As we consider the implications of a move to COVID-19 Alert Level 3, Maria Meredith - member of the TEU Tangata Pasifika Advisory Network and programme manager at the University of Auckland - considers how members of Pasifika communities have fared during lockdown, and the challenges and opportunities the months ahead will bring.

At home, in my bubble, a conversation came up recently that gave me pause to reflect on the unique challenges facing Pasifika communities at this time, but also the opportunities for building on our many strengths.

Like many people, I’ve been doing my part to protect my community, and prevent the spread of illness, by dropping food parcels to older members of my family. What I’ve noticed on these runs is not a new observation, but the current limitations we all now face has made the unique circumstances of many Pasifika families all the more apparent.

Upon being greeted at the door, while keeping a safe distance, I quickly notice the many family members under one roof. I’m reminded that Pasifika peoples tend to live in more crowded households, often with intergenerational and extended family, and on average with a higher number of children. The social bonds and sense of love and responsibility for one another that this closeness can create is a real strength within my community, and a strength that means many families have only grown closer over the last month.

I’m also reminded, however, that Pasifika people’s median income is the lowest compared to other ethnic groups in New Zealand, with Pasifika peoples more likely than the general population to report they don’t have enough money to meet their everyday needs. I’m also reminded that both economic and health disparities disproportionately impact our communities even without the added insecurity of a global health and economic crisis.

As we know, our interconnectedness doesn’t rely only on face-to-face interaction. My own family and members of my community have used technology to stay in touch and connected with family, friends and vulnerable members of our community.

Many of our children and young people have been able to keep up with their school work, and stay in touch with friends through the technologies most of us enjoy. But I also know with only 65% of our Pasifika population connected to the internet, and with overcrowded households having to share a limited number of devices, many of our families haven’t enjoyed this level of connectedness and have lost continuity in their childrens’ education.

Exacerbating these challenges, I’ve observed it seems we are often less likely to seek out and ask for help through formal channels, even when it is desperately needed. Instead, Pasifika families will often turn to more traditional means of support from family members, through church and within the community.

A strength of Pasifika communities is our kainga (Tongan for relatives/kin) and community connections. We turn to one another in times of need, but this strength, a strength that serves us so well under normal circumstances, is currently impeded by restrictions that no one could foresee.

As we move forward into an extended period of uncertainty, we need to work together to lift our strengths to another level. We need to utilise the organisations that support Pasifika communities to collaborate and come up with solutions to support families that will be facing the increased hardship of unemployment, loss of income, and disparities in health and education. We also need to be at the table in leading more formal means of support for our Pasifika communities at the local and national levels.

As TEU Pasifika members, and in our communities, we can start by letting those around us know that it’s okay to ask for help, and by sharing information around the various pathways for support. We can use our strengths as union members, and as Pasifika people, to strengthen our bonds with one another and to support our most vulnerable families and colleagues, now and through the uncertain times ahead.