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Only aroha spread in isolated East Cape communities during COVID-19 lockdown

When New Zealand came under threat of deadly pandemic, COVID-19, Tairāwhiti’s Te Aroha Kanarahi Trust knew it had to act quickly to protect vulnerable communities in their area.

Wharekahika, Waikura and Potaka are the three northernmost communities of the Gisborne District, meaning they are the most isolated from Gisborne’s support services.

Not only are they isolated, the age and health profiles of the 220 households in these communities read like a neat summary of all the risk factors for COVID-19. Limited access to internet and digital devices meant getting vital information about the pandemic and safety procedures was a challenge in itself.

“Because of our low immunity, prevalence of chronic illness and poor access to health services, if COVID-19 got in here, it would spread at an accelerated pace through these communities and it would decimate our people, just as the influenza epidemic did in 1918,” Te Aroha Kanarahi Trust Trustee and Community Lead for COVID-19 Response, Ani Pahuru-Huriwai says.

“Prevention was our strongest hope and keeping Matakaoa COVID-free became our mantra.”

Te Aroha Kanarahi Trust quickly sprang into action organising food and personal hygiene packages for every household in the isolated communities. The Trust received a $10,000 grant from Eastern and Central Community Trust (ECCT) to fund newsletters, resources and signage to help educate and inform their communities containing vital information and public health messaging.

“I wasn’t sure which fund we should apply for but after sending an email of our plight, and having a conversation with Jonathan and Patricia (ECCT staff) – they made the process easy for us at a very stressful time, for which we are very grateful,” Ani says.

Week one of lockdown saw volunteers deliver 65 kai and care packs to the Wharekahika, Waikura and Potaka communities. The need grew to 100 households by week two.

“By week three we had been asked to support 100 households in the nearby township of Te Araroa. We combined our resources with the Te Araroa Progressive Association to ensure that no one in need missed out.

“The kai/care packs included fresh fruit and vegetables, pantry staples and meat. There were also cleaning packs, and hygiene and sanitary goods. And much needed information as well.

“A tamariki pack for households with children was included on the fourth week, which consisted of activity books crayons, felts, colouring pencils and a few treats. We also did a rural mailbox drop last week. We have learned that education, both verbal and written coming from a community level at this time, is critical.”

Te Aroha Kanarahi Trust also lobbied to have the Tairāwhiti District Health Mobile testing clinic come to their isolated area, and used social media to spread the word and run a competition called #gotmyswab for more incentive. People posted photos with their swabber or being swabbed to go in the draw for a $200 grocery voucher – one for each community Potaka/Waikura, Wharekahika and Te Araroa. Over three days, more than 200 people were tested in Potaka, Wharekahika and Te Araroa.

“There were vehicles lined up like a rugby finals match! All tests had a negative result. It started the ball rolling for other communities across the East Coast, with a total of 657 being swabbed over the three days. Add the number of checkpoint kaitiaki who had been swabbed the week prior, and that takes the total to almost 800 people tested.”

Ani says none of this would’ve been possible without the support of Eastern and Central Community Trust and other funders, donations of food, meat, and money, as well as the generous time given by dedicated volunteers who worked to get the packs out as quickly as possible.

“It’s been a team effort to get the necessities out to those who need them. Our crew have worked tirelessly, out of the safety of their own bubbles, to ensure that in these unprecedented and trying times, our whanau and communities have had something to smile about each week,” Ani says.

Comments from locals on the Trust’s Facebook page express gratitude to all involved in providing the support.

“Thank you for your labour of love and to all the sponsors. God bless and keep you all protected,” Package recipient, Hineawe says.

“So thankful for each and every one of you and all your hard mahi!” Rihi, another recipient, says.

As the Government drops from Alert Level 4 to Level 3, and with some luck soon to Level 2, the East Cape communities remain COVID-19 free and are looking forward to “some kind of normal”.

The only thing they want spread here is aroha!