Kindness was brilliantly promoted by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a principle in the pandemic fight, alongside testing and tracing. Kindness can be misplaced, such as allowing infected people to travel the country. Alternatively, it could be used powerfully, by saving Pacific economies.
The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau don't feature in the UN list of member countries. That's because they aren't fully independent, existing in free association with New Zealand. While self-governing, their historical status means they depend on us in varying ways in matters like defence and foreign policy. And they are New Zealanders. We have real responsibility for them stemming from the colonial era.
More, they are Covid-19 free. The malevolent engine of SARS-Cov-2 is a single strand of RNA. It has never penetrated these islands. The Cooks in particular have been conscientious and aggressive, testing 15 per cent of the tiny population – all negative. This has been under the guidance of Dr Aumea Herman, Secretary of Health. She is an internationally trained public health expert and has fiercely guarded the nation's borders with the support of the Government, shutting down one critical week earlier than New Zealand.
Testing in other island nations has been patchy and reporting is unreliable, especially from those living under non-democratic regimes and with larger populations. There exists, therefore, a strong argument to regard Rarotonga in the Cook Islands as a domestic destination and Prime Minister Henry Puna has made exactly that appeal.
These are the numbers. Only 15,000 people live in the 15 Cook Islands, mostly on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. (60,000 live in New Zealand). Tourism represents 70 per cent of GDP and 70 per cent of the 170,000 annual visitors are from New Zealand. This travel is vital to the economy.
At present Rarotonga is unnecessarily empty, the resorts are unnecessarily deserted and the airport – the lifeline – unnecessarily vacant. There is absolutely no danger in travelling there. Visitors are at more risk from a tsunami or cyclone.
Prime Minister Ardern has stated she doesn't want to think about it until after a transtasman bubble is established. Former prime minister Helen Clark advocates opening to the islands at the same time as Australia.
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The argument that it is better for our economy to allow Australians in before New Zealanders out to the Pacific does not stand up to scrutiny. If we unwittingly let the virus cross the Tasman, our country will take a huge hit. Also, most of the New Zealand dollars spent in the Cook Islands return home via exports purchased and revenue for companies like our national carrier. Finally, the lesson from the GFC is that unemployment in the islands triggers a further diaspora to this country which becomes a welfare load and further decimates the local population.
I would argue we should open to selected Pacific nations now. To not do so is illogical and damaging. It makes more sense to keep New Zealand, and the Cook Islands, Australian-free while they still have active coronavirus.
This country is hoping for a V or U shaped recovery. The Cook Islands at present are in freefall down the letter I. It will prove necessary to either send trade or aid. It is estimated one trade dollar is worth four aid dollars. Tourism can fix this.
Island nations are vulnerable to the chequebook diplomacy exerted by hegemonic powers to the north. This risk is greatly exacerbated as they go broke. Opening borders with compassionate allies to the south will lessen this pernicious trend. Rarotonga is New Zealand's own "island in the sun" along with the other 14 Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau.
The global lesson is that parallel morbidity and mortality can create more trouble than the virus itself as health systems fail. As the Pacific economies fail there is an increased risk from diabetes, heart disease and stroke. My visiting specialist colleagues and I need to get up there to work.
I offer a unique perspective, being involved in both health and tourism. The first is robust but the second is moribund. The New Zealand Government's intransigence on this issue is inexplicable. I would beg for salvation by way of intelligent kindness.
• Dr John Dunn, FRACS, is a New Zealand based Cook Islander, resort owner and Visiting Surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital.