One big bubble: Loosening Covid constraints

Thursday April 16, 2020 Written by Published in National
Kyan and Mana-Ariki Nicholas with their cousin Wade Fatafehi want to go back to school.  KATRINA TANIRAU 20041507. Kyan and Mana-Ariki Nicholas with their cousin Wade Fatafehi want to go back to school. KATRINA TANIRAU 20041507.

Around the world, people are locking themselves in small family bubbles. Today, Cook Islands has the chance to declare itself one big coronavirus-free bubble.

Tiare Nicholas hopes her children can return to school next week; if not, she will be forced to take leave from her job.

With two growing boys and bills to take care of, that’s a scary thought. “I’m trying to work from home but I spend most of my time telling my kids off,” she says.

The Prime Minister and his emergency advisors will today meet to confirm plans to relax physical distancing constraints and return children to their classrooms.

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The health ministry Te Marae Ora has sent 874 swabs to New Zealand for Covid-19 testing. 584 of them have come back negative.

Health officials hope the remaining 290 people will be cleared as early as this afternoon – and if so, Secretary of Health Dr Josephine Herman should be able to declare Cook Islands coronavirus-free.

There are about 11 countries with no confirmed cases of the virus – but because nobody has entered Cook Islands since March 25, this country could be one of the first in the world to actually confirm it is Covid-free.

Tourism operators say that could be an enormous asset in rebuilding the economy and marketing the country to a new generation of safety-conscious visitors – but first that position has to be secured.

Economist Vaine Wichman said the downturn brought small benefits, like swimming in amazingly clean lagoons, but tourist numbers would never recover to last year’s highs. “Visitor interests will shift to becoming health-safe and environment-conscious,” she said.

For now, the 15,000 people in the Cook Islands will share one big bubble, impervious to the outside world. Border controls will remain tight, as long as Covid-19 is rife in New Zealand and around the world.

But in the absence of cases in the Cook Islands, the country is not expected to go to lockdown.

In other signs of loosening constraints, Air Rarotonga is considering a passenger flight to bring people out of Aitutaki. The details of the flight will be confirmed once they know passenger numbers, an Air Rarotonga spokesperson said.

The National Stadium in Nikao has reopened, with a strict reminder to users to stay two metres apart.

Several eateries that has closed down temporarily – the Mooring Fish Café, Charlie’s, Margarita’s La Casita, Pacific Fish and Chips – are now reopening with new menus or hours, or just doing takeaways.

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And it is understood Prime Minister Henry Puna will tonight announce a decision on returning children to school next week.

Tiare Nicholas’s sons Mana-Ariki, 10, and Kyan, 8, usually go to Avarua School. Their cousin from St Joseph’s School, Wade Fatafehi, 5, is staying home with them too.

Like adults, it’s social interaction they crave most – they miss their friends and playing sport, especially rugby. “They used to do a lot of activities like Scouts but all that’s stopped,” Nicholas said.

“Because we are in Code Yellow I’ve been making them stay inside.

“You would think playing video games all day would be a dream come true but these are active boys who would usually be out in the neighbourhood playing and going to the beach and swimming and fishing.”

Five-year-old Wade has learnt to ride a “big two-wheel bike”, but he wants to play soccer on the school field.

Tiare said she understood it would be a while before everything returned to how it was, if it ever did. She applauded the efforts and work done by Te Marae Ora to make sure the Cook Islands remained Covid-19 free. 

But she thinks it’s important to let children return to school so they have some sort of normality. “Four weeks is just too long,” she said. “As long as they keep the borders closed to other countries we will be good.”

 > Jonathan Milne and Katrina Tanirau.

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