Protecting the most vulnerable – Dr Api Talemaitoga

16 October 2020

When New Zealand’s COVID-19 pandemic response needed a Pasifika voice, Dr Api Talemaitoga did not hesitate to step up to the task.

“If you see a need, you have to put your hand up,” says the Distinguished Fellow and College Pacific Chapter Chair. 

“I knew that if this virus took hold in the Pasifika community it would be totally devastating, and I simply had to do something to stop that happening.”

While the initial response to the pandemic threat from the Government was rapid and decisive, it did not reach those communities who were most vulnerable.

“Pasifika and Māori communities have very low health literacy levels,” explains Api. “They also have a high incidence of chronic conditions such as respiratory disease, ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, obesity and so on that mean that their ability to fight a virus like COVID-19 would be compromised.”

Cultural connectivity also contributed to increased risk levels, with many Pacific families living in multi-generational households (40 percent of them over-crowded) making social distancing impossible.

“We also knew that if any elderly got sick, there would be a lot of resistance to any attempts to isolate them away from their families, such is the respect Pasifika communities have for their old folk,” says Api.

Api raised his concerns with Deborah Woodley, Deputy Director General overseeing the Pacific Team at the Ministry of Health and was impressed by the positive reaction.

“The leadership team there saw straightaway that the key to helping these communities lay in letting Pasifika health professionals take the lead and co-ordinate the response,” he says. 

“People needed to receive the information in their own languages, from those they trusted and related to.

“If we let this virus get through just one chink in our armour, it will run wild and the devastating transmission and death toll rates we have seen in other countries will happen here.”

“It was amazing to see how the Pasifika leadership stepped up and took control of the situation. Those on the clinical frontline were outstanding in making sure information reached those who needed it, co-ordinating testing stations and encouraging people, such as church ministers, to get involved and assist.”

The impact was immediate in terms of raising awareness and in mobilising testing stations – particularly in response to the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship church cluster and the positive result in a child who was a member of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa Māngere East Puaseisei community.

“It was clear that the message was getting across, which was very gratifying and played a huge role in containing the outbreak in the way we did,” says Api. “I am very proud of the GP clinics, the doctors and the nurses, in the way they dealt with the crisis, they did a wonderful job.”

Api is continuing to make sure the Pasifika voice is heard after being appointed to the Border Testing and Surveillance Strategy group by the Minister of Health Chris Hipkins, along with Papakura GP and Māori health advocate Dr Rawiri Jansen and Professor Philip Hill from Otago University.

“Our role was to look at what needed to be done to control the COVID-19 virus for the foreseeable future,” he explains. 

“We know that it will be around for the next two or three years, so we needed to identify what management processes and protocols we need to put into place in our airports and ports.”

The group, chaired by NZTA Chair Sir Brian Roche and Helen Clark’s former Chief of Staff Heather Simpson, talked to public health officials in New Zealand and from Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan in order to identify the best approach. They also spoke to government and airline officials, airport and port organisations to benefit from their expertise.

“The willingness of people to share their knowledge and experience for the benefit of all has been humbling,” says Api. “We have also received many compliments for the New Zealand response.”

He says that while plans are being put into place to protect the border, the New Zealand population also need to play their part.
“I knew that if this virus took hold in the Pasifika community it would be totally devastating, and I simply had to do something to stop that happening.”

“Complacency is beginning to take over, which is very concerning,” he says. “Personally, I would have liked to have seen the wearing of masks made mandatory in public spaces. We must remain vigilant. 

“The low flu infection rates we are seeing this season prove that good hygiene practices can have a huge effect on transmission and people absolutely need to maintain this.

“If we let this virus get through just one chink in our armour, it will run wild and the devastating transmission and death toll rates we have seen in other countries will happen here.”