Collin Tukuitonga explains why vaccinating New Zealand citizens of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau early is a good investment

Rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine is in its early stage in New Zealand and pressure is on the Government to make priorities which, as I have made very clear before, must include Māori and Pacific communities. However, the Government would do well to also consider as a priority the people of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau who are citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand who live in the Pacific Ocean.

In general, these citizens do not have access to the same range of goods and services that we enjoy on the mainland. Furthermore, their economies have been devastated by the border closures needed to keep Covid-19 out of their island nations.

These island nations have remained Covid-free, but many residents are suffering from the loss of income and business opportunities. For example, the damage to the Cook Islands economy is significant given that tourism in 2019 accounted for 70 percent – $370 million – of gross domestic product, a much higher proportion than many other Pacific nations. The Cook Islands Government has provided financial support to keep businesses afloat but this cannot continue indefinitely.

The populations of these islands are small. In the 2016 Census, the Cook Islands population was 17,434. The Niue population was reported to be 1,719 at the 2017 Census and latest estimates showed that 1115 people are aged over 16 years and eligible for vaccination. The population of Tokelau was 1499 in 2016, of which approximately 1000 were over the age of 16. Tokelau presents logistical challenges for transport that need further consideration.

Unsurprisingly, these islands are exploring opportunities for generating income locally as well as looking to create Quarantine Free travel (QFT) between themselves and Aotearoa-New Zealand. The Cook Islands has established one-way QFT between Rarotonga and Auckland, which has operated successfully for more than a month. They are now keen to explore a two-way QFT in order to welcome tourists so badly needed to revitalise their economy.

Of course, a two-way arrangement is not without risks, and every effort is being made to ensure the necessary public health measures are in place to reduce the risk of introducing Covid-19 into the islands.

An important new strategy is the availability of vaccines, and vaccination has started for high risk groups in this country. The global experience is that the vaccines are safe and effective in protecting individuals and there is good evidence they reduce disease transmission significantly. A vaccination programme with high coverage will change the disease transmission pattern and reduce the risks to the vaccinated population.

Our Government has continued to support the islands in the region in responding to the pandemic, including support for the vaccination programme. Given the small number of people in these islands that will need vaccination, and the potential positive contribution to a two-way QFT arrangement, why not consider accelerating plans and introduce vaccination now? The programme would need to be accompanied by public health measures and information for local residents as well as data collection to inform our plans for vaccinating Pacific people who live in Aoteroa.

The immediate benefits of knowing that their residents are protected when a two-way travel ‘bubble’ begins is immeasurable. It will enable an early return to the vibrant communities that we know and allow whānau to reconnect sooner than expected. At the very least, it will permit people of Aotearoa New Zealand to consider a holiday in the Cook Islands and help the local economy.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga is Associate Dean Pacific and Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland and a member of the Health Quality & Safety Commission Board

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