Are we being kind to the Cook Islands over Covid-19?

By Gerhard Sundborn

The Cook Islands is almost as much a part of New Zealand as the North or South Island. Like Niue and Tokelau, all Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship. The Cooks is home to 17,500 people of whom about 2,500 (15%) are either expat Kiwis or Aussies who have moved to the Cooks to work in the tourism industry and live a lifestyle we have all dreamt of, a never-ending summer on a tropical paradise.

Tourism accounts for nearly 70% of the Cook Islands economy with most of the 170,000 tourists coming from either New Zealand or Australia each year.

In response to Covid-19 on March 13th the Cook Islands closed its border to all direct flights from all countries except for New Zealand as well as cruise ships, and yachts. Since then New Zealand has remained their only gateway to the outside world. Here in New Zealand, our borders closed nearly a week later on March 19th. The Cook Islands have successfully prevented an outbreak of covid-19 and remain one of only 17 countries in the world to remain free of the virus.

Having engaged in extensive testing for the virus to date there has not been one positive case. The level of testing for the virus in the Cook Islands (7% of total population) is 3.5x greater than for New Zealand (2%). The measures taken by the Cook Islands have been well-planned, executed and successful.

Recently, there has been a call for New Zealand to open a ‘Pacific Bubble’ with Covid-free Pacific nations or a ‘NZ-Cook Islands Bubble’. This has been supported by the Cooks’ Prime Minister Henry Puna. He also described the economic hurt that his country is experiencing since tourism has dried-up. In a statement, Puna appealed for kindness, explaining, “New Zealand and the Cook Islands are family. During difficult times, families look out for one another. These are those times. That’s all we’re asking from New Zealand. Look out for your family.” Unfortunately, this appeal has landed on deaf ears with our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern more interested in engaging with Australia around talks of a ‘Trans-Tasman Bubble’. This has now been ruled out by Australia for the foreseeable future.

The logic behind our Prime Minister’s keenness to establish a travel bubble with Australia who continue to have new cases, yet reluctance to engage with the Cook Islands who have remained Covid-free, is confusing, frustrating and smacks of prejudice.

The health risk to New Zealand posed by opening our border to the Cook Islands is tiny, and the risk to the Cooks is also small. Considering this I believe that Ardern should embrace kindness and open our border immediately between the two countries. In times of ‘kindness’, it is vital that we throw our Pacific family an economic lifeline.