OPINION: Opening travel to Australia before the Cook Islands is cynical and outrageous. Absolutely outrageous.
The Cooks have never had Covid. None. Nil. Nada. This realm country populated by fellow New Zealanders could have safely accepted NZ travellers for at least six months.
Instead, the Government seems more keen to appease local operators with inbound Australians than exercise its duty of responsibility to this languishing island nation.
I was not part of the recent official Cook Islands delegation, and can therefore express my feelings freely without being forced to adopt the cap-in-hand stance demanded by the New Zealand Government.
READ MORE: Cook Islands PM: ‘Up to Kiwis’ if they choose to visit from May 1 Covid-19: Cook Islands waiting for Pfizer vaccine delivery timeframe Travel bubble with Cook Islands by May, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Covid-19: Lockdown in virus-free Cook Islands due to NZ community cases
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown preserved a calm and diplomatic public face. Behind the scenes, the frustration of this well-researched and passionate group of representatives was palpable. Their reception was, in my opinion, patronising and deeply offensive.
For New Zealand authorities to insist “we know what’s best for you” smacks of re-colonisation.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s chatter about PCR testing, tracer apps and readiness in this Covid-free nation is disingenuous and irrelevant. The Cooks are dying economically and totally unnecessarily. Tourism is their lifeblood and it is being denied.
Risk aversion is a modern affliction. Paralysis through analysis is killing the Cooks. While the New Zealand Government prevaricates, businesses in the Cook Islands are failing daily.
Meanwhile, New Zealand companies freely pillage the workforce for fruit picking, precipitating a disastrous diaspora of the able-bodied.
The future of the Cook Islands depends on three things.
Firstly, New Zealand securing its borders from imported cases of the virus. This requires proper pre-departure screening and MIQ facilities outside Auckland for arrivals from red-zone countries.
Flying active cases directly from Mumbai to Māngere has been criminally negligent and puts both our countries at risk. It costs $75m a day to lock down Auckland, and further community outbreaks will shut down outbound travel to the Cook Islands (and elsewhere).
Secondly, immediately establishing two-way, risk-free, quarantine-free travel between our two countries. There is no logical reason not to.
Thirdly, facilitating vaccination. A paltry 30,000 Pfizer doses would vaccinate the entire adult populations of the Cook Islands and Niue twice.
We could have achieved this a month ago. I have a team of volunteer vaccinators, the cooperation of Air NZ, a comprehensive plan completed by Te Marae Ora in Rarotonga – but no vaccine released. The Cook Islands can only get the vaccine from New Zealand, but New Zealand won’t hand it over.
The snail-pace, rather random New Zealand vaccine roll-out will not be emulated. The people of the Cooks are pragmatic and motivated and good to go.
The country has an excellent public health record with historically high immunisation rates. It vaccinated 95 per cent of the population against bird flu, was protected from the recent Pacific measles outbreak, and got rid of tuberculosis, filariasis and leprosy in the 1950s.
Super-cold storage is in place. Vaccination will be rapid. Just because the vaccine requires -75°C does not mean its distribution should also be glacial.
This is a plea.
Remove the barriers. Be responsible and transparent. Get commercial. Forget the politics. Consider the people.
Please, please, please allow travel to the Cook Islands now.
Dr John Dunn FRACS is a Cook Islander, visiting surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital and business owner in the Cook Islands.