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OPINION: Is there a plan to deal with Covid-19?

Thursday 15 April 2021 | Written by Supplied | Published in Kata, Opinion


OPINION: Is there a plan to deal with Covid-19?
A lab scientist at Rarotonga hospital transfers a Covid-19 test sample into a GeneXpert cartridge. 21040929

There is a much greater risk than Covid-19 entering the Cook Islands if a travel bubble does not start soon, writes Dr John Dunn.

Franklin D Roosevelt at his inauguration in 1933 gave a stirring and often quoted speech: “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

This was the USA pre-war but the sentiment equally applies to Cook Islands in the time of Covid-19.

It is very rational to fear the coronavirus which still rages through Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. However, it is also important to recognise, be grateful for and exploit the special status which both the Cook Islands and New Zealand share: being Covid-free.

While it is true that New Zealand has had cases and community outbreaks, while the Cook Islands has had not a single case, the situation is now entirely contained with no community cases for an extended period. The only risk has been at the border and with recent moves to halt flights from India – the source of most imported virus – and belatedly insisting on 100 per cent vaccination of frontline border staff, that door is now closed.

A correspondent to Cook Islands News has asked my opinion on what is the true risk of allowing New Zealand tourists to return to the Cook Islands.

While flattered to be asked I would preface my comments by stating that I am not an epidemiologist, public health expert or microbiologist. Nor am I politically aligned in either country or a spokesperson for Te Marae Ora. Having said that I am widely connected in medicine, academia, politics, business and tourism. Dr Ashley Bloomfield tells me he was once my student!  

I am a Cook Islander through my great-great-grandmother Te Paeru. I have been a doctor for 40 years, a surgeon for 33 years and built a hospital and have run it for 25 years. I therefore understand risk. I am newer to tourism in the last five years. Our boutique art resort Motu in Titikaveka is a social enterprise with profits directed back to healthcare, education and the arts in the Cook Islands. However, we have had no revenue for over a year.

To finally answer the question, the risk presented by New Zealand tourists is zero or next to zero. If the Cook Islands only allows in pre-screened New Zealanders, and not transit passengers, and follows simple guidelines, the virus will not arrive. It is time for us to now think of having a common border between the two countries.  

I believe we are years away from welcoming back people from North America or Europe but New Zealand is ready and I think Australia could reasonably be on the horizon.

Ideally the adult population of the Cook Islands, and Niue, would be vaccinated first but I don’t believe this is necessary before New Zealanders arrive. When the New Zealand government chooses to release vaccine to us – being the only source we can get vaccine from – we could vaccinate the adult population very quickly and my staff and I are very willing to assist in that logistically.

Te Marae Ora has a very impressive and comprehensive plan already worked out ready for when the vaccine is available. I know that this would psychologically give comfort to many who are holding on to their fear, but it is not strictly necessary before tourism restarts.

Three weeks ago, I was in Chatham Islands which is in the middle of the ocean 800 km east of Christchurch.

Their situation is a mini version of the Cook Islands. It is just colder and without coconuts. The people are New Zealanders and they have never had Covid.  However, travel has started up there which is a huge boost to the local economy and the locals have come to realise that it is risk free.

Therefore, I don’t fear the coronavirus entering the Cook Islands with New Zealand tourists. I do however fear collapse of the local economy which will seriously degrade essential services like health and education and present a real threat to the wellbeing of Cook Islanders. This is a risk much greater than Covid.

Thinking of the worst-case scenario whereby an active case is detected, Rarotonga Hospital is very well prepared with imminent PCR testing, negative pressure rooms and good systems.

Additionally, we have in country at present Dr Ted Hughes – a Cook Islander and one of the best intensive care specialists in New Zealand. It is highly unlikely his key skills will be called upon however.

I understand that many are probably enjoying an atmosphere similar to pre-1973/international airport. That is fine if you live on family land, have a plantation and perhaps a boat to access fish outside the reef. 

However, if you don’t then your only option will be to leave for New Zealand as 300 did last month. This is a disastrous diaspora both economically and culturally as many will never return.

The situation is therefore urgent and I implore each individual to examine their own fears and really work out whether they are rational or emotional. Our situation is completely different from French Polynesia where the colonial master France allowed the importation of many active cases from Europe to create the huge problem they face today. We must only look south and not north for visitors.

To paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt, irrational fear is therefore paralysing. The Cook Islands’ economy is paralysed. To use a surgical analogy, we have to assess risk and take action rather than stand by and watch the patient haemorrhage to death.

Please support the government’s considered efforts to reopen borders and, at every opportunity, exert pressure on the New Zealand government to facilitate that. The immediate future is actually very bright.

  • Dr John Dunn FRACS is a Cook Islander, visiting surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital and business owner in the Cook Islands.