Baby on board but no boarding call

Cook Islanders stranded in New Zealand face further uncertainty after authorities close a Covid-19 repatriation programme without adequate explanation, reports Teuila Fuatai.

Julia and John Evans have been told to monitor Covid-19 websites for news on a possible trip home after missing out on repatriation flights to the Cook Islands. Newsroom understands the couple and their two young children are among about 30 Cook Island residents stuck in New Zealand with no certainty around return dates – despite three scheduled repatriation flights.

The family have been staying with John’s parents in Christchurch since borders shut, and had hoped to return on one of the flights in May. So far, about 130 people have returned on the first repatriation flight on May 9. About 100 people are due to fly back on May 16, and another 30 are scheduled for a May 23 flight.

Julia travelled to New Zealand in February for the birth of the couple’s youngest son, Nova. Complications from the birth of their first son Orlan, now 8, meant having Nova in New Zealand was the safest option. John and Orlan flew into the country about a week before his March 23 birth so the family could be together.

While things have remained positive throughout the family’s prolonged period away from home, the lack of clear communication from the Cook Islands Health Ministry-Te Marae Ora – which is overseeing the repatriation process – has become increasingly frustrating.

“We just have no idea what is going on,” Julia says. “The communication levels have been terrible so that’s where a lot of the stress and anxiety comes from.”

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, Cook Island residents stranded in New Zealand have criticised their government for confusion and uncertainty regarding the repatriation process. An announcement on March 28 confirmed no one would be returning home until after New Zealand lifted its level four restrictions. At the time, about 300 people were affected. It then took nearly four weeks before more concrete information was released.

Strict Covid-19 protocols and delays in obtaining a passport for new-born Nova have added to the Evans family’s difficulties. To qualify for repatriation flights, returning residents must complete a two-week, supervised quarantine period at the Holiday Inn in Auckland.

Once in Rarotonga, they undergo another mandatory two-week quarantine period at the Edgewater Resort. The Cook Islands are yet to identify any virus cases and have implemented stringent border and quarantine requirements.

Emails between Te Marae Ora and the Evans family show they were given less than 24 hours to pack up and travel to Auckland to make the May 1 deadline for the quarantine period. The family first requested information regarding the repatriation process on April 25 – highlighting their situation with a new-born and their distance from Auckland.

No mention was made of dates for quarantine or flights by Te Marae Ora until the evening of April 29. Julia says the email was not seen by the family until early the next morning, by which time the only available flight to Auckland was in less than two hours.

“We could have got on [one of the remaining repatriation flights] but they didn’t give us enough notice to even try and get flights from Christchurch to Auckland,” Julia says.

“We basically had less than two hours to pack everything up and get to the airport, which is virtually impossible with a new-born baby. We weren’t able to get there [for May 1] so we were booted off the list.”

The response from Te Marae Ora since then has only added to their frustration.

“Unfortunately, the Cook Islands repatriation programme is closed and we cannot confirm anything further at this point in time,” the department told the family via email on May 10. “We advise that you monitor the NZ Covid-19 website and the Cook Islands Covid-19 website for any updates to border restrictions.”

Julia says the response “simply isn’t good enough”.

“We’ve got businesses that we need to go back to and run. My son’s got school that he needs to go to. If we had a date it’d be a lot easier to work with. Right now, there’s just nothing. Everybody is just stuck in limbo which is incredibly frustrating.

Te Marae Ora have not responded to requests for comment.

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