Māori MPs are giving good leadership to their communities through the coronavirus challenges, however it is reported that some are reluctant to tell Māori they should get vaccinated. This supposedly reflects longstanding distrust of the Crown.
Pushback against mask wearing and vaccinations in America reflects distrust of government, science and collective action, and has had tragic consequences. No such large-scale opposition has occurred in New Zealand. Māori during the 2020 lockdown period stepped up to assist with road checkpoints to stop coronavirus spreading to Northland.
Māori MPs are not “blood and soil” nativists privileging birth-ascribed race and traditional belief over proven science. In 1907 it was Māori MPs and medical and other leaders such as James Carroll, Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare and Peter Buck who promoted the Tohunga Suppression Act. This banned tohunga from claiming supernatural healing powers or promoting “quackery”, and it cleared the way for widespread adoption of modern medicine.
There is no such thing as “indigenous science” or “western science”. There is closed society cultural or religious belief, and then there is open society science that transcends cultures and is based on critical reasoning, the search for understanding and for truth.
The stunning mRNA vaccine and other advances means that science’s mana continues to gain unstoppable traction in Māori thinking. The university “Mirror on Society” and related initiatives that deliver special pathways for Māori into medicine have had a big impact. Part of its intellectual roots lie in Kenneth Arrow’s classic 1963 paper that created the foundation for health economics. Arrow’s paper tacitly valorised the importance of cultural flows of health-related understanding, flows that growing numbers of Māori doctors and other clinicians have facilitated.
The concept of mana motuhake has framed the thinking of some key Māori leaders as they grapple with guiding their communities towards vaccination while acknowledging that it is legally an individual’s choice.
Mana motuhake upholds an individual’s autonomy, self-determination and freedom to choose rather than be subject to government edict. It implies the subsidiarity principle, which is that decisions should be devolved to the most decentralised level competent to make the decision and where the effects lie. This is typically at the individual level.
Universal science vaccinates mana motuhake from the risk it becomes closed, parochial or tribal, and it turns it into informed and socially responsible libertarianism.
However, it does not imply individuals should be allowed to neglect or do harm to others. Vaccination decisions have effects far beyond the individual – coronavirus is communicable, as are the viruses of the mind that lead to conspiracy theories.
The Māori MPs from Labour and the Māori Party, Shane Reti’s fine mind, and Māori doctors and clinicians are part of the open society which trusts in universal science. In contrast, Hannah Tamaki represents a closed society mentality. She is legally entitled to refuse the vaccine. However, as both a political and a religious leader she is not entitled to behave in such a way as to undermine science and guide her sheep-like followers away from vaccination and into darker places.