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OPINION: Democratic Party calls for vaccine before travel bubble

Tuesday 30 March 2021 | Written by Supplied | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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OPINION: Democratic Party calls for vaccine before travel bubble
A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is administered. Photo: AFP

To the New Zealand government, the Cook Islands Opposition is appealing for the Covid-19 vaccine to be rolled out here for our 17,000 people before the two-way travel bubble opens between our two countries, writes Opposition leader Tina Browne.

Our own Te Marae Ora – Ministry of Health must be working quickly and diligently and do its part to put all the necessary measures in place to help see the vaccine being available and administered here.

Both our PM and PM Jacinda Ardern have agreed in recent talks that the vaccination will provide an “additional layer of assurance for safe movement between our countries” – but then also apparently jointly decided that it’s “…not a pre-requisite for full resumption of quarantine free travel between our countries”.

I fail to understand why the two cannot happen, beginning with the vaccine rolling out as soon as possible to be in time for the much-anticipated May opening of the travel bubble. Doing it this way ensures that our very vulnerable population, where over half of our people have some type of NCD, is given the best possible protection available when the border opens to all visitors from New Zealand.

I have had conversations with Puna managers, business owners and community leaders in Rarotonga and the Pa Enua – we are all thinking along the same lines, vaccine our high-risk population before the two-way travel bubble.

Surely if both leaders are saying the vaccine provides greater protection for safer travel between the two countries, then it has to be a very good thing and something that should happen first.

We do understand the difficult struggle currently being experienced by accommodation operators and others in the tourism industry – especially those who are burdened with repaying heavy mortgages.

We also understand that this loss of income is not just for operators, but also a huge loss of revenue for our country.

We know we are right now in an extremely difficult place – having to weigh the risk of opening two-way travel and generating some revenue against the virus entering the country and how ready are we really to deal with this scenario.

I believe pushing for the vaccine to be rolled out for our people will reduce the above risk.

My concerns have prompted me to share this column space with Titikaveka Puna leader Alistair Macquarie who is advocating nationwide vaccination as the minimum prerequisite before the two-way bubble commences. Alistair has been tireless at leading the Titikaveka Puna and is regarded to be one of the most outstanding Puna leaders on Rarotonga.

Macquarie says: “Greater improvement in contact tracing, with a huge improvement in participation and support from our people is needed to make it effective should there be an outbreak.”

Quoting from an Emergency Management Cook Islands (EMCI) and Puna island-wide survey in 2020, Macquarie stated the Rarotonga population was 10,095. Of this 5180 are in the workforce. He understands that the CookSafe system is averaging 1200 daily scans between Monday to Friday. The weekend scans at major outlets are very poor despite registering between 800 to 1000 customers each – only about four percent of customers are actually scanning. According to a Puna survey, 2500 people were customers of three shops on a Sunday and that Sunday showed only 200 scans for the whole island.

This is especially concerning when contact tracing is all about tracing a community’s movements.

Macquarie says the business sector is not being supportive enough of the CookSafe system otherwise the employers would be making sure that all their workers are scanning and using the system that in the end is going to help us prepare for the opening of a travel bubble.

“We should be asking who is swiping, is it just shoppers at some of the major outlets, some major businesses have refused to install the CookSafe system, so is this really reflective that we are all in this together? And I believe this shows we are not ready for a two-way bubble however much our economy desperately needs it.”

Macquarie added that in the Quarantine Free Travel Two-Way Travel information sheet issued by government there are 16 required outputs in the pathway to achieve two-way travel. Four of the outputs have been ticked as being achieved. The public need to be informed what is happening with the remaining 12 outputs that need to be achieved before we commence a two-way travel bubble?

Following the advice of a recent inspection visit by University of Auckland specialists of health systems, capacity and procedures it was decided that isolation units would not be set up in the 10 village Puna as this would place far too great a burden on both community and TMO resources, explained Macquarie. “The recommendation was for a centralised mass quarantine facility (managed isolation quarantine – MIQ). So an important question is this; where is this central quarantine facility going to be set up, where is the equipment for it…like bedding and personal hygiene facilities, catering and so on.”

“If a planeload comes in and there is one person aboard who turns out to be infected, everyone that travelled on that plane goes into MIQ – we don’t even have that facility ready.

“The coronavirus is going to keep wreaking havoc until everyone is vaccinated, and the vaccine is what needs to happen for our people at home. All the aforementioned concerns also have to be met. Remember two vaccine doses are needed two weeks apart – we need to start now.”