[BigDataSur-COVID] Pandemic Paternalism: A Reflection on Indigenous Data from Aotearoa

By Donna Cormack & Tahu Kukutai

There are estimated to be more than 300 million Indigenous people in the world, spanning every continent, each with diverse histories and socio-political contexts. The shared experiences of imperialism and colonialism have profoundly impacted Indigenous peoples’ health and well-being, producing enduring disparities in most territories. COVID-19 has sharpened structural inequalities, and Indigenous peoples in many countries have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, either directly (through infection and fatalities) or indirectly, by way of economic losses, social disruption, and discrimination.1 Indigenous peoples have also experienced pandemic-related data injustices. Focusing on Aotearoa (New Zealand), this essay explores how hegemonic knowledge production practices have resulted in inequitable access to data about COVID-19 by Indigenous Māori communities. This inequity is situated within the wider context of ongoing colonialism, epistemic injustice, and the continuing resistance of Indigenous peoples.

As a member of the so-called “Digital 9” network, Aotearoa is considered one of the world’s most digitally-advanced nations. Over the last decade, the government has eagerly embraced the use of “big data” in decision-making. Stats NZ, the national statistics office, is home to the world-leading Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links de-identified microdata about people and households from government datasets. Aotearoa is also one of few countries with a system-wide approach to collecting multiple measures of ethnicity and Indigeneity for use in public policy. Such data are used to monitor the government’s obligations to Māori under the country’s founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.2 Given these features, one might expect Aotearoa to be an exemplar when it comes to producing high-quality, timely and relevant COVID-19 data about (and for) Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that ethnicity data was not being routinely collected or reported for all COVID-19 related activities or outcomes,3 despite ethnicity data collection being mandatory in the health sector for more than 20 years.4 Initially, no ethnicity data was reported in the Ministry of Health’s daily updates. While cases are now reported by ethnicity for the six major ethnic groupings, this granularity has not carried over to other key indicators. Six months on, Māori data are still not reported in a way that readily allows for stratified analysis by other variables such as age and region. A lack of complete data reporting makes it challenging for Māori organisations and providers engaged in the pandemic response to make detailed assessments of how COVID-19 is affecting their communities.

Māori carry an elevated risk of harm, while being excluded from decision-making to mitigate that harm—an all-too familiar situation. There is a long-standing colonial predilection for seeing Indigenous peoples as objects to be known—never as experts in their own right. We should not be surprised that inequitable knowledge production practices are being replayed in the context of COVID-19 data. As Carroll, Rodriguez-Lonebear & Martinez argue, settler colonial governments routinely produce Indigenous data that are not fit to meet the priorities of Indigenous communities. Such data tends to be of lower quality than non-Indigenous data, since they are inconsistently measured, difficult to access, and controlled by non-Indigenous people and systems. All of these issues have prevailed in Aotearoa, to some extent, during COVID-19.

It is also clear that the substantial investment in data linkage and integration, ostensibly to inform government decision-making, has failed to produce reliable data for Māori decision-makers. High-quality, disaggregated Māori and iwi (tribal) data was needed in near real-time to guide immediate responses at local, regional, and national levels. For many iwi and Māori communities this data did not materialize, even as they repeatedly demonstrated innovative modes of distributed leadership and a deep capacity to care for each other. Instead, Māori largely relied on their own local intelligence networks and collective knowledge of kin relations, beyond the purview of government agencies and their data systems.

Issues of trust, control, and authority also bubbled to the surface in the pandemic response. To date, there has been little meaningful engagement with principles of Māori Data Sovereignty5 in decision-making through the data systems for the pandemic response, including the COVID-19 tracer app released by the Ministry of Health.6 This lack of engagement persists, despite an increasing number of government agencies purporting to support Maori data sovereignty, including a Stats NZ-led initiative to implement a Māori data governance model across the official government data system. In times of crisis, those in positions of power often default to the status quo. State institutions seem to find it difficult to accept that Māori have technical expertise and deep contextual knowledge that would be beneficial to data systems and practices during the pandemic. As we continue to move through the pandemic, the government needs to shift its focus from centralized data systems that aid top-down policy-making to a more nimble and empowering approach that supports Māori-controlled data systems and locally-defined interventions.

The COVID-19 response in Aotearoa has revealed the persistence of forms of epistemic exclusion.7 Māori knowers and knowledges have been marginalized, and unjust data practices continue to privilege the priorities of the dominant Pākehā (NZ European) population and wilfully ignore Māori data rights.8 It is an important reminder that systems designed for settler colonial goals will work in service of those goals. There remains an urgent need for Indigenous data governance and community-controlled data infrastructure that will serve broader Māori goals of self-determination.



1 Stephanie Carroll Rainie, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, Akee Randall, Annita Lucchesi and Jennifer Rai Richards, ‘Indigenous data in the COVID-19 pandemic: Straddling erasure, terrorism and sovereignty’, Items (11 June 2020); Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula, Raynald A. Samoa, Robin E. S. Miyamoto, Neal Palafoxand Sheri-Ann Daniels, ‘COVID-19 special column: COVID-19 hits native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities the hardest’, Hawaii Journal of Health & Social Welfare, 79(5) (2020); Tamara Power, Denise Wilson, Odette Best, Teresa Brockie, Lisa Bourque Bearskin, Eugenia Millender and John Lowe, ‘COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples: An imperative for action’, Journal of Clinical Nursing 29 (15-16) (2020).

2 Papaarangi Reid and Bridget Robson, ‘Understanding health inequities’ in Briget Robson (ed), Hauora: Māori standards of Health IV. A study of the years 2000-2005, Wellington: Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomare, 2000, pp. 3-10.

3 Concerns were raised with the government and in the media about the availability and quality of Māori data in the pandemic response (e.g. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12323895, https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018742129/coronavirus-maori-health-specialists-want-to-see-data).

4 Donna Cormack and M. McLeod. Improving and maintaining quality in ethnicity data collection: issues for the health and disability sector, Wellington: Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomace, 2010.

5 Māori Data Sovereignty advocates for Māori rights in relation to Māori data, including the conceptualisation, management and control of Māori data in line with Māori practices and protocols. It is an expression of broader Indigenous sovereignty. See https://www.temanararaunga.maori.nz/nga-rauemi and Raymond Lovett, Vanessa Lee, Tahu Kukutai, Donna Cormack, Stephanie Carroll Rainie and Jennifer Walker, ‘Good data practices for indigenous data sovereignty and governance’, in Angela Daly, Katie Devitt and Monique Mann (eds) Good Data, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2019, pp. 26–36.

6 See, for example, ‘COVID-19 digital contact tracing risky for Māori technologist’ (https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018745465/covid-19-digital-contact-tracing-risky-for-maori-technologist ),‘COVID-19 tracer app: what does it mean for Māori?’, (https://www.teaomaori.news/covid-19-tracer-app-what-does-it-mean-maori?_ga=2.119788872.1799182084.1590045478-1257874397.1554791431).

7 Gaile Pohlaus Jr., ‘Varieties of epistemic injustice’, in Ian James Kidd, José Medina and Gaile Pohlaus Jr. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, Oxford Routledge, 2017, pp. 13–27.

8 This draws on Nancy Tuana’s concept of ‘willful ignorance’. See Nancy Tuana, ‘The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance’, Hypatia, 21(4) (2006).


About the authors 

Donna Cormack (Kāi Tahu, Kāto Mamoe) is a teacher and researcher with joint positions at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, University of Auckland and Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomare, University of Otago, Aotearoa. Her work focuses on Māori health, racism, and Māori data sovereignty. She is a member of Te Mana Raraunga (Māori Data Sovereignty Network) and Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā (National Māori Pandemic Group). She is committed to critical, decolonial research practices and approaches that support Māori self-determination.

Tahu Kukutai (Ngāti Tiipa, Ngāti Kinohaku, Te Aupōuri) is Professor of Demography at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, Aotearoa New Zealand. Tahu specialises in Māori and indigenous demographic research, and has written extensively on issues of Māori population change, official statistics, and ethnic and racial classification. Tahu is a founding member of the Māori Data Sovereignty Network Te Mana Raraunga and the Global Indigenous Data Alliance. She has co-edited Indigenous data sovereignty: Toward an agenda (ANU Press, 2016) and Indigenous data sovereignty and policy (Routledge, 2020). She was previously a journalist.