, people that you have looked up to for strength and guidance since childhood, and seen genuine fear for their lives, then you will understand that being a protector is not really a choice: it is a duty that was carried and defined by our ancestors well before we came along.  It is framed by the knowing, from our own lived experience, that nobody will come to do this for us, and nor could they do it as effectively as us, for nobody knows and loves our people and place as we do.

The Māori duty to protect has served both Māori and non-Māori people of this nation multiple times throughout history. It led to thousands offering their lives during both world wars, in service to the Crown and nation. It led to Māori households taking in and feeding non-Māori during the Great Depression. It led Māori gang affiliates to offer their direct protection for Muslim families to pray safely after the Christchurch massacre. It led to marae opening their doors to the entire community in the aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake. Indeed, most marae also serve as civil defence centres for communities across the country. The Māori duty to protect runs deep, and has risen to the benefit of Aotearoa time and time again.

Keeping our communities safe from Covid-19 has not been easy work. Our people have worked through the day and the night, through sun, rain, and 4 am hailstorms to protect our community members, Māori and non-Māori alike. We have diligently monitored and reported back on our data to our communities, councils and Crown, and used that data to forge grounded, relevant solutions. We have faced off against meth dealers and belligerent breachers who refuse to have their activities curtailed. We have been faced with the heartbreak of whanau who have lost a loved one and not been able to grieve or farewell them as we usually do. We have seen distressed parents desperate to get to their children and brutalised partners escaping their abusers. In all of these instances, we have called upon police, health or social services to provide support for those in need. Lockdowns and traffic monitoring are not, as it turns out, as simple as they sound.

From the outset, we have extended our hand to Crown agencies to work alongside us in the protection of our communities. We have always wanted the advice and support of experts to carry out our duties in the safest way possible. Like all relationships with the Crown, it has not been without challenges, and it is still a work in progress, but in supporting our protection of our communities, New Zealand Police have stepped into their partnership responsibilities in their fullest sense.

This has, of course, become a low-hanging fruit for right-wing politicians and media commentators to stoke the fires of racism, decrying any kind of roadside community service as unlawful vigilantism, even when done with the support and presence of police, council and health services. National Party leader Simon Bridges has said: ‘There is no scenario, and it is Law School 101, where a member of the community is acting lawfully by stopping another Kiwi on a road in New Zealand’.

Let’s be clear: Simon Bridges has never spoken up against traffic management in front of schools. He has never complained about community traffic management for the Tauranga Triathlon. He has never decried community traffic management for farmers’ markets as unlawful vigilantism. He is choosing this context because it is an easy target for a bully, desperate to remain relevant in the face of a powerfully popular government. It is a cruel, boring and sad reality that attacking Māori has become the default campaign tactic of the right every electoral year, but this year, with such immediate life or death consequences, the heartless right-wing of New Zealand politics and media have proven that, even in the face of extreme adversity, they are simply unable to rise above the lowest form of themselves.

Conversely, the actions of Iwi and hapū have shown that in leading out these protective direct actions for the communities under our care, we can take from the precedents set by our ancestors over time, and apply them in a way that protects both Māori and non-Māori. We will not stand aside and again become a global statistic. Our duty to protect has served the nation multiple times, through war, disease, economic depression and natural disasters. The only thing that seeks to stand in the way of us continuing to serve and protect our communities in this way is racism, and we cannot let it win.


Consider joning the petition in support of community checkpoints.

Tina Ngata

Tina Ngata is a Ngāti Porou mother of two, Indigenous rights advocate, and environmental educator.

More by Tina Ngata ›

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  1. Tena Koe Tina,
    Thank you for all that you do for Maori.
    I’m proud to be Maori more than ever after reading your article.
    Ma te Atua koe i manaaki i tiaki i nga wa katoa.
    Rihari Te Whanau-a-Apanui

    1. Tena koe e te tungane. No greater joy brought than to hear a cuzzy filled with pride in who we are. Every day we live proudly as Maori we fulfil the dreams of our tipuna.

      Mauri ora ki a koe.

  2. How true is this statement you should go with out saying you done our people proud for speaking out Kia ora to you

    1. I am so proud of you Tina for speaking out for our Maori people people who have gone out of their way to protect us you bring tears to my eyes as I remember what my Tupuna went through during those dark days there is absolutely nothing wrong in doing what is right and I thank yous all for you protection

    2. kia ora Tina I felt your korero all way through as my dad had said past is yr future And for me this unfolding happening to us all over again brings me to understand what he spoke of,They have left footprints for us to carry on and know we will be ok with their guiding lights glowing with us all kia ora,

  3. Tena koe e te tuahine e Tina Joe Glen no te whanau a Rakaroa ki te Kiekie. Kei te marama kei te tino tautoko i o korero. Spent 22 years with Te karere and 28 years before that with the military. I’m not one to blow ones own trumpet i guess good fortune is that this kaikutu from waipiro bay is very very versed in ALL the issues you raise. Spent last 6 months of ones paid job “press sec” for our late whanaunga Parekura Horomia. Kia kaha kei te whakarongo ki wa Koutua. Kia heke iho te “corid-19 ki te tuapapa (2) ka haere atu ki o a Koutou hui.
    Nha mihi.

  4. Article 2 of the Treaty authorises any such action, if only people would read and digest the actual (Maori) words.

  5. Eloquently and truthfully said.

    Set apart from those who would complain about the Maori responses are plenty of Europeans like myself who not only support what you are doing, could see it happening before it did and who have been extremely impressed with the response of iwi all over the country. We’re very fortunate in this country to have this strong community response – well founded on tikanga, historical experience and the need to not only protect the direct loss of the elderly but that loss of oral history that many of them carry.

    I don’t think people understand the strength, the heartbreak, the resistance and anger you are all having to deal with as you put these restrictions in place. I have family members through marriage connected to one small community and it’s tough seeing the arguing and disagreement and anger as people struggle with some of the restrictions.

    I also seen the care and nurturing as food is distributed, firewood is cut and supplied, as welfare checks are made, as guidance is given – sure we pakeha and doing this as well – after all we are in this together – but anyone who suggests that there are not the skills and expertise and that Maori can’t put in systems and practise to care for their own is sadly mistaken. And it’s a shame that the media focus isn’t on those things and on understanding why these things have been done.

    You served your people well throughout this pandemic, you saved not only lives and history – but untold cost to the state in health care and on-going treatment. History will show you in a good light even when in the immediacy of the event there’s a lack of understanding by many of the very good job iwi and hapu groups are doing across the country.

    I for one thank you for what you have done. The country would be poorer for it if COVID-19 had got into your (our) communities. It is appreciated.

  6. Tena koe Tina
    Ka tika au na whakaaro, hiahia hoki hei tiaki i ta taua iwi.
    He tino mihi tenei ki a koe me to kaha tautoko i a tatou ano.

    Your support of our Tairawhiti community is the leadership we are fortunate to receive directly from you. Nga mihi nui rawa e te whanaunga.

    Na Huhana

  7. Tena rawa atu koe Tina. The depth and quality of expression in your writing is well considered and on point every step of the way. Ma wai e whakahe? Perhaps a dissertation is in order. That aside Tina, thank you for articulating the history so eloquently. It’s just a shame the mere fact of saving lives, a need so painfully obvious, has to be justified. Nga mihi nui atu ki a koe e hoa

  8. Kia ora Tina for your korero. Community self-defense in the widest sense and mutual aid is at a fundamental level about being good kaitiaki but the powers that be have a knee jerk reaction of seeing that as a threat to their control over us. Potentially, they aren’t wrong. Either way, if that’s what it takes to stay alive, so be it.

    By the way, I have re-posted your article to the website Im affiliated with. Hope that’s ok?

    Kia aha!

  9. For Maori and non Maori . Let us be united not devided. Together building a better future for all Children of this land.

  10. This warms my heart, e tautoko ana ahau ki ōu nei korero. Pai rawaatu. I will repost.

  11. Great korero, thank you for the informative history. I am a Pakeha woman from Tairawhiti and have supported the road blocks from day one. The vunerable need to be protected.

  12. Pai rawe atu to korero. One that brings the heart up and the tears to flow, thinking of what we have done, for one another, and averted disaster. Now people say, yes, it was nothing, but tell that to Italia and Espana, and other countries. We stepped up, no question. And we all can be proud. My heart goes out though to those pakeke that passed, aroha. But without the mahi we all did, whether we believed in it or not, it could have been a lot worse. Rire rire hau pai marire.

  13. Tena koe Tina. He mihi aroha ki a koe mo to karanga ki a matou. Thank you, and whanau who’ve been the kaimahi to protect us at the checkpoints. So proud of you all, and grateful.
    Cherie Te Rore
    Ngati Pahauwera

  14. As a non Maori I fully support your right and duty to protect your communities, especially those at high risk.
    Perhaps we all have something to learn from this.

  15. Kia ora Tina – thank you for this. So much of that racist response to roadblocks was out of ignorance – and wilful ignorance at that. My grandmother lived in Freemans bay in the 1918-20 pandemic and told me about the coffins she saw stacked in Victoria Park. But too few people knew the truth of the costs to rural Maori communities then and before that time. I hope that out of this process we are going through, history can be reframed and retaught as it should be to drown out those ignorant voices. Nga mihi nui ki a koe.

  16. I wrote this while on a Pacific trip four years ago


    It wasn’t the bullets which killed them off,
    Maoris living in isolation.
    It was the viruses which made them cough.
    Now, it’s not the bullets which kill them off,
    rather an excess of bad western skoff.*
    Shame they couldn’t stay in isolation.
    It wasn’t the bullets which killed them off,
    we put them into this situation!


  17. Tena koe Tina, I have belatedly read your article which reminds me again of how priviliged I am as a pakeha, to live in the rohe of Ngati Porou. I have been gifted the aroha and generosity of Ngati Hauiti during the lockdown; the firewood, the kai and the treasured friendships – and the protection of which you speak. My people have such a long, long way to go before we can truly live as partners to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The dominant capitalist structures which perpetuate the many injustices experienced daily by tangata whenua are also the millstones around the necks of pakeha who are still yet to wake up to this and the enormous potential for us as pakeha if we choose to embrace tino rangatiratanga. Thank you Tina for your aroha, insight, analysis and truth. Mauri ora

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