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Boys playing in the surf in the Cook Islands (Photo: Getty Images)
Boys playing in the surf in the Cook Islands (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyApril 22, 2020

The Cook Islands are the world’s number one Covid-19 success story

Boys playing in the surf in the Cook Islands (Photo: Getty Images)
Boys playing in the surf in the Cook Islands (Photo: Getty Images)

Cook Islands-based New Zealander Shaun Bamber is currently in Auckland quarantine, counting down the days until he can be reunited with his family. It’ll be even longer before he can return home to Rarotonga, currently the epicentre of one of the strictest border control regimes on earth.

Last week I left what might just be the safest place in the world. Shops still open, no restrictions on daily movements, and not a single case of Covid-19 for at least a thousand kilometres in every direction.

Oh, and the food – holy crap I miss the food.

Now here I sit alone in a grey-painted room roughly four metres square, a guest/resident/inmate of Auckland’s only Covid-19 “hot facility”.

Due to various border restrictions currently put in place by the Cook Islands government, I’m not sure when I’ll see my island home of Rarotonga again.

Located near the airport in Mangere and one of 18 hotels commandeered by the Ministry of Health since the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all returning New Zealanders came into effect on April 9, this fine establishment has been set aside for those who display “symptoms consistent with Covid-19” and are therefore subject to stricter quarantine conditions.

In my case, “symptoms consistent with Covid-19” include a mild sore throat – and absolutely nothing else. I’m of the opinion that my particular malady has less to do with Covid-19 and more to do with adjusting to a 24-7 air-conditioned environment after years spent on a tropical island, but nevertheless, here I must stay.

Don’t get me wrong – not only do I understand the reasons behind my internment, I fully support them. It doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the experience though.

Tourists queued for hours to book tickets on the last flight out of Rarotonga before New Zealand closed its borders to non-New Zealand citizens and residents.

For the past two-plus years my family and I have lived in the Cook Islands – more specifically on the main island of Rarotonga, holiday destination of choice for approximately 100,000 New Zealanders annually.

My wife is from there and I was initially working as senior reporter for the national newspaper, although more recently I have been managing a group of cafes instead, serving coffee and coconuts to both locals and tourists from around the world.

Except now, thanks to Covid-19, there aren’t any tourists any more. And, on a more personal note, my family isn’t there any more either – which is what brings me back to New Zealand. The full story on the whys and wheretofores of my journey can be read here on the Cook Islands News website – go on and have a look, they will appreciate the clicks.

For now, let me tell you a bit more about the Cook Islands’ possibly unique situation vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, according to the latest World Health Organization figures, the Cook Islands are one of just 17 countries worldwide with zero reported cases of Covid-19.

Thirteen of these countries are small island nations, 12 of them in the Pacific. The other four are North Korea, former Soviet republics Tajikistan (which shares a border with China) and Turkmenistan, and Lesotho, an enclave country entirely surrounded by South Africa, which happens to have the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases on the African continent.

I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself just how reliable the official statistics reported by those four countries might be.

Despite not contracting a single case of Covid-19, businesses in the Cook Islands have still been diligent about following social distancing guidelines.

In addition to having zero reported cases, the Cook Islands’ testing regime has been such that over the weekend they were one of the first nations in the world – maybe the very first – to be able to declare itself officially Covid-19-free. A subtle distinction from having zero reported cases perhaps, but one which I’m told matters to the tourism and marketing people sitting on the Cook Islands government’s emergency taskforce.

A total of 1070 people have been tested for Covid-19 by the Cook Islands health ministry – about 7% of the resident population, a statistic thought to be second only to world leader Iceland, which has tested 12.4% of its 364,000 population.

By comparison, as of Monday New Zealand had carried out 86,305 tests, equating to 1.8% of the total population here.

But it’s not just their dedicated testing regime that has seen the Cook Islands triumph over Covid-19. At the same time as the government here implemented strict border measures for people travelling from New Zealand to the Pacific Islands, the Cook Islands also started taking what steps they could to protect their small, isolated and vulnerable populace from the ravages of this deadly virus.

At an emergency Cabinet meeting held on March 14 (CI time) it was decided that all direct flights from Australia, the US and French Polynesia would be cancelled, leaving New Zealand the sole remaining gateway to the Cook Islands. All cruise ships, pleasure crafts and yachts were also banned from entering Cook Islands waters.

The main street of Avarua, capital of the Cook Islands. With the border closed, the nation’s tourism industry has all but disappeared.

For a country whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism, these were drastic measures to take – but they worked.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing however. At present there are currently some 300 Cook Islanders stranded in New Zealand due to a March 25 (CI time again) decision by the Cook Islands government to require anyone wishing to enter the country to first undergo 14 days of supervised quarantine in New Zealand, test clear for Covid-19 – and then be quarantined for another 14 days on arrival.

At the time, steps were being taken to secure a hotel in Auckland where the New Zealand quarantine could be carried out, but this all fell apart when the newly instituted lockdown restrictions prevented anyone from actually travelling to the quarantine facility.

And with Monday’s announcement extending New Zealand’s level four lockdown to 11.59pm on April 27, it still remains to be seen just when those 300 stranded Cook Islanders – separated from their families for almost a month now – will finally be allowed to return home.

Keep going!