Time to Cash in on Being Covid-19 Coronavirus Free

Motu Rarotonga Blog

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In this article from the New Zealand Herald on February 22nd, our owner John – who is also visiting surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital – argues for a travel bubble between the Cook Islands and New Zealand to benefit the Cook Islands through Covid-19:

It seems callous and counter-intuitive to suggest Covid-19 presents an opportunity. But for New Zealand and the Cook Islands it does. This requires an “exclude/exploit” policy: severely exclude the virus and then intelligently exploit its absence.

The quick decisions of our two Governments, and the support of the people, have granted us almost unique status. Now we can build on that.

We continue to risk squandering our disease-free environment. As I watch daily flights start their descent into Māngere I know that more than likely deadly RNA is on board, its covering of sticky and fast-mutating spike proteins ready to adhere to someone’s cells on arrival.

To improve exclusion, our efforts need to move upstream. Obvious strategies include: isolation and NZ supervised testing at final point of departure; MIQ outside Auckland followed by monitored isolation; separation of flights; and tightening criteria for entry.

Ideally flights would land at Ohakea. With a 2.5km runway at just above sea level it can likely handle 737, 777, 787 and A320 aircraft. Accommodation would be in hundreds of prefab pods, with separated exercise and smoking areas. There’s space.

There would be no need for desperate downstream measures such as militarising our motorways. Auckland and its hotels are eminently unsuitable for quarantine.

The cost involved is a fraction of lockdown. And it’s an investment. Covid is far from over – and there will be another pandemic. The subfamily Orthocoronavirinae has 45 recognised species. Of the seven which have made their way to humans, three are killers (MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 which causes Covid). Also, the altogether different bird flu virus keeps taking wing.

Vaccination offers hope. However, most trials are too small and all are too short to offer definitive evidence of efficacy. Only the passage of time will yield meaningful data. The scale of the exercise also means relaxed travel is years away.

We admit four times more per capita than does Australia. This cries out for firm critique. Besides actual New Zealand citizens, who are entering? Of those holding residency, when did they last reside here? Who are the rest? Not all Wiggles, surely.

The fleeing 500 who departed immediately for Australia need analysis. Was this cynical exploitation of our naive, taxpayer-subsidised quarantine? Certainly, infected cricketers and mariners bring little value but risk our whole economy.

The security of Cook Islanders, who are all New Zealand citizens, depends on New Zealand border security. We could and should open that travel tomorrow. The situation is no different from the Chathams in that regard.

To demand that the tiny hospital first become fully Covid-prepared in tiny Covid-free Rarotonga before Covid-free New Zealanders arrive is absurd. That country’s tin is nearly empty. They need our dollars as much as we need a holiday.

Beyond that, both countries can now benefit from a bonanza of low-volume, high-value tourism.

It may offend our innate egalitarianism to cater to the wealthy. Such thinking was probably behind the petty decision to turn around the luxury liner destined for domestic cruising. It returned to base taking its potential $6m windfall for local operators with it. It’s time to get real.

Numerous individuals would front literal millions for the right to live, work, move, play and delight in a New Zealand-Cook Islands bubble for 12 months. Appropriately tested and quarantined, they represent no risk.

Many would also bring the “prepared minds” of the hugely successful. Not all time would be spent on the golf course. Spin-off benefits are not difficult to conceive.

To fully exploit our hard-earned and painfully protected status demands a shift in mindset. The future of our two nations’ tourism is not backpackers and freedom campers.

Of the $4-6b loss of incoming revenue we have recouped $1b by not travelling ourselves. Also the 2000 fewer than expected deaths over lockdown is a huge saving to society. But now it’s time to go for where the real money is.

Open freely to the Cook Islands and, selectively and carefully, to the rest of the world soon. Cabinet has proven adept at adopting clinical advice. Hopefully they can do the same commercially.

Dr John Dunn is a New Zealand based Cook Islander, resort owner and visiting surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital.