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We're facing the same Covid-19 pandemic, but we're far from facing the same crisis

Opinion article from Stacey Shortall

While all New Zealanders are facing the same Covid-19 pandemic, we are far from facing the same crisis.

The current difference in alert levels between Auckland and the rest of New Zealand may make this point. But it misses the mark. For some of us are being hit harder than others regardless of where we live. It is how we live, and what we live on, that impacts how the Covid-19 crisis impacts us.

We know this. Inequality in the likes of education, housing, health, safety and justice is hardly new. Those working at the frontline of disadvantage in our country tell us about how the pandemic has only further highlighted inequality gaps. Which raises the question: with our sights focussed on seeking to prevent, or at least contain, the pandemic – even at the cost of shutting our largest city – when will we also target the inequality that has been highlighted in this crisis?

How do we avoid losing visibility of that inequality as we argue about appropriate border controls and testing? When do we accept that inequality hurts our team’s playing ability unless we prioritise it now?

Our team of five million is currently split. Only two thirds of us are allowed on the field. The other third is forced to watch from the stands. With no playing uniforms, no game time, no ability to participate. They get to see others of us play, even score some points. But they cannot fully participate in any win. They are only spectators. Not participants. If not already, they soon will be frustrated, disillusioned, anxious and perhaps even angry.

But they are not alone. Some seats in the stands are already occupied. For all Aucklanders are currently getting some insight into how at least some New Zealanders at the sharp end of inequality in our country live and watch from the stands all the time.

It is well-known that New Zealand has one of the highest levels of income and wealth inequality in the OECD. Statistics NZ has reported on how the wealthiest 5% of New Zealand households collectively own more than five times the wealth of the poorest 50%.

Even before Covid-19 hit our shores, around 23% of New Zealand children lived below the poverty line (after household costs are deducted from income) and many of our adults lived in material hardship. According to figures released by Statistics NZ in February this year, approximately 168,000 children lived in the lowest income group, which means their families survived on less than 40% of the national median income (after housing costs).

Last year the Child Poverty Monitor reported that 145,000 children (13% of all children in our country) lived in households where families could not afford to pay their power bills or visit the doctor on time. They also reported that over half of children from families who receive income-replacement financial assistance live in households experiencing severe-to-moderate food insecurity. The Child Poverty Monitor reported, too, how a child living in poverty is nearly three times more likely to end up in hospital than a child from a more affluent household. As reported by the Child Poverty Action Group, the International Monetary Fund’s house price-to-rent ratio shows New Zealand has one of the widest international gaps between prices and incomes. Thousands of New Zealand families waited for public housing well before Covid-19 arrived here. Many struggled to put meals on the dinner table, let alone make it to school or paid work.

These team members watched from the stands well before anyone here talked about Covid-19 or alert levels. Covid-19 may add layers to their crisis, but it is not the root cause. Take, for example, the New Zealanders who live in places identified by the IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation) as experiencing high deprivation. Developed by a team at the University of Auckland, the IMD uses government agency data to break New Zealand into around 6,000 areas to measure deprivation based on employment, income, crime, housing, health, education and access to services. How people live, and what they live on, in those areas is what tips the balance from low to high deprivation.

While some residents may feel otherwise, when the index was first released in 2017, it identified the most deprived place in our country as being near Fordlands in Rotorua. Media at the time reported that the majority of Rotorua was regarded as being amongst the most deprived areas in New Zealand. Just last year, media reports said the index showed 78% of residents in South Waikato living in areas of high deprivation. In the Kawerau district, the measure reportedly suggested that all residents live in areas of high deprivation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the index also shows areas of New Zealand with low deprivation too.

While government, of course, has a large part to play in closing these inequality gaps through interventions and support packages, so, too, can each of us play a part. More of us who are used to being on the field, and who will hopefully return there soon, can choose to use our current insight for good. We can seek to get more people out of the stands and into playing uniforms. We can aim to play a game with more equal rules. We can try to increase the size of the field and even target demolishing some of the stands.

It is our field afterall.

On 17 October we get to decide who will continue to referee the game and, in so doing, how the future game can be played with our team of five million. By the looks of things, we might need to play with Covid-19 in our midst for quite some time yet. The more of us on the field as players, together facing into the same crisis, the better. While it may be necessary for some of our team to hit the stands again for a time period as Covid-19 resurfaces, let that be the reason for coming out of play and becoming a spectator. Not poverty or deprivation. Not inequality.

So, over the coming weeks, let us ask the prospective referees more now about how they plan to tackle inequality in New Zealand. Let us keep inequality at the forefront even as we watch skirmishes about appropriate border controls and testing. They are important questions too, but not at the expense of all others. For targeting inequality makes our team of five million stronger because we get to field more players in the game that is made tougher because of Covid-19.

We need to hear those plans. And, once we have, each of us who can needs to vote on 17 October so that, alongside beating back Covid-19, we also we play our part in seeking to close inequality gaps in New Zealand.



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