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Talking COVID and working with communities to increase vaccination

18 October 2021


Two early career MWC investigators are sharing their knowledge about COVID-19 to explain why vaccination is vitally important for Māori and Pacific communities.

Research Fellow Dr Natalie Netzler, a virologist with Samoan and Māori heritage, and Tongan PhD candidate Chris Puli’uvea have been refining the scientific language of COVID-19 and vaccinations. They are sharing this information across different communities. The pair are part of a team of researchers from MWC, the University of Auckland and the Immunisation Advisory Centre, which has been collaborating with churches and other groups to reach deeply into Māori and Pacific communities.

The team has developed informational videos in Te Reo Māori with support from Conor O’Sullivan from the Moko Foundation. The video has also been translated into Tongan, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tuvaluan and Fijian as well as being available in English. Translations for the Niuean, iKiribati and Rotuman communities are currently underway and will be uploaded here when available.

Television and radio interviews, online articles, social media, fono, Zoom question and answer sessions for Pacific community leaders, charities, youth and community groups are some of the many platforms the team has been using to raise awareness about the Delta variant and the rationale for vaccination. They are helping to answer community questions about how the vaccine works, why the messages are different from when New Zealand first learnt about COVID last year, and very importantly, why Māori and Pacific communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of this virus.

Natalie explains that the vaccine protects around 88 percent of people from infection with the Delta variant after two shots of the Pfizer vaccine which is a great level of protection. She says it is still important to wear a mask and stay in your bubble during a lockdown.  “We want to assure people that if you are vaccinated, you are much less likely to get really sick and die. We want to ensure as many of our Pacific and Māori whānau are protected.”


Dr Ofa Dewes, Dr Natalie Netzler and Mr Chris Puli’uvea

Dr Ofa Dewes, an MWC associate investigator, and Dr Glenn Doherty, an MWC clinical associate and the CEO and Medical Director of the Tongan Health Society, have been mobilizing communities in ways which recognise Pacific strengths. Ofa, Glenn and Glenn’s staff have been at the frontline of COVID-19 vaccination drives which are reaching into Samoan, Tongan, Tuvaluan, Tokelauan, iKiribati, Fijian and Rotuman communities across Auckland. This includes the “Mass Vaccination Day Push”.  

Ofa says the concept of community is acutely critical in protecting people from COVID-19. She frames it like this, “We are under attack by a virus. We are very fortunate to have access to the Pfizer vaccine but the uptake by our most vulnerable communities has been very low. To fight back, we need to mobilize all our power in the community, that is our relationships, influence, and knowledge.”


Dr Ofa Dewes and community members at the Fiji and Rotuma Vaccination Day

“It is very important that effective community leadership is represented at the decision-making level for prompt and effective action and that resources are strategically allocated to get to the hard-to-reach communities. This concept needs brokers to connect community with decision-makers and funders to ensure that we all receive the protection we need.”

In addition to the community events, the Tongan Health Society has been taking a Busifika Vax bus around faith-based organisations to vaccinate parishioners at their local churches. Pacific Health Plus in Cannons Creek, Porirua is another MWC partner that has been targeting hard-to-reach communities. Their staff has been cold calling local people, picking people up from their homes to bus them to the clinic, and have administered more than 6000 doses of the vaccine since its vaccination clinic opened.

Read more about the Tongan Health Society's latest event here.