Unprecedented Times: Māori Experiences and Responses to Global Pandemics

  • Nicholas Jones Auckland University
  • Marcos Mortensen Steagall  (Translator)
Keywords: COVID-19, Disease, Kaumātua, Memory, Tapu


The onset of COVID-19 in 2020 saw media, politicians, and government organisations quick to comment that these are “unprecedented times.” However, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the 1918 influenza (mate rewharewha urutā) pandemic, and sporadic outbreaks of tuberculosis (mate kohi), and HIV/AIDS (mate ārai kore), have presented challenges similar to COVID-19 today. Focusing mainly, but not limited to, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the many tuberculosis outbreaks that plagued Aotearoa, this paper will contextualise the Māori experience and explore the challenges, prejudices, and assaults on Māori customs in times of pandemic. This paper focuses on Governmental responses to COVID-19 in regard to tangihanga (funeral rites) and hongi (pressing of noses), and shows in times of pandemic, a pattern exists where these cultural practices come under attack. The significance of these practices must be understood by health officials in the full context in order to assist the government in creating new health policies. Incorporating the contemporary voices of kaumātua (Māori elders) interviewed during the COVID-19 outbreak, I will examine the significance of Māori cultural practices in Māori society and highlight challenges that kaumātua endured during the COVID-19 lockdown. Far from being “unprecedented times,” this study will show many of the same challenges Māori faced in past pandemics have resurfaced again in the time of COVID-19. Kaumātua hold a collective memory of pandemics and other crises. During the height of COVID-19 restrictions, some Māori elders have reflected that these restrictions were nothing new to them. Rather, disease and disease mitigation measures have been incorporated as part of their intergenerational collective memory corpus. With COVID-19’s arrival on Aotearoa’s shores, Māori leaders, kaumātua, and communities galvanized to protect their communities, instigating community roadblocks, delivering food packages, and adapting tikanga (protocols and customs). Māori communities drew upon the past experiences of their tīpuna (ancestors) of disease, passed down as taonga tuku iho (treasures handed down from the ancestors), to inform their responses to COVID-19. Drawing upon kaumātua kōrero (analysis), this paper highlights the role of intergenerational collective memory of past pandemics in informing Māori communities’ tikanga based responses to COVID-19. In doing so, this paper draws particular focus to the continual importance of the concept of tapu (sacred, prohibited, restricted) and its role in mitigating disease and maintaining hygiene during customary community gatherings and rituals, and at home. 

Author Biography

Nicholas Jones, Auckland University

Nicholas Jones (Ngāi Tūhoe/Ngāpuhi) is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Waipapa Taumata Rau/The University of Auckland. As a research assistant at the James Henare Research Centre, he has experience in a range of Kaupapa Māori-led community-based research projects. He has worked on projects examining kaumātua health and wellbeing, the uptake and integration of technology and artificial intelligence amongst Māori agricultural businesses, and Māori data sovereignty.