Meghan Markle receives a "hongi"
Meghan Markle receives a "hongi"
PIC: Associated Press (AP)

The COVID-19 crisis may force New Zealand to do away with the traditional Maori greeting, the hongi, in which two people press their noses together, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said on Tuesday.

Peters, the highest-ranking official of Maori origin in the government, proposed ending the practice to prevent the highly infectious disease from further spreading, reports Efe news.

New Zealand, one of the most successful nations in combating the virus, is in a phase of easing physical and social restriction measures, after barely registering any fresh infections in recent days.

"One of the things you've got to have the regard for is whether the hongi in these circumstances is ever going to come back again," Peters said in a statement aired on TVNZ channel.

"There's a famous old saying that says cultures that don't adapt die, and we have to be so careful," he added.

The hongi, one of the traditions included in the official acts of New Zealand, was discontinued in mid-March when the first COVID-19 cases were detected in the country.

Since then, the COVID-19 has so far infected a total 1,147 people and left 21 dead.

The proposal comes as New Zealand prepares to open its economy and progressively move towards normalcy from Thursday, although it will continue to maintain physical distancing norms.

Peters, who also serves as Foreign Minister, stressed that in this new phase they would need to remain careful to avoid fresh infections and risk lives.

However, the proposal has led to mixed reactions among the people.

"Why is he picking out one culture's protocol and not the wider practice of handshaking," asked Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Ngarewa-Packer stressed they were "extremely well-versed at adapting and self-managing. We've proven our resilence".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was up to the "iwi", or Maori people, to decide on their practices.

"I have seen iwi leaders, actually determine for themselves how they are going to keep their people safe, and what they wish to do with cultural practice in this environment," said Ardern addressing the media in Wellington.

For the Maori people, the hongi represents the exchange of the "breath of life" that comes from the gods and when a visitor (manuhiri) is welcomed, this person becomes "people of the earth" (whenua).

International leaders, including members of British royalty such as Prince Charles, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, as well as former US President Barack Obama, have been welcomed with this traditional greeting.

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