A delta health crisis thrives when it meets a crisis in housing and poverty

Ashley Bloomfield confirmed this week that many people affected by the current outbreak are living in transitional and emergency housing. Decades of neglect have created the conditions where an infectious disease like Covid can flourish. For the sake of our most vulnerable and the country as a whole, we have to get serious about providing people with the means and the shelter to live with dignity, writes Innes Asher, professor emeritus at the University of Auckland and a spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group for The Spinoff.

Highly infectious diseases thrive in substandard living conditions. It was true in the 19th century, and as Covid-19 stubbornly continues to spread through the community in our biggest city, it is true here and now.

An adequate standard of living has never been available for everyone in Aotearoa. A Māori Women’s Welfare League survey in 1952 reported that poverty, overcrowding, damp and unaffordable rental housing were key issues in Auckland. Seven decades on, the same is true. 

In the middle of the last century there were not enough state houses to meet the need. Until the late 1940s, Māori had been excluded from state housing. Due to sound government policies being put in place from the 50s to the mid-1980s things improved a lot, with proportionately more state houses, better incomes and the family benefit. It was a period of greater stability in people’s lives – having enough and reaching your potential was more likely to be achievable, although less likely for Māori than Pākehā.

Fast forward to September 2021 and we see the results of three decades of neglectful policy: fewer state houses to meet increasing need. At the same time, large numbers of people in private rentals face unaffordable rents and insecure tenancies. The overall impact of current government policy is increasing the need for emergency housing, with more people homeless.

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