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  • Erin Gourley

The Students Behind the Forsyth Barr Vaccine Clinic

And how the University ignored their concerns

Photo: Critic Te Arohi

The student leaders behind the pop-up vaccination clinic at Forsyth Barr stadium feel that their concerns were ignored by the University.

Melissa Lama and Karamea Pēwhairangi gave up on asking the University for help with establishing a student-focused vaccination clinic. They turned to Te Kāika instead. Just a week after their plan was born, there’s a two-day vaccination clinic, which ran yesterday (Monday 30 August) and continues today (31 August) at Forsyth Barr stadium. Because it seemed like not many students were awake in the mornings, they’ve moved the timing of the vaccination clinic to 12pm-7pm today.

“It’s been such good vibes, people are dancing, socially distanced of course,” said Melissa when asked how the clinic was going. “We’ve had a lot of people saying ‘I wasn’t even thinking of getting vaccinated until I read about this clinic,’ which is what we want.”

It wasn’t easy to get here. Melissa is President of the Pacific Island Students’ Association at Otago (and your newly elected 2022 OUSA President), while Karamea is Tumuaki of Te Roopū Māori. “We were trying to advocate for the University to take responsibility and accountability to provide vaccination clinics for all students, and in particular, groups like Pasifika and Māori. It’s been an ongoing issue. Even since before the lockdown announcement, the University hasn’t come to the table or shown any thought to protecting our students, especially from these vulnerable groups,” said Melissa. When these concerns were raised with the University, Melissa says their response was “real blasé”.

“So again, as we do, Māori and Pacific people have to continue to do things ourselves for our people. And this is just one example of that,” said Karamea. Through the collaboration with Te Kāika, they’ve managed to help students at Otago and the broader Dunedin community as well. There are no limits on who can get vaccinated at the Forsyth Barr clinic. Accessibility was a big part of the reason they wanted the clinic, as lots of North Dunedin students don’t have cars to drive to the vaccination centre in South Dunedin.

Both Karamea and Melissa said the lacklustre response from the University came from a lack of understanding about equity. Karamea said that “they need to take responsibility in taking care of the students that pay all this money to attend their university” and follow through on messages of wellbeing and support to Māori students. “You have Māori and Pasifika students and staff telling you how to actually support their wellbeing, but the thing is they’re [the Uni] not willing to actually do it.”

“To read things like 50% of those with Covid are Pacific, I get real emotional about it,” Melissa said. “The University is constantly saying ‘we’re a Pacific university in a Pacific region’. But it’s all lip service to me, if you pick and choose when you want to be a Pacific university. How much more data and articles in the news do you need in order for you to take some responsibility?” Both leaders felt let down by the University Otago.

The University’s attitude was “oh just go to the other clinics,” Melissa said. She explained that, based on feedback from Māori and Pasifika students, that option was inadequate. The students wanted to get the vaccine, but didn’t think it was “for them” at this point and were reluctant to take resources intended for the broader Dunedin community.

“It’s really highlighted to me that for all this talk about Pacific region and Pacific university, your focus on external engagements is not greater than your internal engagements and relationships with us. That’s one thing I really want them to realise. It doesn’t matter what you say outside, but if you’re treating us this way internally, that’s not good enough,” Melissa said.

When she realised the University would not help, Melissa raised the issue in public conferences, like the Pacific Leadership Forum, because she wanted to see action on it. Somewhere along the way, she ended up being tasked with Pacific Youth Communications Strategy for the Ministry of Health.

“It seems silly but that’s what we do in all other aspects of advocacy. We constantly have to go to these events and these conferences just to get heard,” she said. In order to talk to people that can actually bring some change here, I’ve had to push my way into other pacific forums and take on commitment in those groups,” she said.

Karamea said that there was a big manaaki aspect to the whole process. “We are making traction, we’re trying to establish a clinic not just for ourselves. We’re taking on that responsibility of trying to get a vaccination clinic for all students.” “It’s also a big way to show the Uni what we can do like, okay, we will find another way around this,” said Melissa. “We will provide for everybody because what works for Pacific and Māori is gonna work for everyone.”

Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson said the Forsyth Barr vaccine clinic “has been largely driven by Māori and Pacific students with support from the University.” But Melissa said: “the University have had no part to play in this at all. In fact they’ve had a part to play in us realising that we can’t trust them anymore.”

Nicholson said that the clinic “aims to ensure that all of our students have equitable access to the vaccine. While this clinic is targeted at our Māori and Pacific students, we are encouraging all of our students to get vaccinated.” She also noted that according to the SDHB, 6513 of Dunedin-based students have had their first dose and 2456 are fully vaccinated. “We are very grateful for the support of our Dunedin-based Māori and Pacific health providers and particularly, Te Kāika in helping to vaccinate our students near where they live.”

You can get vaccinated at the Forsyth Barr stadium clinic today (31 August) from 12pm-7pm


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