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23 January 2021

2020: The year that was

Saturday 2 January 2021 | Written by CI News Staff | Published in Features, Weekend

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2020: The year that was
Fireworks during the closing ceremony of the Cook Islands Games 2020. Photo: DANILO REYES. 20101811

It goes without saying that Covid-19 is the story of 2020, hands down. The virus dominated the headlines during the year, with many of the most popular stories shedding light on the impact it has had on all of us. But Covid-19 wasn’t the only story of the year. Cook Islands News takes a look back at the pandemic and other stories that defined the year 2020 …

January

Three die in road crashes

Family of Tikioki mechanic Mike Wood are grieving the loss of a loving husband, father, son and son-in-law, after he died in a motorbike accident on the weekend. Two bikes collided on the main road: a 16-year-old local boy heading home to Tupapa; a Fiji expat worker and his friend heading back towards town. One of the motorbikes had pulled out to overtake a car with public health workers in it – and had hit the bike coming the other way.

Bye Bluesky, hello Vodafone

Cook Island’s telecommunication service will no longer be called Bluesky as vendors know it.  As of today, Bluesky will now operate under the name Vodafone Cook Islands.

Phillip Henderson, the company chief executive officer, says the service is ditching its name in a new effort to be more recognised.

Feast or famine: Slower visitor growth a chance to build Pa Enua tourism

Operators are working to build visitor numbers to the Pa Enua, in a bold move to balance the tourism feast and famine that has been troubling the industry. New figures reveals growth in tourism has slowed to 1.7 per cent year-on-year – but that’s still enough to take numbers to an all-time high of 171,550 visitors in 2019. The problem is, traditionally many of them have arrived all at once, and gone to all the same destinations. The rest of the year, and the rest of the country, operators struggle to fill their hotel rooms, their dining tables and the seats on their tours.


Rudy Aquino takes a photo of “downstairs” from an “upstairs” lookout in Mangaia. 20120405

February

Cook Islands ban arrivals

Anyone who’s visited mainland China in the past 14 days – or even transited through – is barred from entering Cook Islands. The coronavirus travel ban was later extended to 15 more countries including Philippines and Indonesia, impacting a number of people travelling to Cook Islands. Government announced that anyone travelling from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Italy and Iran in the last 14 days will be denied entry into the country.

Report commends ‘Atea’ as Maori name for Cook Islands

Traditional leaders have advised government on options for a new Maori name for the country. They have drawn up a list of 117 alternatives, in the search for a meaningful Maori name to complement the English language “Cook Islands”.

Package containing illicit drugs intercepted by university staff

Police are investigating a parcel containing illicit drugs delivered to a university campus in Rarotonga. A package supposedly containing academic transcripts, text books and a graduation gown and head attire sent from New Zealand, was dropped off by a courier driver at the University of the South Pacific’s Cook Islands campus on Friday. Problem is, there is no planned graduation there or at any other education institution in Rarotonga in the foreseeable future.

March

Parliament boss sacked in blowout

Parliament’s Clerk has been sacked in an extraordinary constitutional upheaval, after the cost of building a new debating chamber blew out by $352,000. “I have been fired,” Tangata Vainerere confirmed, as he prepared to clear his personal effects from his office last night.

It is understood Vainerere is taking legal advice over his dismissal for “serious misconduct”.

Staying strong

Cook Islands residents stranded in New Zealand due to the coronavirus crisis will now have to wait longer before returning home. This after the government’s proposed plan to put them in a supervised quarantine centre in Auckland for 14 days before returning them to Rarotonga, failed.

The $61m prescription

As New Zealand shuts down its borders, Cook Islands government announces a rescue package to prop up failing businesses and keep people in work. Critically, government will subsidise the payroll of companies suffering from the economic downturn and tourism collapse: $304 a week towards the wages of every employee – the equivalent of the minimum wage for three months.

Helmet law passed

Parliament lowers drink-drive limit and makes helmet mandatory, in robust debate. The new law lowers the legal breath alcohol limit from 400mcg to 250mcg, bans the use of mobile phones and earphones, and makes helmets compulsory for all motorbike users.


These Tereora College students, pictured on the first day the helmet law was introduced in October, were quick to adapt to the new rules. However, critics of the legislation say some local motorcyclists are ignoring the law without penalty. 16100516

April

Dengue cases double in March

The Ministry of Health has ordered extensive puna clean-up programmes to deter the spread of dengue after a record number cases last month. In March alone there were 101 confirmed cases of the virus, which is spread by mosquitos.

Customs begins lay-offs

Customs has laid off more than half its airport officers after the cancellation of nearly all the country’s international flights. Only one scheduled flight is arriving each week, and that Air New Zealand flight carries only cargo, not passengers. Xavier Mitchell, Customs Service Comptroller, said those laid off were considered to be casual workers under the Employment Relations Act 2012. An “amicable settlement” was later reached between Customs staff and the government.

Complaints of misuse of pay subsidy

Government is investigating complaints that local businesses are misusing the wage subsidy initiative. Businesses affected by the coronavirus crisis are receiving government’s minimum wage subsidy of $7.60 for 35 hours a week per employee. They are then supposed top up the balance to meet the hourly rate of their employee as per the contract. If the businesses are unable to pay more, then they are required to reduce the hours of work to meet the $266 per week pay.

May

‘Kindness is one size fits all’

The return of about 130 Cook Islands residents on a special flight today will be bittersweet. No ei, no hugs and kisses, no noise and laughter, no family to shower them with love. But let there be no doubt, the 15,000 people in this one big bubble are overjoyed to welcome them home.

Teacher on life support

A young Rarotonga primary teacher has been evacuated to hospital in Auckland, where she is critically ill with listeria. Apii Te Uki Ou teacher Grace Archer was flown to Auckland on Air New Zealand flight 945 last Friday, after the “acute deterioration” of her health.

Breach in quarantine

At least five people could be at “risk of contamination” after a confirmed breach in quarantine at the Edgewater Resort and Spa on Monday. The breach involves the transfer of a mobile phone from the quarantine facility to a person on the outside. The person who collected the phone wasn’t stopped by security or police officers and it was only when they returned to the resort with the item, that concerns were raised.

Late burst of people power

Mamas and papas made up the vast majority of those who joined the No 2 Helmets Rally at Constitution Park.  They were unhappy that helmets are compulsory for all motorcyclists on Rarotonga, from June 26. Protesters said the helmet law shouldn’t have been amended in the first place, and helmets should only be required for those who are 25-years-old and under, or those who exceed 40kmh.


Protests last month against a motorbike helmet law attracted about 200 people. 20060525

June

Border begins to open

The country will reopen its borders to Cook Islanders and work permit holders in two weeks, the Prime Minister announced last night. From June 19, Cook Islanders and work permit holders who have been in New Zealand for the past 30 days and want to return home, or take up or resume employment, will be eligible. They will not need to go into quarantine.

‘Look out for each other’

The many friends who have known Sue Fletcher-Vea’s care and support are expected to gather at her family’s Manuia Beach Resort today to pay their respects to the tourism leader, after her sudden passing. Family and friends say she had thrown herself passionately and tirelessly into trying to help the country through its economic slowdown, taking an inevitable toll on the 52-year-old’s health. The Tourism Industry Council president was feeling unwell and out of breath on Sunday so the hospital admitted her for observation, but late on Monday she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and passed away.

PM to step down

For the first time in the nation’s history, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna will take the unprecedented step and bow out of his role two years before his term ends. Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown will take over the top role when Puna steps down in September this year. In an interview with Cook Islands News before he officially announced his plans in Parliament yesterday, the Prime Minister said he is vying for the position of Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Former Prime Minister Henry Puna.

Chlorine petition rejected

The petition opposing chlorine in Rarotonga’s drinking water was dismissed in Parliament yesterday. The petition, filed by the anti-chlorine group Te Vai Ora Maori, also opposed water rates for domestic users. The motion to accept the petition was defeated after the government MPs voted against it.

July

Chair quits in clash

The chairperson of the Business Trade Investment Board says the minister’s constant undermining of the board led to her resignation. Kopu Anguna stepped down from the role on May 18 this year. Minister George Angene yesterday dismissed her claim, saying Anguna resigned of her own accord.

New Ariki invested

The late Makea Vakatini Joseph Tepo Ariki was buried yesterday. And immediately afterwards, witnessed by hundreds of people who attended the funeral pay their respects, his son Makea Vakatini Phillip Ngamatoa Ariki was invested as his successor. It has been many years since a deceased Ariki is laid to rest, then the new Ariki invested at the same time at the burial ground.

Wage subsidy: Go home, stay home

Workers on minimum wage subsidy can stay home and collect their pay if there is no work available for them, says the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A local resort owner says this new rule is “contradictory” to what the Ministry of Finance had advised them earlier.

Wait for tourists, or go fish

The delay to a New Zealand air-bridge is causing Cook Islands “significant economic and social damage”. According to the Asian Development Bank’s latest Pacific Economic Monitor report, each month without tourists costs the economy about three per cent in lost GDP. With the collapse of tourism, the bank is now one of the country’s biggest financiers: half of Cook Islands’ $193 million government debt is borrowed from the bank.

August

Flooded locals ask for help

A month’s worth of rain fell in fewer than 12 hours in Rarotonga, causing widespread flooding around the island. Tina Maoate, who was managing the Muri Outlet II store yesterday morning, had mops at both entrances; every time a car drove by too fast, it sent a wave of dirty water across her threshold and into the store.

Dengue bites in Pa Enua

Pukapuka islanders will today hold a massive clean-up around the island to eradicate dengue mosquito breeding places. Pukapuka nursing officer Tohoa Cummings said there were now nine probable cases whose blood had been sampled locally.  The nine were in the primary stages – meaning they could self-care without having to be admitted to the hospital.

Cook Islands News appoints new editor and senior journalists

Cook Islands News has appointed senior journalist Rashneel Kumar to lead the paper through a challenging time for the country and the world. He will be supported by an experienced team: Katrina Tanirau, herself a former newspaper editor, is stepping up to the role of associate editor.

September

Dr Joseph Williams – a man of mana and humility

Cook Islanders here and around the world are in mourning and flags are flying at half-mast as a sign of respect for former prime minister Dr Joseph Williams who passed away in Auckland on September 4, after succumbing to coronavirus. His older brother Tuaine passed away in Australia a day before.


Dr Joe Williams, QSO

Family forced into 14-day quarantine after breach

A Rarotonga man had unauthorised close contact with one of the people who returned from New Zealand on Friday. The Health ministry will today determine whether there will be any actions taken against a Rarotonga man who breached quarantine at the weekend. The person, who is the head of his family, had unauthorised close contact with one of the people who returned from New Zealand on Friday. Ministry of Health has ordered him and his family into compulsory supervised 14-day quarantine.

Transgender lose inclusion bid

A large majority of island teams have voted against transgender athletes competing in the open women’s events at the upcoming Cook Islands Games. Two transgender athletes had registered to compete in the open women’s category at the Games to be held in Rarotonga next month. The decision to allow their participation was put to the 11 participating teams.

Police suspends staff

Cook Islands Police Service have suspended staff who are under investigation for alleged financial misconduct. Spokesperson Trevor Pitt confirmed investigators have conducted a probe into the Police Service’s administrative finances over recent weeks, leading to the suspension of staff.

Time for warning is over: Police gearing up to apply helmet law

Cook Islands Police are set to finally begin applying the mandatory helmet law as of October 1 with the conclusion of the extended two-month grace period at the end of this month.

Police spokesperson Trevor Pitt said: “The time for warnings is over.” The new law – which is an amendment to the Transport Act 1966 - requires all motorcyclists to wear helmets or face a fine of $250.

Digital dream realised as cable finally goes live

Few may have noticed, but the Manatua Cable is finally in operation and delivering data from North America, through Tahiti, to internet users in Rarotonga and Aitutaki. A quiet revolution has taken place as the first bytes of data have travelled across the Pacific through the Manatua Cable to the smartphones and computers of internet users in Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

October

$3.6m Avatiu ‘harbour’ bridge open to public

Avatiu residents will no longer have to fear damage to their homes or properties from heavy rain and motorists no longer have to detour following the opening of the new bridge. These were the sentiments shared at the blessing and opening of the $3.6 million Avatiu bridge named “Vaimutu’uri” yesterday.


Vaimutu`uri Bridge, better known as the Avatiu Bridge or Ruatonga Bridge, was officially opened on Wednesday after six months of construction. ICI/20100237

Man of the moment

Mark Brown is the new Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, the tenth person to hold the nation’s highest position of leadership since the country became self –governing in 1965.

Brown was appointed the new leader after Henry Puna resigned from the job to contest for the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. However, the official swearing-in ceremony at Government House late yesterday afternoon almost didn’t take place after objection from the Democratic Opposition Party earlier in Parliament.

Crash victim passes away

The Filipino expatriate community in Rarotonga are mourning the death of one of their compatriots who passed away yesterday morning. Police confirmed the passing of Filipino national Gelvin Quinoñes ,40.

Bid to abolish Koutu Nui

A Cabinet submission from the House of Ariki and its Minister George “Maggie” Angene to abolish Te Koutu Nui has shocked members of the traditional leaders group. The intentions of the matter were discussed at the annual Te Koutu Nui conference held at the Crown Beach Resort this week.

PM takes on 17 portfolios

Prime Minister Mark Brown holds a “staggering” 17 portfolios in the new Cabinet make-up.

As part of the government shakeup, Brown remains Minister of Finance – a role he has held onto for roughly a decade since entering politics in 2010 – and inherits the bulk of former prime minister Henry Puna’s portfolio, including the role of Attorney General and Foreign Affairs and Immigration. His expansive list of responsibilities includes Energy and Renewable Energy, Outer Islands, Public Service Commission, Police, Marine Resources, Seabed Minerals and Natural Resources, Cook Islands Investment Corporation, Financial Supervisory Commission, Financial Services Development Authority, Telecommunications, Audit/ Public Expenditure Review Committee, Head of State and Cook Islands National Superannuation.

November

Matapo acting police chief

Deputy Police Commissioner Akatauira (Aka) Matapo has been appointed the acting Commissioner of Police while the position is being advertised. Prime Minister Mark Brown, who is also Minister for Police, expects an appointment to be made in the new year 2021.

Government spokesperson Jaewynn McKay said the executive council approved Matapo as the acting Police Commissioner last week Friday.

‘Gentleman Jim’ – a man for the people

All government flags will be flown at half-mast for the rest of the week as a sign of respect for former Cook Islands prime minister Jim Marurai who passed away peacefully at his home in Ivirua, Mangaia this week.


Former PM Jim Marurai, who passed away this year at the age of 73. 17071117

Dengue defeated

The Ministry of Health has called on the public to remain vigilant despite their announcement that the dengue outbreak is now over. There have been no confirmed cases since early September to the end of October, confirmed the ministry, adding only two probable cases were reported during this period.

In recent months, there has been a decline in the number of dengue cases.

Health boss ‘resigns’

Health Secretary Dr Josephine Aumea Herman has “resigned” from her role. Public Service Commissioner Russell Thomas said he yesterday accepted the resignation letter of Dr Herman. On initially taking up this post in February 2018, Thomas said Dr Herman had indicated to him of her intention to only serve one term as the head of the ministry.

Licences issued to four new internet services providers

Four new local internet operators have been granted licences in a bid to improve services and provide competition to Vodafone Cook Islands. Competition and Regulatory Authority last week issued Internet Services Provider Network Operator Licences to Kuk i Net Ltd, ICT Nexus Ltd, AYA Ltd, and ManaNet Ltd. And Bernard Hill, the chair of the Authority, says they are expecting to issue more licences in the near future.

December

Fears for children’s safety

Convicted child sex offender Andrew Marsters was allowed out on work release privileges for a nephew in Avatiu, while children were playing nearby. Andrew Marsters was convicted on 10 out of 13 charges relating to child sex offences (from 1998 to 2017) and sentenced in March 2018 to 14 years’ imprisonment, this was reduced to 10 years on appeal.

Quarantine free travel with NZ by end of March, 2021

Prime Minister Mark Brown and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have agreed to an “arrangement to facilitate quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and the Cook Islands” by end of March next year. The agreement has been welcomed by local and NZ travel and tourism industry members but one Cook Islands resort owner is not convinced, saying there is nothing new in the latest announcement.

New airline set for takeoff

Mike Pero’s new airline is planning to launch direct flights from Wellington and Christchurch to the Cook Islands “as early as May” 2021. Cook Islander Pero, who is a well-known New Zealand-based businessman, unveiled Pasifika Air after quarantine free travel between the two countries was announced last week.

Matavera to lose treasured toa trees

The row of toa (ironwood) trees in Matavera on the main road at the front of Takitumu Primary School will be destroyed. A public consultation was held by the Ministry of Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI) last week to present their final proposal for the Takitumu School road with the Matavera community and the school board and families. The proposal included the widening of the road to the “true boundary of 10 metres legal road corridor”.

Cut-throat discounting discouraged

The local tourism industry is being urged to refrain from offering “large discounts” to Kiwis who are set to visit the country when the quarantine free travel gets underway by March next year. In a newsletter to its members, the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council says while larger discounts may attract more customers in the short-term, they urge them to think about the negative longterm effects such discounts can have on their product and brand loyalty.

Health appointment questioned

Former police officer Bob Williams has been appointed the acting Secretary of Health while the hunt for a permanent head of ministry continues. Questions have been raised over the appointment of Bob Williams as acting Secretary of Health. Williams, the former chief executive officer for the Minister of Health’s Support Office, took over the role on Christmas day on Friday.