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Media Release

New studies put health equity at centre of COVID-19 pandemic response

Issue date:
Dr Nicole Coupe (third from right) with some members of her research team

Dr Nicole Coupe (third from right) with members of her research team.

The Health Research Council has today announced more than $6.3 million in funding for 11 new research studies designed to help ensure equitable health and wellbeing outcomes for all New Zealanders during the recovery from COVID-19 and future infectious disease threats.

The HRC’s director of Equity, Māori and Pacific health research, Mr Stacey Pene, says COVID-19 has the potential to worsen inequities in health outcomes for Māori, Pasifika and other groups such as older adults with multiple health conditions, those living in rural dwellings, and people with mental illness.

“This new COVID-19 Equity Response funding reflects the need for a pandemic response that doesn’t leave anyone behind – one that improves rather than exacerbates existing inequities in health outcomes,” he says.­­

Overseas research suggests that minority ethnic groups have experienced significantly worse outcomes than the total population due to COVID-19. In New Zealand, initial modelling showed that Māori and Pacific peoples were at higher risk of serious health complications or mortality during a COVID-19 outbreak.

“These new research studies are essential as they will help put equity in health and wellbeing at the centre of our preparedness for, and response to, current and future infectious disease threats,” says Mr Pene.

The 11 new research studies include six Community Action Grants and five Project Grants. The Community Action Grants support communities to partner with experienced health researchers to investigate health and wellbeing needs in response to COVID-19, while the Project Grants support New Zealand’s capacity and capability to respond to infectious disease threats.

One of the studies, a Community Action Grant led by independent public health researcher Dr Nicole Coupe (Kāi Tahu), will look at how to support the wellbeing of tamariki and their whānau living in emergency accommodation in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) during COVID-19.

“Whānau Māori and Pasifika are over-represented in the ‘hidden homeless’, living in motels or severe housing deprivation, including acute overcrowding, with inequitable social, cultural and health impacts. In Kirikiriroa, COVID-19 has resulted in more tamariki Māori and Pasifika living in this type of accommodation, and there are serious concerns about the impact of this environment on both immediate and longer-term wellbeing,” says Dr Coupe.

“My team and I will work alongside whānau living in emergency accommodation, Kirikiriroa Family Services Trust, K’aute Pasifika, the University of Waikato and Waikato District Health Board to better understand the needs and challenges faced by whānau and support the adaptation of COVID-19 control measures that avoid exacerbating inequities.”

Professor Vanessa Burholt from the University of Auckland has also received an HRC Community Action Grant, with her research exploring the opportunities and challenges whānau, aiga and families faced while providing care to kaumātua/older people during COVID-19.

“Unpaid family care is the backbone of health and social care provision in the community and it has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when some kaumātua/older people will have spent more than 100 days confined at home. However, the stories of family carers have been invisible, and knowledge of their successes and challenges is limited, something we hope to change with this research,” says Professor Burholt.

A Project Grant led by Dr Jacqueline Cumming and Dr Debbie Ryan from Pacific Perspectives Ltd in Wellington will identify the key issues that Pacific families faced – and continue to face – through the various stages of COVID-19; how successful key initiatives are at supporting Pacific families, and what resources might assist Pacific communities in future pandemics. 

“Pacific populations were particularly at risk from COVID-19 due to their roles as essential workers, their poorer health and socio-economic status, and their struggles to access appropriate healthcare in Aotearoa New Zealand’s healthcare system. Yet their strong commitment to their own communities and ability to rally around those who needed support demonstrated a high degree of resilience in the face of the pandemic,” says Dr Cumming.

“A specific package of funding and programmes provided support to Pacific families during the pandemic, and Pacific families also benefitted from a range of government programmes. This research will explore the longer-term impact of the pandemic on Pacific families' health and wellbeing and identify what worked and what did not work to keep them well.”

Mr Pene says the United Nation’s recent release of a ‘Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 recovery’ reinforces the importance of the HRC’s equity-focused health research investment.

“The Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 recovery, which the HRC contributed to along with more than 250 experts from around the world, highlights the choice that we have between business as usual or opting for transformative change that is focused on equity, resilience and sustainability.

“We have a unique opportunity here to generate the knowledge that will help everyone recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic and other major public health challenges that will undoubtedly arise,” he says.

See below for the full list of funding recipients.

2020 COVID-19 Equity Response funding recipients:

Community Action Grants:

Dr Maria Baker, Te Rau Ora
Addressing the COVID-19 Impacts upon Māori with mental illness
12 months, $250,000      

Professor Vanessa Burholt, The University of Auckland
Health equity and wellbeing among older people’s caregivers during COVID-19
9 months, $249,966

Dr Nicole Coupe, Kirikiriroa Family Services Trust
Titiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua
12 months, $236,900

Ms Kahurangi Dey, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Connecting kai
12 months, $248,539

Associate Professor Rachel Forrest, Eastern Institute of Technology
The M.E.K.E. Initiative: Taking health and fitness to whānau
12 months, $136,681

Dr Katherine Ravenswood, Auckland University of Technology
Wellbeing of essential workers during COVID-19: Community support
12 months, $249,999

Project Grants:

Dr Jacqueline Cumming, Pacific Perspectives
Ensuring equity for Pacific families: Learning from a pandemic
24 months, $997,814

Dr Tess Moeke-Maxwell, The University of Auckland
Rāpua te Mārama: Bereaved Māori whānau experiences of palliative care and death
24 months, $999,999

Dr Dion O'Neale, The University of Auckland
Te matatini o te horapa: a population-based contagion network for Aotearoa NZ
24 months, $996,465

Dr Nina Scott, Waikato District Health Board
WHIRI: pandemic system redesign to maximise Māori health gains
24 months, $966,309

Professor Christine Stephens, Massey University
A pandemic response and recovery framework supporting equity for older people
24 months, $996,615