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Dr Collin Tukuitonga: NZ-Pacific bubble is the priority

Thursday 28 May 2020 | Written by Legacy Author | Published in Opinion

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Dr Collin Tukuitonga: NZ-Pacific bubble is the priority
Health workers meet and test returning Cook Islanders at Rarotonga International Airport this month. 20052710

OPINION: Much has been made of the desirability of a ‘trans-Tasman’ bubble with quarantine-free air travel as a priority. There are compelling reasons for this idea and it is politically difficult to ignore.

However, Australia is showing continuing transmission of Covid-19 which presents a risk to Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Australia reported 15 new cases on May 25; most of the islands, on the other hand, are still Covid-19-free.

In my view, quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and selected Pacific Islands should be the priority. Here are four reasons why:

1. The risk of introducing Covid-19 into New Zealand from the islands is near-zero. Conversely, when New Zealand is Covid-19-free for 28 days, the risk to the islands is near zero. I am suggesting that the priority islands are Cooks, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau and Tonga. Fiji could now be included in a New Zealand bubble as that nation was Covid-19-free for 35 days at the time of writing.

2. The economic benefits to these islands are enormous. Tourism from New Zealand would recommence with minimal Covid-19 risks and trade would resume. The economic benefits to small island economies cannot be overstated and most islands would welcome early restoration of economic activities to offset the damage brought on the pandemic lockdowns.

3. New Zealand is the transit point for travel to and from these islands. Auckland is the home for many extended families from the islands and most Pacific communities would welcome the ability to reconnect with families and whanau. It is also the specialist hub for medical referrals from the islands.

4. New Zealand has constitutional obligations to the realm nations of Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. Furthermore, it has a Treaty of Friendship with Samoa and long historical relationships with Tonga. In the case of Niue, Air New Zealand is a lifeline bringing in much needed medication, goods and essential services. In short, we are family, whanau, anau.

Overall, the island governments have done a great job in keeping Covid-19 away. The Cooks, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tokelau remain free of the virus. The US-affiliated states in the North (Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau) and Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru are still Covid-19 free

Cook Islands responded early to the threat of Covid-19 introducing comprehensive pandemic prevention measures in early March 2020.

Last month, Prime Minister Henry Puna declared Cook Islands to be Covid-19-free.

In recent days, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown has expressed a wish to see a return of tourism to the island nation. Tourism is an important revenue source for the Cook Islands.

I am confident Cook Islands has a very good Covid-19 control strategy and has shown that its health system can manage the risks of the introduction of Covid-19.

These achievements are largely the result of their early responses in declaring a state of emergency.

Most islands closed their borders to all flights early on in the pandemic and many still remain closed to outside travellers even though this means some of their own citizens are stuck overseas.

These measures have been supported by their communities. Many of the island communities were spooked by the measles outbreak that killed more than 80 people in Samoa, mostly children. As a result, Samoa has been one of the most decisive in protecting citizens from Covid-19.

Health professionals have been supportive of these measures. Many are concerned that they will not be able to cope if there is an outbreak in the islands.

Island governments are cautious about opening their borders although some restrictions have been lifted, for example, schools opening and churches resuming. In Cook Islands, the restrictions were lifted last month and the island nation remains free of Covid-19.

Once New Zealand is Covid-19-free for 28 days, it will be safe to allow travel between here and selected islands, including the Cook Islands.

Ø Dr Collin Tukuitonga is Associate Dean of Pacific, at the University of Auckland Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.