CARE Research News: CARE article published in Health Communication journal- “Negotiating Health Amidst COVID-19 Lockdown in Low-income Communities in Aotearoa New Zealand”.

Christine Elers , Pooja Jayan, Phoebe Elers & Mohan J. Dutta

Center of Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University


Aotearoa New Zealand’s public health crisis communication approach amidst the COVID-19 pandemic effectively mobilized the nation into swift lockdown, significantly reducing community transmission. This communication approach has been applauded around the world. How did communities situated amongst the “margins of the margins” in Aotearoa New Zealand navigate through the existing structural barriers to health during the pandemic? In this study, we use a culture-centered analysis to foreground the structural context of disenfranchisement amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. Drawing on in-depth interviews with participants in a larger ethnographic project on poverty and health across three communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, we attend to the ways in which health is negotiated amidst the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown response at the “margins of the margins.” The narratives point out that health communication interventions to prevent COVID-19 in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand furthered the marginalization of communities at the margins, and community voices were largely erased from the enactment of interventions. With the extant structures failing to recognize these aspects of everyday struggles of health at the margins, the health and access challenges were further magnified during COVID-19. Our attention to communication situated in relationship to structures builds a register for health communication scholarship in the context of COVID-19 that is committed to disrupting the behaviorally based hegemonic health communication literature and transforming the unequal terrains of health experiences.

The trajectories of COVID-19 (C19) as well as the preventive policy responses to it have disproportionately impacted the global margins (Dutta et al., 2020). Across countries, regions, and communities, those at the gendered, raced, and classed margins have borne largely the effects of the pandemic (Patel et al., 2020). Aotearoa New Zealand has been globally recognized for its decisive leadership and the overarching effectiveness of its science-based C19 response, accompanied by clear communication and state-led welfare support (Cousins, 2020; Dutta et al., 2020; PRovoke Media, 2020). How then do inequities in health play out amidst this effective model of C19 response? Traditionally, Māori, Pasifika, and refugee communities have borne the greatest burdens of poor health outcomes in Aotearoa New Zealand (Mahony et al., 2017; McIntosh & Mulholland, 2011; Ministry of Health, 2014). These features of raced/citizenship-based identity intersect with poverty to produce marginalization (Bowleg, 2020).

In this essay, we draw on our ethnographic fieldwork embedded in the culture-centered approach (CCA) with Māori, Pasifika, and refugee communities across three sites in Aotearoa New Zealand to examine the interplays of culture, structure, and agency at the margins in constituting the everyday negotiations of health and wellbeing amidst the C19 outbreak (Dutta, 2020). Our emphasis here is on foregrounding the structural context of marginalization, drawing out the common threads in the diverse experiences with the Whiteness of the pandemic communication response across raced identities at the peripheries in Aotearoa New Zealand that historically bear disproportionate burdens of health inequities (Mahony et al., 2017; McIntosh & Mulholland, 2011; Ministry of Health, 2014). The C19-related advocacy work performed by our academic-activist team emerged out of our advisory group members seeking solutions to the existing and new challenges to health introduced by C19. In this essay, we highlight the structural dimension of the culture-structure-agency framework of the CCA, challenging hegemonic message-based theorizing (Dutta, 2015).

Repression and state control: When academic reading lists are targeted by structures


In the land where the regime dictates what academics will read, what they will write, and where they will write, bureaucrats in universities serve as gatekeepers of the regime.

With their bureaucratic tools, often decorated in neoliberal logics of risk management and performance optimization, managers  define the boundaries of thought for academics, defining the limits and terrains of thought, legitimizing state control in managerial logics.

Bureaucrats ask questions such as: How are these books relevant to your research? How do the books contribute to your research program?

The definition of the research program of an academic based on bureaucratic rationality becomes the basis for identifying the relevance of reading lists to research programs. Once the appropriate reading list to be read from is defined, the regime can then exert its control on the academic for deviating from the reading list. The tools of the manager are also the tools of the regime.

Consider for instance the above reading list that offers important anchors for how I am currently thinking about how the CCA is evolving, particuarly in its work with subaltern communities in their struggles for communicative spaces for articulating voice. When a scholar working on the CCA, which was initially articulated in the context of health, is asked the question: Why are you reading these books, the implication is that the reading of Marxist texts is irrelevant, wasteful, subversive, and even seditious.

Once these labels have been imposed, university and state regimes can then work toward marking the scholar, initiating disciplinary processes, subjecting the scholar to police harassment, and even jailing the scholar.

As we have seen with the recent police harassment of scholars in India by marking them as Naxalites, the targeting of reading lists was a key element of the strategies of harassment. To own a copy of Marx or Mao is enough to invite violent forms of state control, harassment, and repression.

In this backdrop, academics have key roles to play globally in protecting our reading lists, in our research programs, in our classrooms, and in our homes. We need to be actively engaged in organizing our universities as spaces of knowledge creation that are free from bureaucratic diktats and state interventions. That bureaucrats and mandarins of authoritarian regimes have no business interrogating our reading lists is a key anchor to transnational academic politics.

Resistance, change, and development: The story of Jangalmahal

My work in Santali communities in what is now described as Jangalmahal started in the mid-1990s, attempting to understand the communicative production of marginalization. This work was driven by the questions: What is the role of communication in producing material marginalizations of Santalis? How does communication work to reproduce these forms of marginalization? What are the imaginaries of resistance articulated in the backdrop of such marginalization?

These questions and the emerging ideas formed the bases of the culture-centered approach (CCA), attending to the role of communication as an instrument for perpetuating power and for reproducing the marginalization of indigenous communities. The communicative disenfranchisement of indigenous communities is deeply intertwined with their material disenfranchisement. The struggles against displacement, exploitation, and erasure from sites of access to resources mirror the indignities, stigmas, and erasures experienced by Santalis.

Between 2008 and 2012, Jangalmahal witnessed resistance organizing across various spaces. Our community-engaged work of building infrastructures for democratic participation took the form of witnessing the violence, the role of the state, and the many ways in which resistance emerged in this backdrop. While the resistance was narrativized in an essentialized story of Maoist violence, the ongoing fieldwork of CARE points to a much more complex story, with multiple sites of voice making and story telling.

In the post-2012 work of CARE in Jangalmahal, we have been collaborating with Santali communities in building communicative infrastructures for voice. The struggles for voice and democratic opportunities for participation present ongoing challenges in the backdrop of a development model that is targeted specifically at the margins of Jangalmahal.

The following piece co-authored with Dr. Subhasish Ray outlines this ongoing struggle for voice in the backdrop of the state-driven development model.