The ties that bind us

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    Other than those who have lost loved ones, there would be few people hit harder in this pandemic than those who have been struggling through their final, formative school years.

    Which is why this issue of Gulf News makes quite a fuss of last week’s graduation of Waiheke High School’s Year 13 students – a thoroughly impressive group who battled disruption, distraction and distance learning to earn themselves both academic distinction and deserved social standing while they carved out their own futures on their own terms.

    During her head girl’s speech (which you can read on pages 14 and 15 alongside that of head boy Kyle Edwards), Teeana Kara nailed the key element of her schooling that had helped her and her fellow pupils to get through their rollercoaster final two years: whanaungatanga – those intangible bonds that hold people together in any whānau relationship.

    “I have known half of this year group since kindy and the majority of the other half since primary,” Teeana told those at last Friday’s prize-giving. “We may not all be besties, but I know at the end of the day if we come across each other in the big wide world or if anyone needs a helping hand, I will help them and they would do likewise. There are a few unique characteristics to this school. The main one I love is that everyone knows everyone and we are whānau… whether we like it or not. That is something that is not taught in a classroom, but it’s undeniably a perk that comes with this kura, which is pretty cool.”

    You can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you treat them. And when Teeana maps her feelings of whānau on to her wider community, she’s reflecting how Waiheke as a whole has responded to the past two years’ upheavals.

    This reaction has also been the subject of a recently published study authored by Project Forever Waiheke’s Pam Oliver and the University of Auckland’s Neil Lindsay and Robin Kearns, who, following the initial lockdowns in March-May 2020, canvassed people on the question “In your view, how has Waiheke Island maintained zero cases of Covid-19 compared to the outbreaks in mainland Auckland?” They then had the responses analysed by two researchers with no Waiheke affiliations.

    What emerged was that community cohesion was perceived to have played a central role. As well as the “moat” effect of being geographically cut off from the mainland and sheer luck, respondents saw our whanaungatanga  as integral to Waiheke’s initial Covid response.

    It’s particularly telling that even within the more than a third of respondents who put our Covid-free status down to luck, half of them “explained ‘luck’ as deriving from one or more aspects of Waiheke’s island or community context – lucky to live on an island, to have wide windy spaces for recreation, to be a community that protects one another, to live in a low-density environment – that is, luck due to demographics, geographic situation or community ethic, and commonly integrating those aspects”.

    The report, What keeps an island community Covid-19 free in a global pandemic? was published last month in New Zealand Geographer and found that Waiheke’s community connectedness was “actively strengthened” through its pandemic response.

    “Residents reported a stronger sense of community caring, an increased connection with their neighbourhoods, and also reported an added sense of responsibility to protect the whole island. Respondent comments… illustrate Waihekeans not only feeling like a community in response to the pandemic threat, but actively ‘performing’ community in ways common to smaller communities at a distance from, and increasingly in distinction from, normative metropolitan governance.” 

    The authors concluded that such a successful localised response offered lessons to central government as to how to dovetail New Zealand’s initial “team of five million” response with a more localised approach to tasks (such as vaccination) which would benefit from more localised knowledge.

    “As Waiheke has demonstrated, cohesive communities with strong shared values are able to create their own highly effective community-based ‘teams’ for pandemic protection.”

    Over the coming months, as our own island border opens up and Auckland’s eases to allow more population flow around New Zealand, Waiheke’s community will no doubt swell. It is our duty to hold on to our cohesion even as the inevitable “family” tensions arise.

    As Teeana Kara told her fellow graduating students: “We may not all be besties… but we are whānau, whether we like it or not.” • James Belfield

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