The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has been described, perhaps accurately, as a one-in-one-hundred-years event, but during its history New Zealand has a number of “scares” and lockdowns because of infectious diseases that have had detrimental impacts on Māori. In 2020, the memory of these epidemics has led some Māori communities to attempt to keep the coronavirus away from their own communities.
Historically, Pākehā were more concerned that Māori would spread disease to them. Māori were sometimes seen by Pākehā as a weak link in New Zealand’s chain of health defences, with poor, overcrowded and unsanitary housing and customs that could potentially spread disease. Māori, often due to poverty or lack of access, were also less likely to seek medical treatment, and epidemics could hit their communities hard.
This of course resonates with recent Māori protest against the limits on numbers at gatherings under Covid-19 lockdown, which impacted on their ability to conduct tangihanga properly for the deceased. Government decisions may impact some particular ethnic groups more than others, but the wording of present-day regulations or instructions tends to be more careful than was historically the case. Nevertheless, Māori felt targeted when marae were specifically referenced in police powers with regard to the coronavirus.
Official restrictions in the past were far blunter, with Māori specifically excluded from public transport under the Public Health Act. How did the authorities react when an outbreak of spinal meningitis (also referred to as cerebro-spinal meningitis or fever) that hit the Māori communities of the Bay of Islands in 1941? A localised epidemic that affected Māori during the war, this form of meningitis was infectious, but did not normally impact Māori any more than Pākehā. While restricted in its spread, this disease has some similarities to the disease currently troubling us. Schools were closed and parents urged to keep children at home; a few public buildings closed; some gatherings and troop movements were stopped; people were told to “stay put”, to use handkerchiefs, and that “talking directly into people’s face should be avoided”. The outbreak caused considerable anxiety in the area, leading Dr Frengley of the Kawakawa Hospital to reassure people that “there was no reason … for people to get ‘meninjitters’”.
This form of meningitis was a serious and potentially fatal disease, but (unlike the coronavirus) doctors of the 1940s had recourse to sulphapyradine, a then new anti-bacterial wonder drug, more commonly known as “693”, which could be reasonably effective if patients were treated early. On 22 April 1941, the Northern Advocate reported an outbreak of seven cases of meningitis in individuals from Moerewa, Kawakawa, Taumarere and Akarema who had been transferred to Kawakawa Hospital. Three had died, one Māori child, one Pākehā child, and a Pākehā adult. According to the newspaper, this was possibly the first time 693 had been used to treat spinal meningitis in New Zealand.
Dr G.O.L. Dempster, Northland’s Medical Officer of Health, acted quickly, isolating affected families. His investigation concluded that a single Māori home had been the source of the outbreak. The following day he banned all Māori gatherings, including tangihanga throughout Northland. Despite his efforts, more cases were presenting throughout May; all Northland schools were then closed, and troop movements curtailed. Although Māori gatherings were banned, the general public remained free to move and mingle. Anxieties about Māori were clearly setting in. The newspaper reported on a “truck load of Maoris” attending a full Kaikohe picture theatre. There was also concern about pubs being “open for natives to gather”. In May, a “highly respected” Maori Council member from Kohukohu was prosecuted for breaching the ban on tangihanga. The man had lost two daughters on 29 and 30 April, and was preparing to bury them at Pawarenga. The court was told that all the Māori councillors, including the defendant, had been informed of the ban. A gathering of about fifty natives of both sexes attended the hui, and Constable McNutt warned [the father] that the tangi should be terminated so that the people could return to their own settlements. The bereaved father stated he had tried to send the mourners away, but they had refused to leave. While the Court, the police, and Medical Officer expressed sympathy for the man’s plight, the judge decided to make an example nevertheless. Although the court could have imposed a £200 penalty, the father, in the end, was fined just £10.
Further cases of meningitis continued to appear, mostly Māori children and young people. The patients came from further afield, causing more anxiety within the Pākehā community. A respite of several weeks resulted in a lifting of restrictions, but a resurgence saw them reimposed, including a new ban on Māori gatherings in June. The meningitis crisis eventually waned, although spasmodic cases, and occasional deaths, continued through into the following year.
Of course meningitis was not the worst health issue for Māori. In October 1941, for example, there were 29 notifications for Māori cases of tuberculosis with five deaths in the North Auckland district. But TB was an endemic disease familiar to Pākehā, whereas meningitis was abnormal, leading to a racialised response to the outbreak, through fears that Māori would transmit the disease to Pākehā and their children. In 1941, Māori were specifically targeted with restrictions because the Government Health Officer saw their hui, and the customs practiced there, as likely to spread disease. Similarly in 2020, the government sought to limit hui, such as tangihanga, for the same reasons, and because they did not trust Māori to take necessary precautions. However, in the face of Māori protest the government was eventually forced to moderate their position. A purely Pākehā response to epidemics such as that of 1941 is no longer acceptable in 2020. The challenge for the future is how to respond to disease in ways that recognise and respect cultural difference.
Lachy Paterson teaches in Te Tumu: School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago. His publications to date have tended to focus mostly on nineteenth-century Māori-language print culture, but he is now part of the Marsden-funded Māori Home Front project looking at the lived Māori experience in New Zealand during the Second World War. The article above has emerged from this research.
- Northern Advocate, 5 May 1941: 6
- Northern Advocate, 14 May 1941: 9