Rarotonga: The threat beyond the reef

The Cook Islands has quarantined itself from the world, and collapsed its vital tourism industry in the process. With no Covid-19 cases so far, it’s now a nervous wait to see if the lockdown will work, reports Emmanuel Samoglou.

It’s quiet in Rarotonga. Much quieter than usual for this tiny volcanic island, home to roughly 14,000 people. 

Typically, an additional 14,000 sun-thirsty travellers would be arriving in the coming month to load up on vitamin D. This year, they’ve been told not to leave their homes.

We’re a Canadian family - myself, my wife, and our two-year-old daughter - riding out the most serious pandemic of our time in one of the more beautiful places on earth. It sometimes seems like we have it all to ourselves, although I’m finding it’s not particularly easy to enjoy the treasures of Rarotonga without sharing them. 

But that’s what the coronavirus will do, even in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean.

In the good old days - I’m referring to last month - we were brushing up against one another at Punanga Nui Market, filling our arms with freshly picked avocados and containers of banana poke, before heading to Blackrock to frolic with friends in cool, crystal clear seawater. 

There’s not much of that these days. Despite there having not been a single positive case in the Cook Islands, the virus is slowly enveloping us. We’ve been told by the government to behave as if it’s already here. “Go Home, Stay Home” read the front page on the March 24th edition of the Cook Islands News, where I once worked as a political reporter.

As the virus began to take hold in New Zealand, the Cook Islands government appointed an emergency taskforce to prepare the country for the moment it would make its way over the reef. From the beginning, however, it was a stuttering process, as officials tried to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving situation.

There are 10 inhabited islands in the Cooks group, scattered across two million square kilometres of ocean; 11 if you count the atoll of Suwarrow, home to a lone caretaker or two when we’re not in cyclone season. High on the taskforce’s agenda was protecting the lives of those living in the outer islands, where healthcare resources are extremely scarce. As the crisis developed, nearly all transportation links to the islands would be severed, hopefully ensuring their status as tranquil sanctuaries. 

We first arrived here in mid-February, the latest stop in a journey that had taken us nearly around the world. Unbeknown to us, we were travelling through countries in which the virus would eventually strike hard. After some time in Northland, New Zealand, we made a spontaneous decision to see our old island home and reconnect with Rarotongan friends. I was more concerned about dengue fever when we landed.

Less than two weeks later, with infections soaring exponentially around the world, Rarotongans were bewildered when passengers from a visiting cruise ship, MV Amsterdam, were allowed to disembark. I drove through the capital Avarua that day, looking at the large ship anchored just off the reef, but saw few sightseers. For a weekday afternoon, town was awfully quiet. 

The main ring-road of Rarotonga, usually busy but now virtually empty. Photo: Supplied/Emmanuel Samoglou

Not long after this, leaders in Aitutaki, the legendary atoll 260 kilometres north of Rarotonga, called for a ban on cruise ships. Another vessel, the MSC Magnifica, was due to visit the island in a few days, having first called in at Rarotonga. Of particular concern were reports the liner was filled with Italian tourists and crew members.

The Aitutakians prevailed with their ban, but a few devious passengers still managed to make their way to the dreamy island. On the sly, they had purchased round-trip tickets with the domestic airline during their day sightseeing in Rarotonga. After a few nights in Aitutaki, the tourists flew to Auckland, via Rarotonga, for a rendezvous with the Magnifica. 

By the end of February, a travel ban would bar anyone from entering the country from 15 other countries, including Italy and China.

In mid-March, Prime Ministry Henry Puna took further decisive action to tighten the borders, but only after another cruise ship called into port and a tourist who’d recently been in coronavirus-stricken Italy entered the country after a “human error” by Virgin Air staff in Auckland.

Schools and day-cares were closed, cruise ships were banned, the outer islands were ring-fenced, social distancing become a thing, and fines of up to $10,000 threatened for anyone breaching government-imposed quarantine rules. 

At least 80 tests have been sent to NZ for analysis, and still no positives.

Tourism has been largely annihilated, gutting the country’s chief economic driver. Locals and expatriate workers have been laid off and resorts are shuttered, instigating a $61 million government aid package – roughly 20 percent of the current fiscal year’s budget.  

A plan to repatriate stranded Cook Islanders in NZ went sour when the supervised quarantine programme was found to contravene the emergency lockdown restrictions. The Prime Minister is now advising those people to remain in self-quarantine in NZ.

Flights to and from Sydney, Los Angeles, and French Polynesia have been cancelled, leaving Auckland the only remaining route, with one scheduled flight weekly. 

To stay or to go? That was the question I posed to my wife one evening.

The decision was made for us. 

The quiet island of Rarotonga is even quieter at the moment. Photo: Supplied/Emmanuel Samoglou

Although the NZ Government announced a temporary reprieve from the ban on foreign nationals crossing the border, giving us the opportunity to make it to Canada, we had already decided to stick it out here. Travelling through a minimum of four airports with a highly energetic toddler wasn’t worth it. In the poker game of life, it appears we’re pot-committed.

Daily life in the time of coronavirus is rather ordinary – until it isn’t. Last week I brought my daughter for a walk along Muri Beach, a popular swimming spot for tourists. We didn’t see a soul; the entire stretch of sand was ours. Later, I went out for groceries. A friendly staff member asked me to wait in queue as they were limiting customers, part of their stricter measures for social distancing. I found everything I needed, except for bleach.

I made my way over to the fish market, where I saw a lovely display of fresh wahoo, albacore, marlin, broadbill, and yellowfin tuna fillets, all laid out over ice. How long could the virus survive on raw yellowfin? I asked myself. My sashimi craving would have to wait. I opted for the albacore which eventually made it to a hot pan.

With so many residents no longer catering to the island’s visitors, many are putting their energies back toward the land. I see my neighbour outside with machete in hand, pruning the hedges that form the boundary between us. With no arrivals due, we asked our accommodation providers how they’ll pass the time. “Plant, plant, and plant,” they told us. More often, the scent of burning vegetation and charred coconut husks wafts through our windows.

With the hospital off-limits to the public, the government has activated emergency operation centres around the island – the first line of defence against the virus. The other day I saw a group in front of one, sitting in a circle chatting jovially. I thought they were just a little too close to each other. 

There is caution in the community, but perhaps we remain confident our geographic isolation will keep us protected. Old habits die hard, and with a lot of luck, we haven’t had to experience the full shock of Covid-19 that would force us into unquestioning compliance.  

Still, the virus’s shadow is omnipresent. I saw it while shopping the other day. The sound of an ambulance siren outside the shop. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room.

Last week, my wife baked a butter-rich cake flavoured with locally-made vanilla to celebrate our daughter’s second birthday. It’s not the celebration I envisioned two months ago. I had told my parents back in Canada to prepare for a big backyard party – we were coming home. 

Instead, it’s the three of us, happy for our health but mildly melancholic, watching our daughter grin at the candles on her cake, unaware of the chaos unfolding around her. 

It’s a quiet celebration on a quiet island.

*Done with the support of NZ-On-Air*

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