How Māori and Pasifika are more at risk from Covid-19

By Stuff reporter

The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination | Report by Stuff

Around the world, ethnic minorities have been hit harder by Covid-19. New Zealand appears to be no exception.

When scientists investigated who had been worst affected since Covid-19 arrived here in February 2020, the news was not good. 

The research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found even healthy Māori and Pasifika who got Covid-19 were more likely to become seriously ill. Māori aged 44 and Pasifika aged 40 had a similar risk of being rushed to hospital with Covid-19 complications as a 65-year-old Pākehā person.

There are two ways Māori and Pasifika could be at greater risk. The first is if they’re more likely to catch the virus. The second is if they’re more likely to get seriously sick or die once infected.

In the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Māori died at 2.6 times the rate of Pākehā and Pasifika were almost six times as likely to die of the disease. Māori and Pasifika were also more likely to end up in intensive care.

Exactly why is harder to unpick, but a 2012 study pointed to several likely contributors, which are also relevant to Covid-19.

More Māori and Pasifika live in crowded houses, making it easier for viruses to spread. And they’re more likely to live in the poorest areas, which were home to four out of ten people who died in the 2009 pandemic.

Māori and Pasifika also have worse access to health services. About 41 percent of Māori, and 36 percent of Pasifika, struggle to see a family doctor when they need one.

But Māori and Pacific people are also more likely to get really sick or die once they’re infected.

A Te Punaha Matatini study predicted Māori would be 50 percent more likely to die than non-Maori if Covid-19 ran wild in New Zealand. In the 40-59 age group, Māori could be almost five times as likely to die as Pākehā.

That’s partly because they have more long-term health problems, which can turn Covid-19 from a mild cold-like disease into a disease that makes it almost impossible to breathe.

Of those who died in the 2009 swine flu pandemic, 86 percent had at least one other condition, including obesity and diseases affecting breathing.

The United States’ Centers for Disease Control lists 17 health conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from Covid-19. They include cancer, ongoing kidney or lung problems, heart conditions, obesity, smoking, and diabetes.

Māori and Pasifika have worse rates of each of those conditions. They get diabetes at more than twice the rate of Pākehā, they’re more likely to smoke, they get more heart disease at an earlier age, and have worse cancer rates.

Conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, smoking, and lung problems, increase Covid-19 vulnerability, as the disease is particularly severe when it infects the lungs.

People with heart disease are also at greater risk because if the lungs aren’t working properly, the heart has to work harder to get oxygen-rich blood around the body.

Cancer patients are also more vulnerable, as the drugs can weaken the immune system. 

The higher risk to Māori and Pasifika makes preventive measures, including vaccination, all the more important.

Reporting disclosure: University of Canterbury mathematics professor Michael Plank provided expert advice for this article. Family doctor and clinical director of a primary health organisation, Dr Rawiri Jansen, also reviewed the article.