Unprecedented Times: Māori Experiences of Pandemics Past in the Time of COVID-19

Keywords: Covid-19, Kaumātua, Tikanga, Tangihanga, Hongi


Covid-19’s (mate korona)  spread across the world and the implementation of wide sweeping government instigated public health measures saw a growing notion globally that we are living in “unprecidented times”. This notion was also expressed in Aotearoa New Zealand with the arrival of Covid-19 to Aotearoa New Zealand shores in early 2020. While Covid-19 presents a new epidemiological  threat, examination of Aotearoa’s historical twentith century pandemics and sporadic outbreaks of infectious diseases show similar challanges to tikanga Māori (Māori protocols, customs, and behavioural guidelines) as COVID-19 presents today. This paper contextualises Māori experiences of epidemics and pandemics of the past and explores the historical and contemporary assaults on Māori customs during times of disease. Drawing on archival research, contemporary sources, and interviews with kaumātua (Māori elders) conducted during Aotearoa’s first national lockdown in 2020, this study scrutinises both historical and contemporary New Zealand Governmental responses and media attitudes towards tangihanga (funarary rites) and hongi (pressing of the noses) during pandemics and epidemics. Alongside examining the cultural significance and importance of tangihanga and hongi to Māori, this study shows that far from being “unprecedented times”, many of the same challenges to these practices Māori have faced during past pandemics and epidemics have remerged during COVID-19. Through this examination, this study highlights that a pattern exists where tikanga Māori practices come under public and political scrutiny and attack during pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks. Kaumātua are bastions of tikanga and collective memory of pandemics and other crises of the past and have integrated tikanga based disease mitigation measures into their intergenerational collective memory corpus. This paper highlights both the importance of these tikanga practices to kaumātua, and how tikanga informed kaumātua approaches to COVID-19 public health measure restrictions and their personal hauora (health). By undertaking this study, this paper draws particular attention to tikanga as an imperative aspect of Māori identity that must be understood by health officials, and the continual importance of the tikanga Māori concept of tapu (restricted, set apart, sacred) in mitigating disease and maintaining Māori hauora (health). 

Author Biography

Nicolas Jones, The University of Auckland

Nicholas Jones (Ngāi Tūhoe/Ngāpuhi) is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Waipapa Taumata Rau/The University of Auckland and a research assistant at the James Henare Research Centre. He has experience in a range of Kaupapa Māori-led community-based research projects including examining kaumātua health and wellbeing, and Māori data sovereignty. 


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