Street gangs may hold key to New Zealand hitting 90% Covid-19 vaccination rate target

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AUCKLAND (NYTIMES) - Rawiri Jansen, a Maori doctor, had an urgent message for the 150 people, mostly patch-wearing members of New Zealand's plentiful street gangs and their families, who sat before him on a bright Saturday afternoon.

Covid-19 is coming for them, he said. Cases in New Zealand's hospitals are rising rapidly. Soon, dozens of new infections a day might be hundreds or even 1,000. People will die. And vaccination is the only defence. "When your doctors are scared, you should be scared," he said.

By the end of the day, after an exhaustive question-and-answer session with other health professionals, roughly one-third of those present chose to receive a dose then and there.

Having abandoned its highly successful "Covid-zero" elimination strategy in response to an outbreak of the delta variant, New Zealand is now undergoing a difficult transition to trying to keep coronavirus cases as low as possible.

On Friday (Oct 22), the country set a target of getting at least 90 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated - a goal, the highest in the developed world, whose success hinges on persuading people like those who gathered to hear Dr Jansen.

Already, 86 per cent of the eligible population has received at least one dose. But the final few percent are the most difficult to reach, and one group of particular concern is the gang community, many of whose members are Maori or Pacific Islanders, who make up about one-quarter of the overall population.

In the past two months, multiple outbreaks have been reported among gangs, a group less likely to comply with official vaccination efforts, forcing officials to cooperate with gang leaders to reach their communities.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of gang membership in the world. There are around 8,000 gang members in the country, according to the most recent police estimates, and many suffer from urban poverty.

Counting family and associates, the size of the community might be 10 times that, in a country of 5 million people, said Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.

New Zealand's gangs have a long history, often inspired by similar American groups. In 1961, it became the first country outside the United States to have a chapter of the Hells Angels. Beginning in the 1970s, gangs with an ethnic basis, including the majority-Maori Black Power and Mongrel Mob, became more w...

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