‘This virus is an alien, it doesn’t know borders’

Tuesday March 17, 2020 Written by Published in Health
Government has an emergency taskforce to respond to Covid-19. Secretary of Health Dr Josephine Aumea Herman, Dr Akeem Ali from the World Health Organization, and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Ben Ponia briefed media. 20030642 Government has an emergency taskforce to respond to Covid-19. Secretary of Health Dr Josephine Aumea Herman, Dr Akeem Ali from the World Health Organization, and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Ben Ponia briefed media. 20030642

What will save Cook Islands from the worst impact of the coronavirus sweeping the world in not panic-shopping for toilet paper and security guards on street corners.

It’s the willingness of schools, churches and families to work together when it counts. 

They move slightly mechanically, laptops and sheaves of paper under the arm as they march from windowless meeting room to windowless meeting room.

There’s no time for old-fashioned civilities, and they’re not permitted anyway. No handshakes, no kisses on the cheek. Sit down. Talk. Stand up. Walk.

It’s been a rapid few weeks for the leaders on the National Health Emergency Taskforce, and the pace is getting faster by the day.

“I don’t think some of us are getting much sleep,” Dr Josephine Herman admits, under some duress.

Go past Tupapa health clinic, the tired-looking headquarters of the Covid-19 response, and there are cars and motorbikes outside through the weekend. The lights are on late into the night, every night.

Today’s interview with Cook Islands News had to be postponed, backed up behind critical meetings with other leaders across the government, community and business sectors. They’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Financial and Economic Management, who are preparing a fiscal rescue plan.

They will announce the plan this week, which will probably involve dipping into the stabilisation fund. The country’s cash reserves, in other words.

Dr Herman and Ben Ponia, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, have been working together so closely they are finishing each other’s sentences.

“We don’t know if it’s here, we’re going to find out shortly in the next few days from the testing,” Herman says.

“We are making decisions today; tomorrow it will change. We were talking about things on Friday night, by Saturday it was crystallising. By Sunday it was, ‘this is it, we’re going’.

“Because the reports from the world are telling us, and we’re getting more and more sure.”

Ponia admits there’s not much rest. “It doesn’t matter,” he insists. “Let’s say, a lot of us are sprinting right now, so that when this thing does come, we can rest. We don’t want to be sprinting when this thing is happening.

“So I think that’s our approach. We’re really working against the clock. It is important, though, in preparing for this, that we look after ourselves – everyone on the frontline that’s making big policy decisions.

“This virus is an alien, it doesn’t know borders, it doesn’t know personalities.”

What he means is, we really don’t need Herman, or Prime Minister Henry Puna, or Finance Secretary Garth Henderson, struck down by the virus.

Health Minister Rose Brown flew back into Rarotonga last week; George Maggie came back on Friday; Puna flew back in yesterday – just hours before the new travel restrictions came into effect. All ministers are now thought to be on the ground in Cook Islands.

Mark Brown, as acting prime minister, chaired the emergency Cabinet meeting on Saturday. And then another, on Sunday. Planning ahead was difficult, on a constantly changing surface.

On Friday, there had been 142,000 cases of Covid-19 worldwide; by last night it had soared to 168,000 cases and 6,610 deaths.

Last week, the epicentre was China and South Korea; by this week, it was Europe, as Italy’s toll tracks up to 25,000.

Last week, there were no cases in the Pacific Islands; now there are three confirmed in French Polynesia, our nearest neighbour.

Last week, New Zealand had some of the most relaxed coronavirus travel controls in the world; on Friday night Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced some of the tightest.

“At midnight Friday, when we were working on the Cabinet papers, we changed them totally, because of that pace of change,” says Ponia. “What we knew on Friday – by Friday night that had changed, with Jacinda’s announcement and everything else.

“All changed. So we went to Cabinet with much more enhanced measures by Saturday, and then we had to meet again on Sunday to consider those measures again.”

For instance, government is encouraging vulnerable people – the old, the sick – to pack up and move to the Pa Enua; to move out of harm’s way.

On Friday night, this was just a “pie in the sky” idea, says Herman. “By Saturday it was real.”

“We were thinking, alright, if we can restrict access to the Pa Enua and keep them safe, then at least we take the brunt of the impact in Rarotonga.”

Ponia chips in: “And on Friday the travel ban wasn’t all countries. We were focusing on epicentres. And by Friday night, we decided it had to be a global ban, and everyone funneled through New Zealand.”

The importance of leadership in an emergency response like this should not be understated. But they are first to admit that the role played by the community is more important still.

Discussions with Crown Law indicate there might be challenges, if they were to try to use the law to enforce quarantines, curfews, a state of emergency. “We are not a police state,” says Ponia.

Far preferable is what is happening right now: that the community calmly swings its support in behind the measures.

Churches sending families home to worship; schools spending the last week of this foreshortened term instilling in children the disciplines of hand-washing and social distancing, before sending them home too, to share the message with the parents and grandparents.

“What I have appreciated,” says Herman, “and I have always known this about Cook Islanders, is the willingness to help.”

1 comment

  • Comment Link shane Tuesday, 17 March 2020 23:24 posted by shane

    can people still come home to new Zealand from rarotonga

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