There seems to be a bit of an imbalance in the media coverage of Auckland coroner Gordon Matenga’s report on the death of Folole Muliaga.
Virtually every report I’ve seen or heard has focused on one angle of the story: that the disconnection of power to the Muliaga home was a contributing factor in the death of Mrs Muliaga, who used an oxygen machine. Follow-up stories today have latched on to the likelihood of the family pursuing compensation.
Note that the disconnection didn’t cause Mrs Muliaga’s death; Mr Matenga found only that it was a factor, and even then he was at odds with two expert witnesses at the inquest. The primary cause of Mrs Muliaga’s death, Mr Matenga found, was her morbid obesity, though this was mentioned in the eleventh paragraph of the New Zealand Herald’s story as if it were merely incidental.
Nowhere has there been any mention of the role of personal responsibility in this affair. What triggered the sequence of events that led to Mrs Muliaga’s death is that the family didn’t pay its electricity bills. Moreover, this doesn’t appear to have been a mere isolated lapse that Mercury Energy could have ignored. According to a Newstalk ZB story, which I presume accurately reported Mr Matenga’s report, the family had had 24 warning notices, 14 automatic phone calls, eight “urgent” warning letters and four final warning letters. So you could hardly argue that Mercury Energy acted precipitately, or that the Muliagas were taken by surprise.
I didn’t find reference to this litany of warnings in any other media account. The family’s own contributory negligence in repeatedly failing to pay its bills appears to have been buried in the emotion whipped up over Mrs Muliaga’s death and the subsequent scramble to place the blame on other parties – namely Mercury Energy, the contractor who turned the power off and the Counties Manukau District Health Board.
Then there’s the weight factor. The Dominion Post says Mrs Muliaga weighed 173kg at the time of her death – down from 212 kg in 2002 – and had a body mass index of 65. Anything over 30 is considered obese, and Mrs Muliaga had been hospitalised for complications arising from her weight. But her obesity has been treated by the media as if it were of secondary significance to the fact that her oxygen was cut off, when it seems the reverse is true. (Intriguingly, the family, through its spokesman Brenden Sheehan, continues to insist that it didn’t know how ill she was and blames the health board. You’d think the oxygen mask and hospitalisations might have been a clue.)
Given that Mrs Muliaga’s weight and the unpaid bills are central elements in the tragedy, why has so much media attention concentrated on another angle that shifts responsibility elsewhere?
What seems to have happened is that the Muliaga affair has cleverly been skewed into an argument over process and corporate accountability. Public debate has been framed in terms of whether Mercury Energy and the district health board followed proper procedures in dealing with the family. Along the way, vital issues of personal responsibility, consideration of which might make the Muliaga family look less deserving of public pity, have been swept aside. A key player in this has been Mr Sheehan, an articulate and media-savvy member of the extended family, whose agenda sometimes seems as political as it is personal.
The smokescreen thus created not only obscures the contributory role of the Muliaga family in its own tragedy, but plays on the public’s readiness to blame a greedy energy company and a heartless health bureaucracy. Mercury Energy, apparently intimidated by the public outrage whipped up over Mrs Muliaga’s death, bizarrely allowed itself to be bullied into co-operating in this process by indulging in a ritual act of self-flagellation.
Yes, it’s tragic that Mrs Muliaga died. The death of a 44-year-old wife and mother is not something to be taken lightly under any circumstances. It certainly can never be justified on the basis of an unpaid $168 bill. But neither should the family's own behaviour escape scrutiny, uncomfortable as it might be. If Mrs Muliaga's death really was a consequence of the power being cut off, it could have been avoided by the simple expedient of paying the bill. And if she hadn’t carried so much weight, the likelihood is even greater that she would still be alive. Such statements inevitably sound harshly judgmental, but endemic obesity among Pacific Island people isn’t going to be tackled by pretending that power companies and health boards are responsible for the deaths of overweight people.
Unfortunately, judging by today’s Dom Post, Mrs Muliaga’s grieving husband still believes she died because the power was cut. The coroner’s finding that she died because she was obese doesn’t seem to have registered.