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Cook Islanders serving abroad in the pandemic

Wednesday 29 April 2020 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Weekend


Cook Islanders serving abroad in the pandemic
Ngaoa Etches, the youngest child of Peter and Teina Etches in Matavera, is classed an “essential worker” at her mine in Australia..

Cook Islanders around the world have been essential workers as the countries they live in go into lockdown. Melina Etches tells the story of her sister Ngaoa Etches in Western Australia, Moira Guinea-Beal in Queensland and Katherine Henry in Oregon, USA.

Ngaoa Etches is based on a remote mine site in the north of Western Australia.

“I'm feeling extremely grateful to be part of an industry that is required to continue, in order to help keep our economy afloat in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic,” she says.

Etches, my sister and the youngest child of Peter and Teina Etches in Matavera, is classed an “essential worker”.

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She knows there are some who do not support the continued operations of the mines – but she believes shutting down the industry would be unsustainable to the tax revenues Australia needs to fight the coronavirus

“Thousands of people have lost their jobs in the last couple of weeks and many people are struggling to make ends meet.”

The mine is isolated, with only a few hundred people on site at a time.

“I feel a little anxious, as we have shared food halls at camp and we share lunch rooms and vehicles at work.

“But I feel a lot safer here, than in the town I live in, where it is still only being strongly recommended, not enforced, to be in lockdown.”

Weeks ago, the company quickly put in place rules requiring social distancing and good hygiene practices; the gym, pool, sports courts and bar are closed.

Hand sanitisers are placed near doorways in all lunch rooms and markers are on pathways to indicate 1.5 metre spacing when lining up. Before Covid-19 it was the norm to ride a bus packed with people; “now they are half full, with more services to ensure we are spaced out on the bus,” she says.

Workers are assigned to teams and required to wear masks, and vehicles are rigorously sanitised before and after use.

“The most noticeable change has been to our rosters; we are now all required to do two weeks on, and two weeks rest, to reduce the crossover of people and the number of planes used.

“Our temperatures are checked at the airport before flying up, and the company has ordered thousands of test kits.”

Although there are massive changes to her structure of work life, she says almost all workers abide by the new rules with few complaints.

“We are all very aware of how detrimental a confirmed case of the virus would be to our health and livelihoods,” she says. “No one wants to take home the virus to their families on rest days.”

Etches was in Perth when cafes, restaurants, gyms and non-essential services were shut down.

“I didn’t do any panic buying as I didn't feel at all panicked; cautious and more alert yes, but not panicked. That’s not the same for everyone, as many supermarket shelves were empty.

“I’m doing my best I can in keeping social distances, disinfecting surfaces I come in contact with, over the top hand-washing and I carry a pocket hand sanitiser.

“I am extremely lucky to have my job, my health and somewhat of a normal work routine; I do miss the gym and the pub and I’m looking forward to my two week break.”

Borders between states are now closed, and regional borders have been enforced, to isolate remote towns and Aboriginal communities. “We are not on full lock-down which is nice, the curve is flattening.

“I’ll be quite happy to stay at home and get jobs done around the house that have been left for months, and I'm keen to read books, nap and Netflix.”



Katherine Henry reckons Beaverton, where she lives, is the best place in Oregon and the whole United States.

“This is my home away from home for nearly 20 years,” she says. “Now, Oregon is on lockdown.”

Kat Henry is from Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the daughter of the late Hugh Henry, and Helen. Her mother still lives in Arorangi, Rarotonga.

That seems a long way from Beaverton, where Henry is an essential worker for Target, the 8th largest retailer in the United States.

“We must carry identification and documentation must be carried when travelling – always; if stopped without these we can face fines up to $3000 and up to 30 days in jail.

“For us, it is business as usual with additional Covid-19 measures in place. Our days are busy, busy, busy.”

The store hours are reduced. “In addition to our rigorous cleaning routines already in place, we have introduced new measures to keep our stores clean and promote social distancing for everyone’s safety.”

Signs are posted at the front, and floor decals are displayed at the check lanes to maintain safe distances between guests, the lanes are deep cleaned after each guest transaction.

It is compulsory for all employees to wear mask and gloves.

“Peace of mind is knowing I am in a safe and sanitary work environment, surrounded by a team of 160 to 200 employees who have now become more like family.”

Henry shops for herself once a month or every six weeks. “The majority of us continue to do our personal shopping as we normally would, when our shifts are over.”

With the pandemic sweeping the world over, she limits the news she watches each day. “It is easy to get into the negativity of it all; I do about 30 minutes a day, and then it's on to some housework.”



Moira Guinea-Beal felt scared when Cairns confirmed its first Covid-19 case. “It felt surreal, almost like a scene from a movie.”

Guinea-Beal is from Ma‘uke, the daughter of the late Dr Archie and Kura Guinea. Now, she lives in the Northern Beaches area of Cairns, Australia, with husband Beal and five children.

She works on the frontline at Coles supermarket chain, where she is an essential worker.

That makes her very mindful of the hygiene procedures that must be maintained. A maximum of 200 people can enter the store, and a clicker is used to track the number of people.

Times are challenging. “Now we appreciate all the small things we took for granted – spending time with loved ones, hugging, having the freedom to come and go as we please.”