The health arguments are sound, and the economic and cultural imperatives are clear. The Pacific islands need to be prioritised post-Covid over the trans-Tasman bubble, writes public health expert Collin Tukuitonga.
Much has been made about the need to open a trans-Tasman travel bubble as a priority. This is despite the fact that Australia continues to report new cases of Covid-19. Yesterday there were nine new cases notified, with around 10% of recent cases locally acquired with no known local contact.
This presents unacceptable risk to New Zealand’s Covid-free status irrespective of any measures at the border on arrival.
Meanwhile the realm countries (the Cooks, Niue and Tokelau) have been and remain without any cases of the coronavirus. Samoa and Tonga have also remained free of Covid-19. Fiji has reported cases of Covid-19 but they have reported no new cases for more than 28 days. The conclusion is obvious: A quarantine-free travel bubble including New Zealand and the Pacific islands presents a low risk of Covid-19 spread for this country and these islands – provided travelers originate in NZ only. These islands have shown that they have robust public health in place that prevented the introduction and spread of Covid-19.
These islands have successfully protected their citizens from the threat of Covid-19. The restrictions that have come in the cause of public health have, however, enormously damaged their economies as most rely heavily on tourism from NZ and Australia.
The Cook Islands economy is 87% dependent on tourism. Business leaders in the Cook Islands and Niue have called for the easing of travel between NZ and their islands to enable tourism to recommence during the peak season. They say their preference is for an early return to business rather than continued reliance on aid. Tourism would also benefit the people of New Zealand as many would welcome an opportunity for safe travel to the islands after the lockdown and a cold winter.
The people of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are New Zealand citizens. New Zealand has constitutional obligations to these island nations, including the health and wellbeing of its citizens. New Zealand is home to more than 400,000 people of Pacific descent. Auckland is the preferred referral centre for specialised medical care and source of medicines and other needs. Early and prompt interventions in the islands can prevent serious medical problems from progressing.
New Zealand has a long-standing Treaty of Friendship with Samoa. Tonga and Fiji have strong historical relationships with New Zealand and there are firm people-to-people links. We are family, whānau, ohana – and family look out for each other. Pacific families in New Zealand and the islands have had no contact for several weeks and many would welcome restoration of travel so that families can reunite once again. The Pacific communities in New Zealand are a unique part of our nation.
Jacinda Ardern’s government has done a tremendous job protecting these islands from Covid-19 through pre-departure measures and financial support through regional organisations. It has recently adopted an important policy position to ensure that the Pacific Islands are not disadvantaged when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available. These commitments have consolidated the New Zealand government’s leadership role both here and in the islands. It is time to continue that leadership by supporting a New Zealand / Pacific quarantine-free travel zone – getting started, perhaps, with the Cook Islands and Niue.
To do so would be a win-win solution for New Zealand and the islands.