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2021 – between gloom and a sliver of hope

Saturday 8 January 2022 | Written by Rashneel Kumar | Published in Economy, National


2021 – between gloom and a sliver of hope
The flag of the Cook Islands, officially known as the Cook Islands Ensign, waves in the wind at Muri Lagoon in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Photo: SUPPLIED

2021 picked up from where 2020 left – Covid-19 was once again the story of the year but a promising one with vaccines and booster shots providing some hope that “normal” may not be too far away.

While the rest of the world endured continued restrictions and lockdowns from two new and highly infectious Delta and Omicron variants, Cook Islanders remained clear of Covid-19 despite recording two historical cases.

The local economy also enjoyed a bit of activity from quarantine free travel with New Zealand which lasted for about three months – from May to August.

Cook Islands News takes a look back at the pandemic and other stories that defined the year 2021.


Warmest year

The Met Office says it will be about eight to nine months before Cook Islands will start experiencing cooler than average temperatures. Following what has been described as the warmest decade, the Cook Islands Meteorological Service says 2021 could see some of the highest temperatures on record.

Toa trees removal starts

Work to remove the toa (ironwood) trees that have graced the road side of Matavera since the early 1960s have started. Resident Renall Vogel, who has been vocal against the destruction of the toa trees, was devastated to see the trees being cut down.

A passenger gets his temperature checked by a health official before checking in at the Rarotonga International Airport early yesterday. RASHNEEL KUMAR/21012014

Quarantine free travel

The Rarotonga International Airport witnessed a glimpse of pre-Covid-19 activity as 115 passengers boarded the first quarantine free flight to New Zealand.Cook Islanders and other residents with valid visas are able to travel into New Zealand without undergoing quarantine on arrival.

Health boss

Newly appointed Secretary of Health says his immediate focus is recruiting to fill in critical vacancies advertised late last year.Bob Williams was confirmed as the new Secretary of Te Marae Ora (TMO) health ministry. Williams, who has been acting Secretary since December 25 after former head Dr Josephine Aumea Herman stepped down, was appointed for three-year term, effective January 19, 2021.


Puna bags top regional role

Henry Puna was named the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, becoming the first Cook Islander to take up the top regional role.

Puna was selected for the role after hours of talks during the historic Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Retreat held virtually for the first time on Tuesday. He won the close race for the position by a vote.

Former Speaker of Parliament Niki Rattle. 20063015

Speaker resigns

After nearly nine years in the role, Niki Rattle has tendered her resignation as Speaker of Cook Islands Parliament. “I have been Speaker since June 2012 and while I am honoured to have served the Parliament as the Speaker for this period of time … I have decided to resign at this point of the electoral cycle to allow time for others to build experience of the role and to ensure a transition prior to the end of the Parliamentary term.”

Hunter takes over PSC

Carl Hunter joins the Office of the Public Service Commission as its new head. The former senior public servant who spent the last seven years in a senior management position at one of the largest construction companies in the Cook Islands, is replacing Russell Thomas. Thomas retires after almost nine years in the role. In a statement, Hunter said: “It is fair to say that I am both humbled and extremely honoured that Government has chosen to appoint me to this top post and I intend not to let anyone down.”

Robbed at knifepoint

A shop attendant was left shaken after being threatened with a bush knife in an aggravated robbery in Titikaveka. Three offenders, one armed with a bush knife and other with a baseball bat, barged into Woo’s Store in Akapuao, stealing cash, cigarettes and canned alcoholic drinks. The offender carrying the bush knife threatened the shop assistant, stealing “two days’ worth of income” and cigarettes while the other helped themselves with cans of Woodstock bourbon drink.


Prime Minister Mark Brown with former prime minister and Manihiki MP Henry Puna, who currently holds the role of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. 20061610

Case dismissed

It was all smiles for those who gathered at the High Court yesterday supporting PM Mark Brown and former PM Henry Puna as Chief Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC acquitted them of all charges of fraud and improper payment of public money in relation to the 2018 charter flights to Penrhyn and Pukapuka.

Tura appointed Speaker

Tai Tura was sworn in as the new Speaker of Parliament at a special ceremony held at the Queen’s Representative His Excellency Sir Tom Marsters’ residence in Titikaveka. The Member of Parliament for Mauke had held the role of Deputy Speaker for nearly 10 years – since the time of the former Speaker, the late Sir Geoffrey Henry, who also served two terms as the country’s prime minister.

Cop retirement age removed

With the support of the Opposition, Government yesterday amended the Police Act to remove the retirement age of 60, to pave way for the new Police Commissioner. The Public Service Commission shortlisted two candidates for the top cop job, both of whom are believed to be in their early 60s.

Cooks open for business

on May 1: PM tells NZ

If Prime Minister Mark Brown has his way, it will be less than five weeks before the first few visitors from New Zealand will be able to visit the Cook Islands without the need to quarantine. All he needs is for New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern to give the green light to the plan. PM Brown – currently on a whirlwind trip to NZ visiting top Kiwi government officials – agreed with Ardern on setting the month of May as the target for two-way quarantine-free travel after face-to-face talks last week.


New water boss

Just over a year in the job, the head of the local water authority has stepped down for health reasons. To Tatou Vai Limited (TTV) has appointed a new chief executive officer after former boss Gregory Longman’s departure from the position.

Police Commissioner James Keenan. PHOTO: AL WILLIAMS/21063038

Keenan new top cop

The country’s new Police Commissioner is James Keenan, the first Cook Islander to achieve the rank of commissioned officer in the New Zealand Police force.  Prime Minister Mark Brown, acting in his capacity as the Minister of Police, announced the appointment of Turepu James Keenan as the new Cook Islands Police Commissioner.

Back in the House

Tangata Vainerere was officially confirmed as the new Clerk of Parliament – for the second time around – by the Parliament, just over a year after he was sacked in March 2020. Vainerere received his Warrant of Appointment, signed by the Queen’s Representative Sir Tom Marsters. “I’m humbled by my appointment and appreciative, and I look forward to using my skills to assist Parliament and take it to the next step.”

Tragedy as boy, 6, dies

A Titikaveka family is coming to terms with a terrible tragedy of losing their six-year-old son in a road accident. The six-year-old boy died from the injuries he sustained when he was hit by a small truck. Police spokesperson Trevor Pitt said the victim was attended to at the scene in Titikaveka, on a side road.

Police were later notified by the hospital of his passing, Pitt said.


MP Akaiti Puna

Akaiti Puna, the wife of former prime minister Henry Puna, claimed back her husband’s Manihiki seat in a by-election. After the preliminary counts, the Cook Islands Party candidate bagged 82 votes to beat Munokoa Maraeara of the Democratic Party on 32, and Temu Okotai (Independent) on 5.

The first two tourists to walk through Rarotonga Airport’s doors, Debra Mei and Clarke Truscott - 21051727, 21051728

Visitors from New Zealand finally arriving on Monday’s flight - 21051729,21051731, 21051732

Border reopens  

The first tourists in 14 months were welcomed at Rarotonga Airport yesterday by cheering locals, many too excited to contain themselves. Laughter, hugs, and some tears were shed as visitors were finally welcomed back after what was for many a long and painful wait. Some wary locals hung back, a little apprehensively, and kept their distance with a face mask at hand, something that Covid-free Rarotonga – unlike the rest of the world – has had no need for, until now.

Covid jab arrives,

rollout starts 

Secretary of Health Bob Williams was first to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine after the first batch arrived in the country. The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine got underway at the Rarotonga Hospital last night with 30 frontline health workers among the first to be vaccinated.

Hyphenated surname

Concerns have been raised over “outdated rules” at the Ministry of Justice which prevent parents from registering their newborn child with a hyphenated surname to include the mother’s name.Amber Rennie and Jaret Moore, parents of two-month-old baby Malia Rennie-Moore, have yet to register the birth of their only daughter. This after the Ministry of Justice refused to register their newborn child with the hyphenated surname “Rennie-Moore”, forcing them to seek legal assistance.


Cabinet reshuffle

Prime Minister Mark Brown has relinquished half of the 17 portfolios he allocated himself when he became the country’s leader in October last year, in a Cabinet portfolio reshuffle. Despite the changes, Brown retains the highest number of portfolios, including a number of key ministries. They are Attorney General, Office of the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Public Service Commission, Police, Finance and Economic Management, Seabed Minerals and Natural Resources and Cook Islands Investment Corporation.

He shared the remaining nine.

Democratic Party leader Tina Pupuke Browne. 21062923

Browne remains Demo leader

Tina Pupuke Browne has been retained as leader of the Democratic Party after voting during the party conference delivered a landslide victory for the Rakahanga Member of Parliament. Browne, a Senior Cook Islands lawyer was challenged by Matavera’s Vaitoti Tupa, a first term MP, and last minute challenger businessman Tex Tangimetua.

$500 for lying about Covid

A Cook Islands man with a historical Covid-19 test charged with making a false declaration on a travel document gets slap on the wrist fine and name suppression.The man who lied on his travel documents about a historic Covid-19 test and caused health staff “grave concern” was fined $500 in the High Court at Avarua. The defendant faced a maximum fine of $10,000 or a year in prison for breaching the Covid-19 Act put in place in 2020.

Pero’s airline grounded

The owner of the proposed Pasifika Air says lack of support from Cook Islands government has led to the grounding of his ambitious airline plans.

The proposed airline that was meant to fly direct from Wellington and Christchurch to Rarotonga will not happen, says the airline owner Mike Pero.

“We got to a stage about a week ago where there were just too many obstacles coming up out in front of us,” said Pero, who is a Cook Islander. “Despite my best intentions, it just isn’t meant to be for Pasifika Air.”

Ties optional in Parliament

Neck ties are now optional in Parliament, announced Speaker Tai Tura. The decision follows the first ever Kia Orana Day in Parliament where members came dressed in the traditional Cook Islands (pareu) attire. Neck ties were made optional on Friday.

Tourist dies

The Coroner is expected to reveal what caused the death of a Kiwi tourist in Rarotonga. Police would not reveal details after they had received a medical report and passed it on to the Coroner. A police spokesman said they expected to close the file after the Coroner had signed it off. The tourist died of a suspected heart attack while swimming at Aroa. 

‘Budget of Revival’ approved

The total budget summary of $300,049,742, just over $11 million more than the original tabled Budget, was passed in Parliament before it was adjourned sine die. The additional amount is for government agencies which were appropriated over $165 million, exactly $11 million more for those agencies than when the Budget was first tabled. The total amount appropriated to the outer islands is $12,605,145.


Battle for titles

President of the House of Ariki Kaumaiti Nui Tou Ariki has expressed his deep disappointment at the battles and double investitures of the same Ariki titles that have occurred recently. Tou Ariki shared his sentiments while speaking at the investiture of Rangatira of Makea Karika George Ariki on the Ra O Te Ui Ariki (Ariki Day) public holiday.

St Joseph’s School students led by their head boy Aporo Purua, left, entertain guests and fellow students at the school’s 125th birthday celebrations yesterday. AL WILLIAMS/21071525

St Joseph’s celebrate 125years

Several hundred people converged on St Joseph’s Cathedral to honour the 125th birthday of St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School. More than 150 students and staff braved the rain and marched in song along St Joseph’s Rd to join the congregation in Holy Mass.


Early visitor arrival projections released by Cook Islands Tourism have been scaled up to 12,000 this month while 11,000 visitors are now forecast to land here each month between August and October. The latest projections surpass earlier figures of 11,000 visitors in July, 10,500 in September and 10,500 in October.

Fish shortage

Fishing boats are coming back mostly empty, some of the people affected say it’s normal while others say it’s the worst it’s ever been. “We’ve never had (fish) supply this low before,” says Fresh Fish Company owner Timothy Vaikai said. Marine resources Secretary Pamela Maru said the current low supply of fresh fish should be attributed to environmental conditions that play a major role in seasonal catch rates.

Purse seine deal

The European Union (EU) and the Cook Islands have extended a “sustainable” fisheries partnership by three years. The agreement was announced on Wednesday and allows EU fishing vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) to continue fishing in Cook Islands fishing grounds.

The initial fisheries agreement to allow European fleet to fish in our waters and catch up to 7000 tonnes per year of tuna and other annual migratory species was finalised in 2017. The initial deal expired in 2021.


A tribute to the people

Cook Islands proudly celebrated the Constitution Day, marking the country’s 56 years of self-governance in true island style with drums, songs and dance. When things were at the worst for our country, that was when we saw the best in our people, said Prime Minister Mark Brown in his address at the Constitution Day celebrations at the National Auditorium

Tereora takes ‘work action’

Tereora College has put on hold its support classes and extra-curricular activities to protest against Ministry of Education’s inaction on pay parity issue for its “committed long serving teachers”. The national college adopted a new roster which saw school hours reduced to 8.20am-2.30pm, focusing only on core learning delivery through subject classes. The teachers returned to work after meetings with Education ministry.

Travel bubble halted

Government has decided to extend the current Alert Level 2 as well as the temporary suspension on inbound passenger air travel from New Zealand as cases of Covid-19 continue to climb. Following this week’s 72-hour halt to inward arrivals from NZ, those hoping to make it to the Cook Islands will now have to wait. Kiwi travellers currently in the Cook Islands who have not been at a New Zealand location of interest and do not have Covid-19 symptoms are able to return from the Cook Islands on a scheduled flight.

Cases of RSV recorded

A highly contagious virus with “cold and Covid-like symptoms” has been detected in the Cook Islands. Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health has confirmed two cases of Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that infects the lungs and breathing passages. However, there could be more cases of this respiratory virus present in the community, says a Te Marae Ora spokesperson.


The Imua 105 docked in Rarotonga on Wednesday.  21090125

Covid-19 continues to

disrupt shipping routes 

Rarotonga has been short on rice in recent weeks as a result of changes in shipping routes due to ongoing Covid-19 challenges in Fiji. Consumers are expected to get some relief with suppliers restocking shelves following a two-week absence of the staple. Prime Foods is one of the leading supermarkets that has been out of rice for at least a fortnight. Supermarket owner Dan Forsyth said the Covid-19 situation in Fiji had left them short of stock.

Covid-19 vaccines

approved for children

Cook Islands Government has approved vaccination for children aged 12 to 15. Secretary of Health, Bob Williams said the decision was approved during a cabinet meeting. The rollout of the vaccine started in October.

Vaccinated tourists

when border reopens

All future visitors to the Cook Islands aged 12 years and older need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, Prime Minister Mark Brown announced. The only exemption will be visitors who have a medical certificate. Brown said the Cook Islands would not open its borders for quarantine-free travel until it was fully confident there was no community transmission in New Zealand. The government said this would likely occur when New Zealand returns to Covid-19 Alert Level 1.

Workers lured

Local businesses continue to struggle to find employees and the situation is only set to get worse as more local workers are recruited for work in New Zealand, where they can earn higher wages and possibly find a path to residency. With an inevitable opening of the border on the horizon, local businesses are banking on another rush of Kiwi visitors once the Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand concludes.

Government network ‘misused’

Cook Islands Government employees have taken up more than 10 terabytes of space with unrelated work content – including movies and music – which has been deleted from the network by their IT boss. Office of the Prime Minister ICT director Pua Hunter sent a memo to 2000 network server users on Monday, telling them that over 10 terabytes of “valuable storage” was being used for movies, music, photos and personal files.


Tapaitau suspended over

corruption related charge

Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau has been suspended (on full pay) pending outcome of his court case after he was revealed as the government member being charged with conspiracy to defraud. He is charged alongside Diane Charlie-Puna, the former Secretary of Infrastructure Cook Islands, and Nga Puna, the former director of the National Environment Service, who appeared in the Criminal Court on multiple theft offences and conspiring to defraud.

Major leak of offshore data

The Cook Islands made an appearance in the Pandora Papers – the leaked cache of 11.9 million financial records – which includes a high-profile Israeli businessman who allegedly tried to hide over $1 billion in a trust company here.

The Pandora Papers is the name given to the confidential information unlocked from 14 offshore financial service providers – including one that operates here – that set up and manage shell companies and trusts in tax havens around the world.

Government owes Superfund

over $150,000 in contributions

An ‘oversight’ on the part of government’s payroll processing system resulted in a debt of over $150,000 with the Cook Islands National Superannuation Fund. Government agencies will have to fork out $76,037 from their current 2021/22 budget to pay for a “debt” they incurred from underpaying the superannuation contributions for October, 2020. The Cook Islands National Superannuation Fund (CINSF) is also being owed $76,037 as employee contributions which will be deducted from the fortnightly salaries of the government workers.

Tamatoa Ariki, Te Putokotoko o Tamatoa Ariki Kiikoro-i-te-maru-o-te-Ao, Arerau Maao, Bishop Tutai Pere, Pastor Bobby Matapo, Pastor Eric Toleafoa with other guests at the unveiling of the Bicentenary Commemorative Stone at Orongo Park on Gospel Day in Aitutaki. 21102627

Gift of faith

The solemn peal of church bells drifted across Orongo Park to a crowd of hundreds grandly dressed in a shining white garment at the Puna Kiore in Arutanga, Aitutaki in commemoration of the arrival of Christianity 200 years ago. An entourage of warriors followed close behind carrying a platform holding a large carving of a wooden Bible towards the Bicentenary Commemorative Stone at Orongo Park.


Those gathered join in to pay respect.  21112006

Pukapuka mourns fallen king

The Pukapuka community are mourning the death of their king Aliki Wolo, Pakitonga Tetio Kaitala Paulo Iti. Aliki Wolo, 81, passed away enroute to Rarotonga from Pukapuka. He was airlifted from the northern group island and referred to the Rarotonga hospital.

Covid booster shots secured

The Pfizer Covid-19 booster shots will be available from mid of December, says Te Marae Ora Minister of Health. The supply of the Covid-19 booster shots for the administration of the third dose will be arriving in Rarotonga on December 16.

World’s biggest boozers

Cook Islands has been crowned the highest consumer of alcohol per capita in the world. The findings come as no surprise to those who have been calling for a clampdown on excessive alcohol consumption in the country. Website this week released its 2019 rankings finding the nation to “lead the world per capita consumption of alcohol, and by far the largest consumers in Oceania”. Cook Islands residents drink 13 litres (3.4 gallons) of pure alcohol annually, according to the report.

Covid forecasts ‘could be worse’

Covid-19 modeller professor Michael Plank says the projections that say Cook Islands will get 2400 infections and 10 Covid-19 deaths in a year could actually be worse. A public presentation held by Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health in Ngatangiia this week revealed in an event of a Covid-19 outbreak in the Cook Islands, the country could expect 2400 infections, 100 hospitalisations and 10 deaths.

Domestic violence figures

Reported incidents of domestic violence are looking to surpass 2020 figures with last month holding the highest monthly figure recorded in the past five years, Cook Islands Police say. Police received 40 complaints in October – all classified under statistical criteria as domestic violence. It was recorded as the highest monthly figure for more than five years.

Over 100 expats set

to receive PR status

Over a hundred people could become Cook Islands permanent residents before the end of the year, now that the Cook Islands Immigration Bill passed its third reading.  The Immigration Bill that deals with who is defined as a Cook Islander, who can enter the country and who can become a permanent resident was made Act in Parliament.


Covid-19 case

Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health confirmed the positive Covid-19 case detected in the managed isolation quarantine at the Edgewater Resort was a ‘historical case’ after the recent test returned a negative result. The 10 year old child who provided two “weak positive” Covid-19 test results after arriving in Rarotonga, has returned a negative result in his latest test. That means he’s not infectious and this is an historical case, Ministry of Health confirmed in a statement.

The people’s peaceful rally against the reopening of the nation’s borders in January 2022, passes through the Avarua town centre. 21120712

Protest against border reopening

One hundred people with bold placards marched to the government Te Atukura grounds to protest against the opening of the country’s borders in January, 2022. Coordinator of the march and leader of the Cook Islands United Party Teariki Heather voiced concerns about the “friendly” United Cook Islands people rally at Te Atukura grounds where police were also present at the boundary.

Leave to appeal dismissed

The private prosecution’s application seeking leave to appeal a High Court decision involving Prime Minister Mark Brown and his predecessor Henry Puna, was declined by the Court of Appeal. President of Citizens Against Corruption (CAC), Paul Allsworth, who led the prosecution with defence lawyer Norman George, said it was declined on the principle of double jeopardy – where a person acquitted cannot be tried again.

Deep sea ‘gold rush’

Three companies could be awarded a licence to explore the Cook Islands seabed for rare minerals. People concerned by the prospect say the companies are investing tens of millions just to take a look and are worried they will be hard to get rid of if the environmental risks are too great. But the companies themselves say they are ready to walk away if environment assessment, which they are supposed to undertake, show risks outweigh benefits.

No jab, no job

Mandatory vaccination will be implemented by at least one state owned enterprise and the leading private enterprise, while another supermarket has no intention of enforcing dismissal of the unvaccinated, unless government legislates it.  In a written statement, To Tatou Vai Limited said its board had resolved that the company will not employ anyone who is not been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

No jab, no church

Four unvaccinated members of the Cook Islands Christian Church have been told to stay away from services as new recommendations have been laid out by Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health. Two parishioners in Mangaia and two in Avarua have been told to stay away from church services following meetings between Secretary of Health Bob Williams and church representatives last week.

Cooks borrow US$80m

A US$80 million loan will prop up the national economy just weeks after New Zealand delivered a NZ$60 million aid package for ‘Covid-19 economic support and recovery’.In a media statement, lender Asian Development Bank said the funding would help the Cook Islands Government progress ongoing reforms to improve public financial management and foster private sector activity. The latest loan will increase the country’s debt to over a quarter of a billion dollars (over $250 million).

Chief economist ‘resigns’

The Cook Islands Government chief economist has resigned and returned to New Zealand amid unconfirmed reports of internal rift and substantial financial settlement with his employer, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management. Ministry of Finance and Economic Management (MFEM) planning director Dr Willem Ysbrand Borren (Pim) confirmed he resigned on Wednesday, December 22, effective January 28, 2022. Borren also confirmed he returned to New Zealand for his notice period, but would not comment on matters relating to a financial settlement.