Cook Islanders are emerging, blinking in the tropical sun, into one big national bubble of 15,000 people. Nobody comes in, nobody goes out, and life may never be the same, writes Jonathan Milne.
This week, one of the most religious nations in the Pacific returned to church for the first time in a month.
I took my three boys to the local Seventh-day Adventist church in Matavera, across the road from the Cook Islands Football Association fields. There is no sign for the church; only the cars parked outside gave a clue to the congregation gathering within.
From the outside it looks like another fibre-cement-clad pastel green house, but on the inside it has varnished wooden pews, an embroidered lace cover over the lectern, and a view of the Pacific Ocean from the window.
We’re met at the door by Iva Vakalalabure, with rubber gloves and a bottle of hand sanitiser. Inside, each family is ushered to an allocated pew, keeping their distance from other worshippers.
It’s a strange feeling – for the past month, church services had stopped, children had been sent home from school, and many people had been advised or directed to self-quarantine. Our families had been more insular than ever before.
Pastor Eric Toleafoa tells me: “We have learned to keep ourselves safe in our families. Now we must learn to stay safe in our churches and villages.”
Churches returned under strict health ministry rules: to avoid spraying saliva there is to be no congregational singing, and if they must have a choir, no more than five singers, all standing in a row and suitably distanced. Recorded music is preferred.
Members of the 50-strong congregation spoke of their experiences of self-quarantine and social distancing. Pastor Toleafoa told of his worries at returning from travels through Europe and the Middle East, the fear he might bring Covid-19 home to his church and family.
Others were more upbeat. Teenager Sir Puna laughed: “We’ve had a very long holiday and to tell you the truth, we nearly forgot about the Covid-19!”
When I was invited up front to talk about my family’s experience, I told them our frustration at friends and family in New Zealand with seemingly unlimited time and data for streaming video group chats!
PREPPERS FOR LIFE IN A BUBBLE
My family arrived in Rarotonga nearly a year ago – but our belongings didn’t. They were sealed in a container on the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between New Zealand and Cook Islands.
So we double-bunked in bare rooms under mosquito nets in the middle of a dengue fever outbreak, with cold showers and not much money left after paying for rent, school fees and high-priced canned and frozen food shipped over from America or New Zealand.
It was healthy to realise how much we didn’t need. One set of sheets is enough, as long as you pick a good sunny day for doing the laundry. We didn’t need a dishwasher, didn’t need a clothes drier, didn’t need streaming multi-channel TV …
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not societal dropouts, we enjoy our simple pleasures, like good coffee and Facebook and singing along to the Frozen soundtracks. And the kids were delirious with joy when the container arrived six weeks later with their Lego in it.
But in Auckland, we were a little bit rich; on our arrival in Rarotonga, we were a little bit poor. Now, we’re a little bit prepped. We have a coffee grinder and multi-tools and duct tape, and capsicums and cucumbers growing nearby. We’re preppers for life in a bubble.
Because now the whole world is a little bit poor; now almost nobody can go out to bars or restaurants. The wealthy Western world is learning more about what it doesn’t need.
A BUBBLE OF 15,000
Every Covid isolation bubble is different. Our bubble is different from your bubble. Our bubble has 15,000 people in it.
The tourists have gone. Our Cabinet ministers, who usually spend half their lives flying around the world from one overseas talkfest to another, have returned. They are now back in Cook Islands focused on their own country’s needs, rather than the priorities of international NGOs.
Our restaurants are back serving, our schools are back schooling, our churches are back congregating – those who are here now, are here for the duration. Nobody else comes in. And that means a country that was 80 percent reliant on tourism revenues is suddenly staring down the barrel of bankruptcy.
A business survey published this week by the Private Sector Taskforce shows businesses are bracing for a 90 percent drop in income for the six months to September. “In the past month, we’ve had 440 calls and enquiries from businesses in need – from sole traders like market vendors, to small and medium-sized enterprises like cafes, right up to large corporates,” says taskforce chairman Fletcher Melvin.
At Melvin’s business, the Pacific arts, jewellery and carving shop Island Craft, he has had to slash hours and pay rates for his 20-plus staff, many of whom are immigrant workers. He has diversified by opening an internet portal for local retailers and moving his sales online for the first time.
Everyone is trying something different.
There are people like Danny Mataroa, the traditional performing arts leader who led the Cook Islands National Arts Theatre dancers around the world, who tells me his only income now is selling the fruit and veges he grows in Tupapa. But he is experimenting with new crops like feijoas.
And (when he can get cargo space on the one remaining flight) he is ready to import specially-bred kuru (breadfruit) seedlings in the hope of milling gluten-free breadfruit flour to substitute for the four 40-foot containers of wheat flour the country imports each month.
There are people like chef Vou Williams, who has his own Bite Time cafe at Punanga Nui market, but shut up shop and went fishing for the duration of the shutdown, to feed his wife and two young sons. His father-in-law Junior Ioapa, a fisherman with a boat to take him out beyond the reef, has been giving away much of his catch to local mamas and papas who are struggling.
THE PRICE OF FISH
I bought a big yellowfin tuna for just $30 down at Avana fishing jetty last week. I filleted it and there was nigh-on a week’s eating on it, for our family of five. A month ago, the fisherman could have trimmed and skinned it and sold the fillets for $100 or more.
Steven Kavana used to take tourists out on his fishing boat, his wife Jillymae served fresh-off-the-boat fish sandwiches and tacos from her cafe at Avana. If you’ve been here, you’ll have come across the Mooring Fish Cafe.
Until 13 years ago, Jill Stanton was an Auckland real estate agent selling $5 million houses in Ponsonby and Freeman’s Bay. Never in a black suit, she hastens to add, jeans and a navy jacket and white shirts were more her thing. She never sold out, was always herself, she says.
When she and Steven settled down here, his home island, there were no berths left at the port for his fishing boat – so they began clearing the overgrown car park by the disused and defunct Avana fishing club jetty.
“I thought, can I rent a little bit of that and make some sandwiches? All I ever wanted to do was make a couple of sandwiches and swim and read for the rest of my life,” she says.
“I had four tables, I took the order, cooked the fish, made the smoothie, ran it out, did everything. And I was blissfully happy!”
Now, the Mooring has featured in Vogue and countless other media. She’d have nine or 10 people cooking and serving on a busy Sunday afternoon, with a band playing, at peak tourist season. They would serve 400 plates in four hours – 25kg of tuna and 30kg of mahimahi. “It’s a lot of fish!”
That all stopped last month.
When I took the kids down for a swim at the jetty, Jillymae had just shut up shop at Avana. She gave me a beer from the chiller, and explained: around Muri and Avana, the customers were all tourists.
“Americans, Europeans, Canadians, our regulars who come back every year, they were talking to me, saying they were starting to receive letters, emails, phone calls from travel agencies and from their governments, telling them they’ve got to go home straight away.
“That made us realise, we’re going to run out of people.”
Jillymae Kavana doesn’t give up easily, though. She has claimed the government wage subsidy – $266 a week for full-time staff, half that for part-timers – and last week she reopened in a friend’s backyard in Tupapa, close to the main town of Avarua. She is angling for the office workers and public servants. She’s added a vege sandwich and fish and chips to her menu.
When I visit Tupapa for a FOB sandwich (with a bit of extra spice in the lime and ginger pickle), Jillymae has Neel on the grill and Miri helping put together the sandwiches. Deeply tanned and wearing a cowboy hat, 63-year-old Jillymae moves back and forth between the takeaway counter out front, the kitchen, and a table down by the beach. Dolly Parton plays in the background.
Like Melvin, like Mataroa, like most others on these islands, the tough times have challenged people to step up, to try new things.
There are no tourists left to charter her husband’s boat, but Steven, 60, is still going out fishing.
And lately, he’s been helping the local community harvest a big shoal of small ature fish that have arrived at Avana this month, like manna from heaven for a hungry people. Night and day, at low tide, families gather at the jetty to pull in the nets and carefully disentangle the fragile little fish.
Then they divide them up, in colourful, glittering little piles there on the boat ramp, and each family takes home a few.
COMING OUT OF LOCKDOWN
This week, for the first time in a month, my wife and I walk our boys across the plantations and back to their school on the beach. They’re excited to go back, to see their friends.
We pass among capsicums, tomatoes and cucumbers that had been mouldering on the vines – partly because of a very rainy start to the year, partly because the restaurant and resort market just disappeared.
But now, grower Tereinga Maoate and his workers are back in the field. They’ve hooked up the disc harrow to the old red tractor and are turning over the dark earth. We look at the ominous clouds, and chat.
“This year our downfall mainly has been the wet weather – can’t do anything about it. And now this Covid-19 virus, there’s a lockdown, there’s no more tourists coming into the country, so the bigger markets like the restaurants and the hotels have all been shut down.
“That’s a huge effect on us farmers. But we can’t just sit down and moan, we’ve got to move on and do other things. So we’re just starting to build up again.”
They’re rotating the crops, planting a new field of capsicums in the field over here to the right.
Perhaps if the government workers keep propping up the economy by buying fruit and vegetables, he says; perhaps if New Zealand gets its coronavirus under control and we’re able to open the borders to Kiwi tourists within two or three months; perhaps if it doesn’t rain too much, we’ll make it through this.
He clasps his hand together and looks to the sky, smiling slightly from beneath his moustache. “We’ve just got to pray,” he says. “To keep the rain away, to keep this Covid away.”
THE RETURN HOME
We arrived at the Air New Zealand check-in counter at Rarotonga International Airport, still wet and sandy from a swim in the lagoon just minutes before.
We walked across the tarmac on a balmy 26C afternoon, took one last look at the island’s towering mountains, and boarded the cool, air-conditioned Boeing 787. Georgie and I helped our three boys fit their brightly-coloured floral face masks – a first for all of us.
Flight NZ945 to Auckland helped prepare its 27 extremely well-spaced passengers, just a little, for the daunting prospect that was Auckland, community transmission and Level 2.5 lockdown. The flight crew showed us how to pinch our masks around our noses; I learnt that every time I exhaled, my reading glasses would mist up.
Little things, that billions of people around the world discovered months ago – but not us. We had been living in a big, tropical Covid-free bubble.
At Auckland Airport, we walked the once-familiar gangways and corridors, but this time they were deserted bar a few uniformed security and health workers. Temperature checks and questions about our health, before entering the customs hall. No queues at customs; no jostling at the baggage carousels; no wait for the x-ray machines in the biosecurity hall.
Where once there would be hundreds of people waiting to greet loved ones at arrivals, there was a single aviation security officer offering a jovial “kia ora” from behind his face mask. The McDonald’s, the Spark, the Vodafone booths, all closed. At the cafe counter where I’d bought a coffee when I last came to New Zealand, there were instead two officials checking our details, and directing us to waiting buses.
My oldest son asked the question that has been nagging us for days: “What quarantine hotel will we be in?”
I baulked at his cheek. Already, in a few hours’ travel into New Zealand, I’d become passive, waiting to be told what to do and where to go, anxious to be seen to be compliant.
“Oh,” the woman in the blue plastic medical cape replied. “You’re going to Four Points, just by the Town Hall.”
ISOLATED IN AUCKLAND CBD
It’s now day three of 14. Our first two full days in isolation were magnificent. The Government’s managed isolation and quarantine officials have provided our family adjoining rooms on the hotel’s 12th floor; we have three double beds, two TVs, two fridges, and one bath. As I write this in the dark early morning, I’m looking down on a street sweeper passing by the neon art of Aotea Square.
After 16 months living overseas, it’s exciting to be home in Auckland. The Government says it’s our right as New Zealand citizens to return home; if so, that’s not a right we take for granted. We are enormously grateful.
Of course, this is nothing like the hotels you may be used to; although we are allowed to take a lift down to the lobby and kick a rubber ball around in the wire-fenced dockway outside, we rarely see other guests. Apparently there are hundreds of people here, travellers returning to New Zealand via two weeks’ managed isolation. But they’re all hidden behind the closed doors of their well-appointed rooms.
We can’t use the gym, or the restaurant, or the rooftop cocktail bar, of course. Nor would we expect to. As we were told when our bus pulled up at the hotel, Auckland may be in Level 2.5, but here at the isolation facility we’re at Level 4.
Four times a day, pre-ordered meals and snacks in plastic containers and brown paper bags are left at our door, with a discreet knock. By the time we’ve donned our masks and opened the door, whoever delivered them is gone. Once a day, the nurse knocks at the door to take our temperatures.
There are no housekeepers to turn down the beds and clean the rooms; instead, we’re supplied with a sponge, a 500ml bottle of Palmolive dishwashing liquid, and a 450ml bottle of lavender meadows-scented Harpic toilet cleaner.
When we venture downstairs to stretch our legs in the dockway, we sign out at a desk staffed by friendly, khaki-clad NZ Army personnel. There are 15 of them, living in another hotel down the road, and working shifts in our isolation hotel. There are another four Royal NZ Air Force personnel who seem to be running the show; they live on-site.
Then there are the hotel staff, the kitchen staff, the health workers and, outside, contracted security guards – one of them kindly fetched our green rubber football when eight-year-old Joe booted it over the edge of the terrace and it ran away down Airedale St.
It’s quite an operation.
MANAGED ISOLATION BUSINESS IS BOOMING
This is just one of 32 quarantine and managed isolation hotels, dotted across Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch.
According to the Government, it will cost $479 million to provide managed isolation and quarantine to the end of 2020. According to Ministry of Justice legal advice to the Government, it will cost around $630 million to meet anticipated demand just for the six months from July to December.
And that assumes the government projections are right: statistics show that each week, more New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and permit holders are arriving than expected. Today the number will top 50,000 since the facilities opened in March; there will be more than 6000 people in managed isolation at the end of this week.
Since that $630m forecast, the minister responsible Megan Woods has announced the deployment of an additional 500 defence personnel, taking their numbers to nearly 1000 working to contain the Covid risk. She’s announced new $6m hi-tech security at the isolation facilities, like thermal CCTV at the perimeters. And still, the numbers keep rising.
Back in June, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “Maintaining the strict requirements that we have and ensuring that we have the border agencies there present … does come at some expense, but obviously Covid in New Zealand comes at an even greater expense.”
That begs the question. Even if Ardern is right that the potential cost of continued Covid transmission would outweigh any cost to government and the economy of keeping it out, is that grounds to hand Minister Woods and Air Commodore Digby Webb an open cheque-book?
Of course not. As the Government accepts, the ballooning cost of border control must be managed, and that’s why they’re already requiring a very small number of short-term travellers to pay for the privilege.
How else might the costs be controlled? New Zealand First suggests using military bases instead of hotels – as they did for the New Zealanders repatriated in February from Wuhan, China.
That’s punchy hardline rhetoric in an election campaign but the truth is, that solution doesn’t work: the Defence Force doesn’t have bunks to accommodate 7000 returnees at a time (a conservative projection), separate from each other. You can’t put travellers returning from different countries, with different risk profiles, at different points in their two-week stays, in the same shared barracks.
In order to move quarantine and isolation facilities out of the cities, government would have to spend much more money on purpose-built facilities on air bases like Ohakea.
Prof Michael Baker, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and Prof Nick Wilson, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago say the border is “New Zealand’s greatest vulnerability” and must be better managed.
They want tighter controls. “There are also important questions about how to improve quarantine, the benefits of purpose-built facilities (with proper ventilation and no shared spaces), and shifting isolation and quarantine facilities out of major cities (for example, to an air force base).”
But, writing in The Conversation, they also propose greater investment in digital technologies, including the bluetooth CovidCard, to improve contact tracing.
BLUETOOTH AND BLUE PACIFIC
I would argue a more practical (but probably less popular) solution than barbed wire-fenced military bases, could be to better target the use of managed isolation for travellers, hand-in-hand with new monitoring and tracing technologies.
For instance, there are 14 Pacific Island nations that have never had a single case of Covid; countries confirmed Covid-free by New Zealand Ministry of Health testing – what is the point of the New Zealand taxpayer shelling out $7000 to $10,000 a head for their isolation?
Of course, I would say that: I’m bringing my family from Covid-free Cook Islands to Auckland; we pose no risk to New Zealanders. In fact, the only danger is in placing us in hotels shared with those returning from the USA, UK and other countries with high rates of the coronavirus. The isolation actually heightens our risk!
Among those countries that have had Covid, the World Health Organisation lists seven as having no cases now; another 26 (including Fiji and New Caledonia) have only sporadic cases.
The money spent on quarantining Kiwis returning from some of these 47 countries might be better spent on surveillance testing, more sophisticated digital contact-tracing and supervised home isolation with electronic monitoring.
It’s not just travellers from the Pacific. With investment in better testing before travellers board their flights, the country might feel more comfortable in allowing more low-risk travellers to isolate at home – allowing scarce government funds to be invested in public health solutions rather than in overseas-owned hotel chains.
Writing in The Lancet Digital Health journal, Sera Whitelaw and other medical and population health experts from Canada, USA and UK identify the benefits of planning, surveillance, testing, contact-tracing and clinical management, combined with strict quarantine of potentially exposed or infected people.
They do not push for wholesale managed isolation of all travellers or residents; certainly not of those known to be Covid-free.
“The indiscriminate lockdowns for infection control in several countries have had severe socio-economic consequences,” Whitelaw and her colleagues argue. “With digital technology, quarantine can be implemented in individuals who have been exposed to or infected with the virus, with less strict restrictions imposed on other citizens.”
Even the World Health Organisation is equivocal about isolating inbound travellers, in its July 30 travel advisory. “The use of quarantine in the context of travel measures may delay the introduction or re-introduction of SARS-CoV-2 to a country or area, or may delay the peak of transmission, or both. However, if not properly implemented, quarantine of travellers may create additional sources of contamination and dissemination of the disease.”
For our family, after the initial nervousness in strapping our face masks around our ears, we are now getting our heads around the safety precautions. We do feel safe. We feel well looked after by the hard-working defence, health, hotel and security staff at Four Points managed isolation facility. We’re grateful to them and their families, putting themselves at risk as they look after travellers from all over the world.
We would be equally compliant if we were isolated at home, with electronic monitoring. But who then would chase the football down the road when one of the boys kicks it out of bounds again?
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