One year inside the Cook Islands Covid-free bubble

Sunday 28 March 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, Weekend


One year inside the Cook Islands Covid-free bubble
(Photo: Losirene Lacanivalu 20111316).

Curiosity, fear, uncertainty, hardship, perseverance, isolation, hope, strength of community – Cook Islands News looks back at 12 months of Covid-19.

Just over one year ago, the pandemic hit the Cook Islands.

In the early days it was known as a mysterious, pneumonia-like illness that emerged out of the city of Wuhan in China. Early reports drew parallels between an earlier illness called SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which spread out of southern China, infecting over 3000 people, and killing 774.

Scientists said there wasn’t conclusive proof that this new illness, which like SARS was also a coronavirus, could be transmitted between humans.

There was little information and it was all happening far away from the Cook Islands, yet a small group was paying attention.

The early days

“I have a lot of praise for Dr. Aumea’s vigilance and expertise in the early days.

Ben Ponia, Chief of Staff, Office of the Prime Minister praised Dr Josephine Aumea Herman.

As Chief of Staff, she gave me an early insight of the potential consequences of Covid-19 and my role was to elevate this information to the PM, his Cabinet and Heads of Agencies, to ensure that we were properly prepared for an all-of-government response.

By late January 2020 there was less than 20 deaths in China but Aumea reached out to Ashley (Dr Ashley Bloomfield, NZ’s Director-General of Health) whom validated her concerns. I recall getting the message that she wanted to immediately instigate the National Health Emergency Taskforce (NHET).

Soon after we started shutting down our borders, beginning with China on the 31st of January. This decision was done at Cabinet level and was the first of many special sittings of Cabinet which I helped organise. I think within one week we developed the national Emergency Response Plan and had set up a response team at TMO with about 80 staffs from different agencies, with Aumea, myself and Maara Tetava as the directors.

There was a lot of calamity in those early days as countries around us also began to shut down their borders and we were also doing the same. No one knew where this would all end, it was quite worrying, especially when we had to restrict travel between our Pa Enua. We did a lot of work behind the scenes with police to stop widespread panic and civil unrest.”

* Ben Ponia, Chief of Staff, Office of the Prime Minister

Worry sets in

“There was that island-wide decree that everybody needed to close up and isolate. There was that worry that, it could be here.

There were tourists still. The Market said they were closing down, so we had to as well. We brought Waffle Shack home.

Duncan and Lee Lewis, owners of Waffle Shack at Punanga Nui Market. 21032643

We shut down Waffle Shack. It was all up in the air, as there was a lot of concern and worries about what was going to happen, and where things were heading.

So we brought (the trailer) home and started cleaning and painting, just trying to keep ourselves busy.

Later on we found out there was no Covid here, but that other countries had closed up their borders and there would be no tourists coming here.

We finished up tidying up Waffle Shack and brought back, just trading to locals and it’s been that way ever since. The real fear was having to lay off staff, as this is their livelihood, but the wage subsidy from the government helped.”

* Duncan Lewis, co-owner of Waffle Shack in Avarua.

The financial rescue begins

“The Government’s approach to this crisis is one of stimulus. By that I mean: we are putting money into the economy to keep it running during this unprecedented downturn.

Prime Minister Mark Brown. 21011409

Every dollar spent by the Government now creates additional spending. A business that receives government relief will be able to pay its staff, who can then buy groceries in the shops. That in turn generates income for other businesses, who then pay their own staff. It’s about kick-starting our comeback.

No one could have predicted a global pandemic and economic shutdown on the scale of Covid-19. Anyone who tells you they saw this coming is a liar. It’s unprecedented.

Fortunately, we are in a solid position to mount our comeback. The government’s economic stimulus package is underpinned by Government reserves and a strong economy prior in the lead up to the global pandemic hitting.”

* Finance minister Mark Brown, now Prime Minister


“In the early days of the pandemic I think my greatest fear was whether or not I would see my father, my husband and other dear friends and whanau in New Zealand ever again. It was the uncertainty of where this pandemic would go and when it would end.

Jaewynn McKay.

My husband Derek was in NZ when the Covid-19 pandemic was called and we wouldn’t see him in person for close to 5 months. During this time, he assumed they (in Aotearoa) would all get it and the unanswered question was who would survive? Predictions of 80,000 deaths in NZ created a sense of doom and gloom, particularly for the most vulnerable members of the community.

Derek was seriously worried he would never see us again and there was a huge sense of relief when the repatriation flights began.

And in my case, I was incredibly anxious about my soon-to-be 90-year-old father, who lives alone in Auckland. Each time I called without him answering I assumed the worst. There was great despair that if anything did happen to him, at the very least I was 2 weeks away. Not having the freedom to jump on the next flight and be with him hurt. But a lot of people have suffered greater hurts and still do when it comes to not being able to farewell their loved ones. This has been heart-breaking to see.”

* Government Covid-19 communications spokesperson Jaewynn McKay

Reaching a breaking point?

“The first thing that was on everybody’s mind was getting support to businesses for the long term, more than just a few months.

Fletcher Melvin. 20050415

We were ending the first economic response package. It was about getting the second phase of the ERP (Economic Response Plan) in operation because we weren’t sure about borders opening. We were working at getting as much information as possible to the Ministry of Finance about what was going on in the community.

At that stage, we thought we were ready to open up in a limited capacity, but then we realised that this was going to last a lot longer. There was no timeline for vaccines.

The next issue was to get contact tracing done and get that rolled out. We were doing research from around the world, what people were doing, what was working. We realised it was about using phones, but the problem was to get it done quickly, and we had to work our ways backwards. The most important were people in the outer island and the elderly, people who aren’t really using smartphones.

There was a lot of stress and anxiety. We worked with the health department and a psychologist to put on the wellbeing workshop for businesses. That was a collaboration between the Private Sector Taskforce and the health department. People were nearly at their breaking point. There weren’t answers and there was a fear of the unknown.

We were dealing with the loss of livelihoods, while also dealing with a potential health crisis.”

* Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin

Protecting livelihoods

“The focus of that plan (ERP) was businesses, livelihoods, and the vulnerable.

Financial secretary Garth Henderson. (PHOTO: COOK ISLANDS TOURISM). 21032304

We took that to cabinet and as I look back 12 months, we created a wonderful instrument.

We launched that several days after New Zealand launched their own plan, and the fact that we had our own money, our own skin in the game, meant that we could dictate the landscape of the ERP and that’s been a significant factor in the success over the last 12 months.”

* Garth Henderson, Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management


“It seemed like it was a long way away, but once New Zealand borders completely closed up it became a little difficult for us because we have family there. My mum had a major incident with cancer where she collapsed and was diagnosed. She had radiation therapy and I’ve only just managed to get back to see her. It’s quite stressful at times,” says Duncan.

“Sometimes you can feel stuck. Especially when it comes to family and there’s things going on and you can’t get back. We have a grandbaby now who has just turned one. He was born at the beginning of all of this. Being isolated from our family in New Zealand has made things difficult at times. We used to think we could just hop on a plane and head to New Zealand,” says Lee.

* Duncan and Lee Lewis, owners of Waffle Shack

Lessons learnt

“I haven’t counted but I reckon I drafted over 200 media releases this past year and have replied to countless media queries both here, in NZ and further abroad. I’ve learnt an incredible amount this last year around the pandemic and have met and communicated with an abundance of people.

It was a privilege and a great educational opportunity to work closely with Dr Aumea and her team at Te Marae Ora, inspiring, caring people. The ability of our communities to come together, to work together, and to pivot at short notice is an absolute asset for our country.”

* Government Covid-19 communications spokesperson Jaewynn McKay

Consulting with the public

“I think one of the areas where the Office of the Prime Minister did really well in those early days was to put out strong and clear communications from our leader. Every word had to be carefully weighed up.

Ben Ponia

Some of our Covid-19 responses have challenged the rights of individual, and so we have also become more attuned to ensuring that government decisions are consistent with policy and legislation. Our Covid-19 Act received unanimous support in Parliament because it was customised to suit our particular situation and I think it is an example of good governance.

I come away from Covid feeling quite proud to have played a role in Government’s response and it becomes even more satisfying to see now that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the possibility that the country may rebound stronger than before.”

* Ben Ponia, Chief of Staff, Office of the Prime Minister