Street gangs may hold key to New Zealand hitting 90% Covid-19 vaccination rate target

People queue outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre set up at a Maori meeting house and community centre in Auckland on Oct 16, 2021.
People queue outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre set up at a Maori meeting house and community centre in Auckland on Oct 16, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

AUCKLAND (NYTIMES) - Rawiri Jansen, a Maori doctor, had an urgent message for the 150 people, mostly patch-wearing members of New Zealand's plentiful street gangs and their families, who sat before him on a bright Saturday afternoon.

Covid-19 is coming for them, he said. Cases in New Zealand's hospitals are rising rapidly. Soon, dozens of new infections a day might be hundreds or even 1,000. People will die. And vaccination is the only defence. "When your doctors are scared, you should be scared," he said.

By the end of the day, after an exhaustive question-and-answer session with other health professionals, roughly one-third of those present chose to receive a dose then and there.

Having abandoned its highly successful "Covid-zero" elimination strategy in response to an outbreak of the delta variant, New Zealand is now undergoing a difficult transition to trying to keep coronavirus cases as low as possible.

On Friday (Oct 22), the country set a target of getting at least 90 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated - a goal, the highest in the developed world, whose success hinges on persuading people like those who gathered to hear Dr Jansen.

Already, 86 per cent of the eligible population has received at least one dose. But the final few percent are the most difficult to reach, and one group of particular concern is the gang community, many of whose members are Maori or Pacific Islanders, who make up about one-quarter of the overall population.

In the past two months, multiple outbreaks have been reported among gangs, a group less likely to comply with official vaccination efforts, forcing officials to cooperate with gang leaders to reach their communities.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of gang membership in the world. There are around 8,000 gang members in the country, according to the most recent police estimates, and many suffer from urban poverty.

Counting family and associates, the size of the community might be 10 times that, in a country of 5 million people, said Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.

New Zealand's gangs have a long history, often inspired by similar American groups. In 1961, it became the first country outside the United States to have a chapter of the Hells Angels. Beginning in the 1970s, gangs with an ethnic basis, including the majority-Maori Black Power and Mongrel Mob, became more widespread.

For Maori who had moved to New Zealand's urban centres, gangs became a critical way to find kinship away from traditional tribal structures.

More recently, Dr Gilbert said, some have been drawn to gangs for their association with profit-driven crime, particularly the sale of drugs. New Zealand is a lucrative market for methamphetamine, and gang members have been among those caught in major police stings.

The link between gangs and organised crime, however, is not wholly straightforward, Dr Gilbert said. "New Zealanders tend to look at the gangs with a single lens around criminality, whereas the scene is and always has been far more nuanced than that," he said. Even within a single gang, he added, some chapters might be highly criminalised, while others are more community-focused.

Since the 1960s, New Zealand politicians have sought to score points by promising to crack down on gangs or by publicly criticising them. Attempts to engage with the gangs have tended to generate pearl-clutching headlines; a government grant of about US$2 million (S$2.7 million) to a drug rehabilitation program connected to members of the Mongrel Mob was intensely criticised, including by police leaders.

But during the current coronavirus outbreak, the police and the Ministry of Health have worked with gangs to help with vaccination outreach and contact tracing. Two Mongrel Mob leaders, Mr Harry Tam and Mr Sonny Fatupaito, were given "critical worker" border exemption passes, allowing them to cross from one region to another.

Since then, social organisations with an existing relationship with both the New Zealand government and with gangs and other marginalised groups have been deputised as emissaries to these hard-to-reach communities. They have been given grants to help bring people together to get vaccinated.

"We don't traditionally have ways to connect with them," Ms Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone, New Zealand's director of Pacific health, said of the gangs. "And by finding the people that can and giving them the information, you've got a much higher chance of being successful."

A social change organisation called the Cause Collective is one of the groups that has helped build the bridges.

"Health officials now realise, 'We don't really know the communities, the hard-to-reach communities,' so they need professionals in those areas," said hip-hop producer Danny Leaosavai'i, also known as Brotha D, who works with the organisation and has a long-standing connection to gang leaders.

Mr Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for New Zealand's Covid-19 response, acknowledged earlier this month that the decision to enlist gang leaders was an unusual one.

"Our No. 1 priority here is to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, and that means doing what we need to do to get in front of the virus," he said. "Where we have been able to enlist gang leaders to help with that and where they have been willing to do so, we have done that."

Some gang leaders have acted independently to help the vaccination effort. They have connected members of their community to health officials, organised events with health professionals like Dr Jansen, and streamed events on Facebook Live to allow an open forum for questions about rare health risks. In some cases, they have taken vaccines to communities themselves.

"Our community is probably less well-informed; they're probably not as health literate," said Mr Tam, the Mongrel Mob member, who is a former civil servant and who received the border exemption. Constant media criticism has turned them off from reading traditional news outlets, he added.

"They then resort to social media, because they have much greater control," he said. "It's also a space that perpetuates conspiracy theories and false information and all the rest of it." Health advice has to come from trusted individuals and leaders in the community, he said.

In the past week, Mr Tam has travelled almost the length of the country organising pop-up vaccination events for members and their communities as well as coordinating with other chapter leaders to get their members vaccinated, he said.

It was difficult work that put him at personal risk, he said, and that invited intense scepticism from people who thought of gangs only as violent or connected to organised crime.

"Why do we bother?" Mr Tam said. "We bother because we care about those people that others don't care about, as simple as that. They can talk about my gang affiliation, all the rest of it. But it's that affiliation that allows me to have that penetration, that foot in the door. I can do the stuff that they can't do."