Behind the scenes Cook Islands Secretary of Health Dr Josephine Aumea Herman has been leading the fight against coronavirus since March in both the Cook Islands and New Zealand.
It’s the simple things like pragmatic physical distancing, good hygiene practices and disinfection that have saved the Cook Islands from Covid-19.
That’s the qualified opinion of Cook Islands Secretary of Health Dr Josephine Aumea Herman.
Dr Aumea has been the subject of praise in both the Cook Islands and in New Zealand.
At every opportunity, Prime Minister Henry Puna, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown, Minister of Health Rose Toki-Brown, MPs and other officials have applauded her and the efforts of her frontline team.
She quietly slipped off to New Zealand in April to make sure that Cook Islanders stranded in quarantine and waiting to come home were looked after and that the organisation of the three repatriation flights from Auckland to Rarotonga were thorough and faultless.
Her demeanour tells of someone who dislikes being in the spotlight. Some would even say this attribute is the mark of a doctor, who like others in her profession, has dedicated her life to saving others.
She is quick to redirect the attention from herself and focus on the collective efforts of everyone who have ensured that Cook Islands is and remains Covid free.
When talking about the country’s response to Covid-19, a stern and serious look comes across her face.
She is proud of the collaborative approach of the Government, Te Marae Ora and most of all the people of the Cook Islands, who by keeping up with tasks like hand washing have stopped the virus from reaching the country’s shores.
Leading the Cook Islands’ health response has required a calm and collected approach.
But at the end of the day, she says what is really is important for the Cook Islands is that the country’s public health measures are as robust as possible.
“For us every health system around the world has its own mechanisms in place. A large amount of work has been done to prepare our health system as best as we can.”
Dr Aumea doesn’t underestimate the impact of the severe acute respiratory syndrome the world has come to know as coronavirus, Covid-19 or the devastation it has caused around the world.
And she certainly doesn’t downplay the real concerns of Cook Islanders who have reservations about opening the country’s borders to New Zealand and other places where there are still currently active cases of Covid-19.
In fact, she blames herself for “perhaps not putting enough information out there in the media for the public”, to help those who fear an outbreak understand more about coronavirus.
“Our borders are already open, both domestically with Rarotonga and the Pa Enua and with New Zealand,” she says.
However, Dr Aumea does believe that people need to be aware of the epidemiology of the virus.
Epidemiology is defined as the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.
It is a cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare.
When asked questions about what protocols and measures are in place should there be an “outbreak” in the country, she responds with a cautious but matter of fact answer.
“We keep running to the end of the severe spectrum of the disease,” she says.
There is a general misconception that if a person catches Covid-19 that severe illness and death is inevitable.
But it is important to understand she says, that most cases are mild and don’t require transfers or hospital treatment, just quarantine and isolation.
“I’m confident in the systems we have in place to recognise if Covid enters the country.”
The battle against coronavirus is a long way from being over – second waves in countries like Australia have proven that.
This situation continues to evolve day by day, Dr Aumea says.
There is a level of responsibility that lies with everyone, Dr Aumea says, not just residents but with visitors as well.
CookSafe contact tracing measures and re-establishing the 10 punas on Rarotonga into mini-centres is part of the process in preparation for the borders opening to New Zealand.
But, ultimately social distancing and simple tasks like covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands are the most effective weapons against Covid-19.
“It is the responsibility of all of us because this is the new normal.”
Dr Aumea is grateful that the country’s health budget has not been cut as it has been the case in other countries.
As government officials and because of the vast amount of work that has been done, Dr Aumea says they don’t always have the time to let the public know about the significant investment of government into health.
“There has also been a significant investment in assets, capital infrastructure, the CT scanner valued at over $1 million, laboratory information systems, IT and other technology.”
“I’m very pleased at this point in time to have received such funding from our government.”
The strong relationship between public health systems in New Zealand and Cook Islands means intelligence from New Zealand, helps Te Marae Ora track progress and strengthen preparation.
“As you know, there are 25-27 active cases of Covid in New Zealand that are all in isolation and were all caught at the border. That shows the effectiveness of the systems they have in place.”
Dr Aumea also paid tribute to other Cook Islands doctors in New Zealand, Dr Joe Williams, Dr Teariki (Kiki) Maoate and Dr John Dunn for their contributions. From the beginning, she says they have been at the frontline, along with other health professionals.
It’s because of these relationships and the systems they have in place that Te Marae Ora is supportive of easing borders especially with New Zealand and has jumped on board with a collaboration between the Government and Cook Islands Tourism.
“Te Marae Ora is focused on the Cook Islands Promise we are giving to residents of the Cook Islands and visitors to our country to safeguard them from Covid-19,” she says.
“At this point in time Te Marae Ora is in a very strong position to support this promise going forward.”