Weathering the storm

Wikipedia describes the Cook Islands as “a self-governing country in the South Pacific region comprised of 15 islands and is in free association with New Zealand”. It is a representative democracy comprising a parliamentary system, and a Prime Minister serves as the head of the government and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II serves as its head of state. The country manages its internal affairs and maintains a vibrant economy that is mostly dependent on tourism, with two-thirds of the country’s GDP from that industry.

Given that the tourism industry is the country’s lifeblood, one would question how it managed its economy during the most critical stages of the Covid-19 outbreak. The first case in the country was just recently reported, some two years after the pandemic initially ravaged the world. Prior to this, the country was free of Covid-19, demonstrating the government’s accomplishment in safeguarding and managing the economy and its people from the deadly virus. The Cook Islands’ Covid-19 response was outstanding, and it came at a critical moment. When the borders reopened in January, the country established a thorough information packet that highlighted public health measures that provided a Covid-19 Safe Framework. These included wearing masks, carrying vaccination proof, maintaining physical distance, contact tracing with Cook Islands QR code, and an emergency 24-hour helpline were some of the general measures taken. Public health clinics were also extremely diligent in responding to people’s Covid-19-related needs. These clinics were well-equipped for telephone consultations, contact tracing, surveillance, immunization, Covid-19 testing, and case management, among other things. The Cook Islands government, like other governments throughout the world, also provided free vaccination to their citizens.

Of course, it’s not a surprise that the pandemic wreaked havoc on the country’s economy, which was largely reliant on tourism. Border closures disrupted trade balance, lowered GDP, and reduced consumer expenditure on goods and services. Furthermore, due to the lack in foreign direct investment, there was a significant drop in overall business. From April 2020 to June 2021, the government implemented its Economic Roadmap Program (ERP) to address this issue. Despite only being in place for a brief time, the program helped prevent further economic contraction and provided support to Cook Islanders during this difficult time. When the tourism business reopened, ERP’s efforts were scaled back. The administration launched a number of critical initiatives to aid a quick recovery, including lower borrowing costs, infrastructure investment, productivity development, and encouraging FDI, among others. These programs emphasized corporate support measures in order to keep the economy afloat, which was critical at the time. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also unveiled an economic stimulus package aimed at improving general welfare and employment.

It is absolutely commendable to note that Cook Islanders are self-reliant and have devised many strategies to deal with the effects of border closures during this pandemic. They are dedicated and optimistic about the country’s ability to continue successful business. The potential for FDI is also promising, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to assume that once global economy has fully recovered, the Cook Islands’ GDP will almost certainly rise above pre-pandemic levels. For sure, when the pandemic subsides, tourism and other businesses in the country will resurge with vigor.

The Cook Islands is poised to streamline its resources and move on with helping its people prepare for future problems. Only four cases of Covid-19 have been recorded thus far. To combat and control the disease, authorities can take practical steps. Once the pandemic has been contained, the government can provide incentives to private enterprises and build public-private partnerships, allowing the economy to reach the next level. A strong and autonomous health care system, while difficult for a tiny economy, can be beneficial in the long run. To achieve a new economic boom for such a naturally resource-rich country with a positive and self-sufficient population, a goal-oriented approach can definitely be used.

Overall, the Cook Islands deserve consistent credit for enduring the pandemic. Kudos to Prime Minister Brown and his government for a job well-done.

Dr Matthew Pajares-Yngson
Dr Matthew Pajares-Yngson
Datu Matthew Pajares Yngson is the Representative Councillor of the Caribbean ASEAN Council, and Diplomatic Affairs Envoy of the Eastern Caribbean-Southeast Asia Chamber, an organization recognized by the United Nations through the UN-OHRLLS. Datu Yngson holds a Doctorate in Professional Studies in International Relations and Diplomacy, and a Master of Arts in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy. He is the only Filipino-Dominican alumnus of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences since its establishment in 1956. Datu Yngson is also the Royal Ambassador of The 35th Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo and was bestowed the princely title of "Rajah of Tambulian Island" for his humanitarian work in supporting the Tausug people of the Sulu Archipelago.