Wai Allan was leaning on crutches in front of her government flat when the Māori wardens pulled up in a van loaded with food, hand sanitiser and face masks.
“Oh, fruit and veg! That’s good for you,” the pensioner exclaimed, as two big boxes were unloaded and carried inside.
Allan, who is recovering from a hip operation, is among a growing number of people relying on services such as food banks run by local marae and the support of Māori wardens, a group of volunteers who support the needy and help police keep the peace.
The elderly who live alone are particularly vulnerable – never more than after Auckland was again placed in lockdown, on 12 August, following a resurgence of the Covid-19 virus. Last week, a pensioner had died in their house and wasn’t found for two days, said Thomas Henry, chairman of a group of Māori wardens based in Ōtāhuhu, a south Auckland suburb.
“That’s my concern,” he said. “Who is looking after the very sick?” Because the area Henry covers has a lot of pensioner housing, he’s set up a “safety support team” of wardens who will aim to regularly check on those with medical conditions. “If they need a doctor, we’ll take them.”
Fewer Māori than pākehā (European New Zealanders) go into rest homes and for some living alone, Māori wardens are the closest whānau (family) they have, said Henry. “We might take them milk or bread, or they might say they would like a packet of biscuits and we’ll go to the shop for them. Sometimes they just want to talk.”
‘I only had one apple and two oranges left’
Many didn’t know what they were able to do while the city was on level 3 lockdown, sealed off at the city’s boundary from the rest of New Zealand, which has faced less-stringent level-2 restrictions. “A lot don’t have the internet. They don’t even know what [contact] tracking is … or whether they have to wear a face mask. Some are too afraid to go out because they think they might get arrested.”
Auckland is set to go down to level 2 at midnight Sunday local time , lifting the restriction on non-essential travel in and out of the city of 1.4 million people for the first time in two weeks and a half weeks.
Allan said it was the first time she had sought help from a foodbank. “I have always tried to be independent but I just had to watch my budget. I knew I was going to have a high power bill, so this will see me through. I only had one apple and two oranges left.”
Although Allan is on the internet and connected to family via social media, she said lockdown made life lonely. “You have no one to talk to unless you talk to God.”
Another recipient of the food and health parcels, Moko Moala, is also a pensioner living alone, in Māngere East, another south Auckland neighbourhood. Her family live in another province and can not enter Auckland during level three.
It’s been “a bit scary”, she said. “They would usually come and take me away.” She had just heard her test for coronavirus was negative.
Moala seemed equally delighted and overwhelmed by the boxes of supplies from Ngā Whare Waatea Marae. “I didn’t know it was free,” she said.
Community members make up parcels at the marae from food and other donated goods, the need for which has soared with the pandemic restrictions. The marae has always run a small food bank, but at nothing like the current scale. “We used to give out 50 to 70 food packs a week before Covid, but now it’s 70 a day,” said administrator Tania Davis.
‘I’m not one to be sitting around’
The delivery van driver, Nick Wright, is one of 200 Māori wardens – all volunteers – who cover Auckland. Māori wardens have supported whānau “at a grassroots level” since the late 1800s and have also come to provide the police with another set of eyes and ears. Deputy prime minister Winston Peters has described them as “a huge asset to New Zealand’s social cohesion”.
Wright and Steve Hong, an Asian support warden, covered more than 200 kilometres on the day The Guardian joined them, making food drops and supporting police and wardens on checkpoints sealing the city’s southern boundary.
Wright, 67, works five long days a week, but said it was satisfying work – good to “give back” but good for him too. “I could be retired. I don’t have to be doing this, but that’s not me. I’m not one to be sitting around.
“Being a warden is about awhi [caring] and manaakitanga [hospitality]. We just support everything. Our job is to put that cloak around them and embrace them. First we make sure that our kaumātua and kuia, whether it is our elders or European or Indian or whatever, we make sure that they are A-okay. Whether it’s food or medicine or just someone to talk to, we’ll get what’s needed out to them.”
Problems with alcohol, drugs and gambling are common, said Wright, but “we don’t judge people. But for the grace of God, there go I. We just listen to them. We don’t judge at all.”
Sometimes, he said, the wardens know the money saved will be spent on pokie machines or alcohol, but those are big, entrenched problems. “You know, for that day, you are making a difference.”
And the best part of the job? “My favourite saying is ‘Renew old friendships and make new acquaintances’. Every day on this job, I meet someone new. So I love it, eh.”
Not even regular coronavirus tests bothers Wright. “I’ve had six tests since we’ve been in lockdown,” said Wright, who played for the Kiwis, the national rugby league team, and New Zealand Māori in the 1970s and 1980s. “Yes, up the nose. The idea is to relax so your nostrils open up, otherwise you get the watery eyes. You relax, no problem.”
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