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Covid forces Polyfest audiences online

Thursday 17 March 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in New Zealand, Regional


Covid forces Polyfest audiences online
Polyfest director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mau'u Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

The world's biggest Pacific dance festival is getting ready to take the stage in Auckland next week - but for the first time the show will go on without any crowds.

Because of Omicron the Polyfest will be a shadow of its former self. The number of groups has dropped from around 200 pre-covid to just 68.

Sonny Haiosi has been attending for 18 years, watching his four daughters take the stage.

"It wouldn't be the same if you go there and there is not 100-thousand people there, I know that much. When you go to polyfest and you can't move around and that's from the time when you get to the gate which is pretty much feeding into Polyfest, that is Polyfest," Sonny Haiosi said.

He is in two minds about the event going ahead, "we've got nephews and nieces in other schools and they want to go to the Polyfest, and I have other family members that don't want a bar of it".

He contracted Covid-19 in February and six of his family were also positive. Because of that he has not been able to support his daughter who is taking part this year as much as he would have previously.

Covid-19 really knocked him about. "We are just trying to get ourselves back to normal...we probably needed about 20 days to recover from it...I am not a sickly person, I don't get sick often but I was sick alright," he said.

Pre Covid-19, the festival attracted crowds of around 90-thousand but this year that number will be zero, which is a first in its 47-year history.

The event is going ahead, a decision made in part to acknowledge how tough Auckland students' have been doing it, said Polyfest Director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mauu.

Papatoetoe High School Student Aaliyah Shahistha Ali performs with the Fijian group to their school in 2021. Photo: Aaliyah Shahistha Al

"They just needed this, they needed a safe place to celebrate their culture, to be able to put their identity out there and to have that teamwork again, even though they weren't together. I know some schools were practicing via zoom, there was still a sense of belonging to something," Mauu said.

Her team has been "fierce" in its approach to Covid-19 she said.

At the moment all teachers must be fully vaccinated but school students, vaccinated or not, can participate.

South Auckland-based GP, Dr Api Talemaitoga, says that is "risky".

"For example, some who is asymptomatic but has got the Omicron variant which we know is very infectious, it just puts them at risk of catching it.

I hope that the others wear masks, they observe social distancing... If you are unwell stay at home, the competition can go on without you, you will recover and you are not in a position to likely infect other people who are there," he said.

Papatoetoe High School Principal Vaughan Couillault is comfortable with the measures in place.

"From an audience perspective it is a digital only event this year so all of the big stands, the big event with big stands with lots of people milling around that isn't happening.

"There is a vastly reduced number of stages, groups need to bus in and bus back out so they are not coming in contact with any other groups," Couillault said.

The school's Fijian Group has been excited about the festival going ahead.

Papatoetoe High School Student Aaliyah Shahistha Ali performs with the Fijian group to their school in 2021.
Papatoetoe High School Student Aaliyah Shahistha Ali performs with the Fijian group to their school in 2021. Photo: Aaliyah Shahistha Ali

About a third of the team of 30 has been in isolation so far this year because of Covid-19 said year 13 student Aaliyah Shahistha Ali.

She too was isolating at home with her family last week and knows how tough it has been for students.

"It always varies because when someone comes back there is always someone else who's sick and going into iso, it's been stressful. We always thought out our options, so if a girl doesn't make it then we can always replace her or we can move into another formation, we have different plans for different situations," she said.

For Ali Polyfest is more than a competition, "after school, it's just purely getting to know other students', answering other students' questions about how we were raised and our backgrounds and what it is like in the islands, and it is amazing to show our dances to others because then they learn," she said.

A spokesperson for the event says rapid antigen tests will be onsite but it is unclear how they will be utilised.

Dr Talemaitoga wants that to change. "Honestly, I think rapid antigen tests are a really good way of just screening whether they can attend or not...I have to take one every day before I go to work because I want to protect myself and the patients that I see.

"It was easy to administer, so I think that every performer before they come out and meet the others can just self administer a R.A.T test, if they are negative it is another layer of protection that they are putting towards this event," he said.

South Auckland GP Dr Api Talemaitoga says new anti-viral drugs are needed to help manage the Omicron outbreak.
Photo: STUFF / Ryan Anderson

The students' just want the Covid-19 measures nutted out so they can get on stage and do their thing.

"It's so beautiful to see groups from other schools performing too, and it is purely the satisfaction that you are going to be on stage in front of judges, especially so many years of being unsure whether it would go through or not," Ali said.

"It is nice to know that we are definitely performing in front of judges, that we will have the stage to ourselves and give the best that we have.

"The joy, the excitement and more, and now that we have Covid and and isolation and stuff still happening...this is so girls can come and really let others experience the proper Fiji traditions," Ali said.

Even Dr Talemaitoga has been excited, despite his concerns about protecting tamariki from getting sick.

He is Fijian but said, "any school that performs with a Tongan flavour has my support."

Fijian group leader Aaliyah Shahistha Ali wants to send her support to all teams participating, but has hope that the girls from Papatoetoe High School will take out the top spot after what has been an incredibly challenging year.

Click [here ] for more information about Polyfest 2022.