Jodi Hawe, TEU EastBay REAP branch president, Te Toi Ahurangi representative, Te Kahurangi Māreikura on the TEU National Women’s Committee,  and injury preventions co-ordinator, reflects on life in lockdown and the strengths and challenges of rural living during a crisis.

Working from home in my small Kawerau community during lockdown, my loving whānau bubble has consisted of my mokopuna and teenaged children. It’s been challenging with the dynamics, and being in such close quarters. We’ve had sections of the house we’ve each been able to mahi from, but there has been much more working together, which we’ve learnt to do well.

We’ve enjoyed our time at home together. We have learnt to have patience for one another, and have quickly picked up the art of compromise, particularly with teenagers in the house.

I’m recently immuno-compromised following a serious operation, which has again brought its own challenges. We are now more acutely aware of the risks of bringing sickness into our home, but we’ve done our best to figure it out as we go.

It’s been a really unsettled time, and often frightening. One of the biggest challenges within the home bubble has been ordering shopping online and having to contend with a waiting period. It’s a troubling fact that in my community, access to home delivery of alcohol has been far more timely, with same day delivery for alcohol, and a 7 day wait on bread, milk and groceries.

It’s been difficult hearing about other tertiary education institutions asking staff to take percentage pay cuts, annual leave, or looking at redundancies. My organisation has been great throughout this crisis, and we haven’t had to worry about pay in the way so many working people have.

EastBay REAP started the lockdown effectively a week before everyone else, giving us plenty of time to set up our homes with office spaces. We have regular meetings to check up on one another, and to see how our mahi is going. As injury preventions co-ordinator, I’ve also been able to move in spaces and places that are not within my bubble, and I’ve been able to visit with kaumātua, to check and see if they want support, what they might need, and then refer them to the right services.

The level of need that was already high in my community only increased as we went into lockdown.

We knew through staff working with whānau at our EastBay Kawerau office, that there was not always enough kai at home to bring into mahi or kura. Our office often supplies breakfast and lunch for those who need it, so we knew as COVID-19 spread, and restrictions increased, so too would the challenges facing our community’s whānau.

During the first two weeks of lockdown, I worked exclusively with the many whānau in Kawerau who I knew struggled. While they survive week to week, during lockdown this struggle has increased as all the kai they used to purchase, the smaller and cheaper quantities, were all gone. The only items left on shelves were the larger quantities, and more expensive items. We had lots of whānau that needed kai, so I’ve worked with local organisations to ensure these whānau got the kai, and tautoko they need.

With the digital divide posing further barriers, one of our tutors went out one day to drop off laptops to our learners, so they could do their zoom sessions and learning online. One whānau hadn’t had kai for three days. They had gone shopping but there was nothing they could afford, and many of the shelves that once held the staples within their price range were bare. We were able to provide a kai parcel for this whānau, but knew there would be many more in a similar position.

The whānau we were able to provide support for soon told another about the kai parcel we provided, and we quickly learned there were more in need. We have since had many people get in touch who we have been able to tautoko.

It has been a humbling experience to find that due to panic buying, that has cleared the shelves of all the cheap product, whānau are really struggling. It’s been a learning curve, and spelled out some home truths. But it has also been humbling and heartening to see the level of tautoko, togetherness, manaakitanga and gratitude expressed throughout the entire community.

Everyone helps one another, we are all givers now. Everyone has given something, no matter how big or small.

In this little community we have become one village, one whānau. The whole of Kawerau has become what has historically been known as papakāinga. If someone puts out there that they need flour, it has been delivered to their letter box.

This has been a time of giving, and I really hope this sense of awhi atu, awhi mai – giving and reciprocity – is maintained not only through this period, but into the future.

We’ve also seen people out and about as whānau, with children, parents and older whānau, walking dogs and playing together that we perhaps didn’t see enough of before lockdown, with people so busy between mahi, kura, and generally getting by.

As bad as Kawerau is often portrayed, we often don’t hear the good. There is strength in rural living in the ways we can rally around one another through close whānau and iwi ties. There is strength in living in a smaller town, in knowing who everyone is, knowing who may need awhi, and who may be able to support others.

We can determine that need in a way that avoids our whānau feeling whakamā. It doesn’t matter who you are. There are many non-Māori within our community who have been supported by our local hauora services. You can refer anyone who is in need, and they will be supported by our local iwi trust and hauora.

As we move through the lockdown levels, and we see some light at the end of the tunnel, we look forward to celebrating our success as a community, and the togetherness we have achieved.

We would like to have a big community event when the time is right, to celebrate and thank our community. We have essential workers, that mahi every day, but there are all those undercover sisters and brothers, that have been there in support in whatever shape or form, and I hope that we keep that togetherness, and continue to tautoko one another far into the future.