Staying put to ride out the pandemic

Saturday 5 December 2020 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Local, National

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Staying put to ride out the pandemic
Adyn Kapi, 20, left Rarotonga in 2017 for the Gold Coast to study and play rugby, but has since returned to Rarotonga to ride out the pandemic. 20120427

The pandemic has wrecked the nation’s tourism dependent economy. Previously when times were tough, people fled overseas in search of opportunity. That has yet to happen, but the business community believes the threat of depopulation remains.

The public and members of the business community were bracing for the worst.

When Cook Islands came to grips with the borders being shut to keep the Covid-19 virus out of the country, a cold reality set in: how are people going to make ends meet, and if they can’t, would they consider leaving to search for economic opportunity in New Zealand or elsewhere?

Last month in a report, ratings agency S&P said they expected the country’s gross domestic product to fall by about 9 per cent in 2020 and 5.3 per cent in 2021, with GDP per capita dropping to NZ$23,600 in 2021 from NZ$25,100 in 2020.

The Private Sector Taskforce warned in August of a possible “exodus” that could rival what occurred in 1997 and in 2008 during the global financial crisis if a travel bubble wasn’t formed with NZ by the end of September.

Interestingly, despite substantial damage inflicted to the tourism-dependent economy, government data shows depopulation hasn’t happened. Yet.

And surprisingly, more people have returned than have left.

Adyn Kapi, 20, left Rarotonga in 2017 for the Gold Coast to study and play rugby.

Over roughly three years, Kapi put together a string of accomplishments on the field, winning nationals on his school team before going on to play for the Tweed Heads Seagulls, the feeder team for the Gold Coast Titans who compete in the National Rugby League (NRL) premiership.

A year ago, he travelled back to Rarotonga to be with family and friends for the holidays, and in January, he arrived back on the Gold Coast. Within a couple months, the entire world changed as Covid-19 spread around the world.

Australia began the month of March with only a handful of cases of the virus, but by the end of the month, about 300 cases were being reported daily.

“I wanted to come home straightaway, I was pretty scared, everything had started shutting down,” Kapi said.

He wasn’t the only Cook Islander wanting to return home.

According to the statistics office with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, from March until the end of October of this year, 1124 Cook Islands residents left the country. But 1480 returned, resulting in a net influx of 356 residents.

Government officials agree that one shouldn’t draw broad conclusions from the numbers, but at a minimum, they appear to indicate that a wholesale departure of residents hasn’t occurred.

Principal immigration officer Kairangi Samuela from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration said she was aware of the trend. “We have noticed that there are more people coming than going out,” she said.

“A lot of the people who are coming in appear to be older, in their 60s. I’m not sure what you can read into it, but that’s what we’ve seen with the people coming in.”

Samuela said while it’s difficult to read into the numbers, it could be possible that Cook Islands’ Covid-19-free status may by playing a factor, keeping people in the country while enticing others to return. Another possibility could be those returning have been made redundant or have been forced out of work due to the pandemic.

For Kapi, the danger of contracting Covid-19 was amplified due to an existing underlying health issue.

He had to get out of Australia quickly. And coming home turned out to be an ordeal.

Lora Tauira, Kapi’s mother, said: “With Adyn, it was a bit more worrying. He has rheumatic fever, so that was another reason why we got him straight out, because all the flights started to shut.”

“He was lucky to get out, because I think the following week there were no flights out.”

Kapi flew directly to Christchurch, where we had to undergo 30 days of quarantine. Another two weeks of managed quarantine in Auckland and he was a on a plane to Rarotonga.

“It was the best feeling. I was happy. I couldn’t wait to get home,” he says.

After two weeks of quarantine at the Edgewater - “I was lucky, free food, free accommodation,” he says – he was finally free, and in one of the safest places in the world during the pandemic.

Since arriving, Kapi says he has been reconnecting with friends and family, planting taro, cutting grass, and keeping the house tidy.

He has also been spending a lot of time playing sports. He earned man of the match honours for two recent Tri-Nations cup matches, and represented Mauke in the Cook Islands Games, playing Sevens, league 9’s and boxing.

“I’m happy to be back, there’s a lot of smiles,” Kapi says.

While the majority have largely chosen to stay put, there’s still no sign of a travel bubble, and the business community is voicing exasperation.

Covid-19 Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin says depopulation remains a concern. And one reason people may be staying is the “lifeline” financial support government has been paying out through the wage subsidy.

“I think the response to date through the ERP (Economic Response Plan) has mitigated against this happening,” he says. “However, the issue is still present and it will be a problem if there isn’t continuous financial assistance from government, or the economy isn’t able to restart.”

“The connection between depopulation and a lack of a vibrant economy is basic economics.”

For Kapi, he’s playing the waiting game and assessing his options. What is certain, he says, is he will leave Rarotonga again at some point to pursue his rugby dreams, with options to go back to Australia or potentially playing in New Zealand.

“I was supposed to go back but I’m still deciding,” he says. “We’re looking at options.”

Ultimately, once it’s safe and the threat of the virus has subsided, Kapi’s mother thinks it’s better that he heads back overseas.

“I don’t want him staying here,” she says. “You don’t want to look back when you’re older.”

It remains to be seen if, once borders open and the threat of Covid-19 abates, others will follow.