(Natural News) The Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected over 5.5 million people and caused over 350,000 deaths – but not one of them comes from the Cook Islands, a place considered by many as the world’s last perfect island destination.
But being one of the few countries without COVID-19 can come with a heavy toll. With the country barring international travel, residents have not been spared from the economic onslaught of the pandemic.
Almost all 15 islands comprising the Cooks are wholly dependent on tourism. Without people flying in, business owners are growing increasingly concerned that they may not be able to survive the lockdown. A recent survey by the Private Sector Taskforce revealed that more than 20 percent of businesses in the Cooks are considering shutting down.
“This crisis has touched every business in some way, from tourism accommodators to growers, retailers and stall holders, who have reported cataclysmic drops in income since the borders closed,” said task force chair Fletcher Melvin.
He also added that many businesses still burn through cash, paying for “electricity, superannuation contributions, insurance, rent, and telecommunications among other things.”
Melvin also appealed to New Zealand to include the Cooks in any wider travel “bubble” formed with Australia.
Coronavirus upended daily life
In Kiikii Inn & Suites, located on Rarotonga, the largest of the 15 Cook Islands, all 16 rooms have been empty since mid-March. According to hotel manager Pa Napa, this wasn’t the case at the beginning of the year. Bookings were solid for the first three months, despite it being low season. The hotel was ready to take in visitors, having planted fragrant tropical flowers and vines of passion fruit – until the pandemic cleaned out their reservations.
While the Cooks were still accepting visitors as late as February, the coronavirus has been a cause for concern among residents of the island nation. When the cruise ship MS Amsterdam landed in Rarotonga, locals stayed at home for fear of being infected.
As the number of cases began to spike in New Zealand, a country the Cooks heavily rely on for trade, officials went on high alert. With only 22 doctors, 110 nurses and two ventilators, the Cooks knew their resources weren’t enough for its more than 17,000-strong population. In response to the threat, Prime Minister Henry Puna ordered a nationwide lockdown in March.
In just one weekend, tourism plummeted in the islands: Flights to the capital city of Avarua were canceled, cruise ships were banned, and entry was restricted to locals and residents and New Zealand. (Related: Wealthy Americans are ESCAPING CORONAVIRUS by bugging out to luxury survival bunkers.)
“There were companies whose income basically went to zero once the last flight left the country,” Finance Minister Mark Brown said.
Planning to spend with no income
In an effort to soften the economic crunch brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the government offered to subsidize wages and drummed up a financial aid package worth $61 million. The stimulus included a one-time 400 NZD welfare payment for pensioners and other at-risk populations and three months of free electricity for all residents.
The government also tapped its 56.7 million NZD emergency reserve fund to help pay for the stimulus measures, which Puna’s government banked when the economy was good.
Still, putting together the Cooks’ national budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year is a challenge that Brown and the government face. With the pandemic’s impact on the country’s tourism, the finance minister says that making ends meet will require creativity and innovation. It will also need at least 76 million NZD in planned stimulus, and nearly 260 million NZD for the country to recover from the full damage caused by COVID-19, according to ANZ Bank. Currently, the government is in talks with the Asian Development Bank and the New Zealand government to provide loans until the island nation can recoup its losses.
Speaking about the islands’ outlook, Pa Napa says that the Cooks may be facing something worse than a natural disaster.
“With a cyclone, once it passes, you clean up and you get back to work and move on,” he added. “With this, it’s been weeks and weeks of nothing.”
Pandemic.news has more on the coronavirus outbreak.