New Zealand has been the gateway for two devastating epidemics in the Pacific, writes Lana Lopesi. How do we ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, especially given how vulnerable the Pacific Islands are?
In late October of 1918, the SS Talune, a New Zealand passenger and cargo steamship, left the port of Auckland bound for Fiji, Sāmoa, Tonga, and Nauru.
It was carrying the deadly influenza virus (the so-called “Spanish flu”) that had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.
Within two months of the Talune’s arrival in the Pacific, Fiji had lost 5 percent of its population (a total of 9,000 deaths), Tonga 6.4 percent (2,000 people), Nauru 16 percent (230 deaths which saw its total population drop below 1,500), and Western Sāmoa a devastating 22 percent (around 8,500 people).
Sāmoa’s death toll was the worst suffered by any country. A 1947 United Nations report described it as “one of the most disastrous epidemics recorded anywhere in the world during the present century, so far as the proportion of deaths to the population is concerned”.
At the time of the Talune’s departure from Auckland, influenza was already rife in New Zealand. In the next two months, it would go on to kill nearly 9,000 New Zealanders (less than 1 percent of the population, although the Māori death rate was many times that of Pākehā). Worldwide, the flu pandemic is estimated to have taken as many as 50 to 100 million lives, more than both world wars combined.
Before the Talune left Auckland, two crewmen had reported sick and were sent ashore. By the time it reached Suva on November 4, several more crewmen had influenza. Although the ship was quarantined alongside the wharf, local passengers were allowed to disembark as none seemed to be sick.
On November 7, 1918, the Talune arrived in Apia. Despite the presence of seriously ill passengers, the ship was given “a clean bill of health” — and all of the passengers were allowed to go ashore. Within weeks, nearly a quarter of Sāmoa’s population had perished.
New Zealand’s part in the disaster wasn’t just as the carrier of the virus. A New Zealand administration had been installed in Western Sāmoa since the start of the First World War in 1914, having seized the island territory from Germany at the behest of the Brits.
The eastern islands in the Sāmoan archipelago, on the other hand, were under American rule, which turned out to be a lucky break for them. With the US navy at the helm, American Sāmoa quickly made the decision to quarantine anyone with the disease on navy ships. And guess what? Not a single death.
Almost a hundred years later, in September 2019, there was a sense of deja vu when another disease left New Zealand’s shores for the Pacific. This time it was measles — a disease that was supposed to have been largely eradicated — carried by an infected Auckland passenger on board one of the many flights between New Zealand and Apia.
In all, the measles epidemic which began in Zealand in March 2019, infected a total of 2,193 New Zealanders — 1,736 of them in Auckland. None of them died (although two pregnant women who contracted measles lost their unborn babies in the second trimester). In Sāmoa, however, the consequences were deadly and widespread. In a country with a population of 200,000, there were 5,700 confirmed cases of measles and 83 deaths. Most were babies and children. It was a massive blow to the small archipelago.
New Zealand’s measles epidemic also reached Tonga (apparently through a squad of Tongan rugby players returning from New Zealand), Fiji, and American Sāmoa, but, thanks largely to much higher rates of immunisation and sweeping action — including school closures and, in American Sāmoa’s case, closing its borders to Sāmoa and Tonga — they were able to contain the spread and avoid any deaths.
It’s almost unbelievable that, only a few months later, a new virus has sprung up. Like the 1918 influenza pandemic, Covid-19 is highly infectious and spreading rapidly around the globe.
This time, though, our islands are in no doubt about how vulnerable they are.
Off the back of so much devastation last year, it was no surprise that Sāmoa was one of the first Pacific nations to react to news of Covid-19. International flights from New Zealand were significantly reduced, and tough restrictions were imposed for countries with confirmed cases of Covid-19. That included a 14-day self-quarantine at the port of departure, and a requirement to undergo a medical examination within three days of arriving in Sāmoa. A medical clearance report had to be produced at check-in, before a boarding pass could be issued.
But even with these precautions, Sāmoa now has eight suspected cases. The first was a 21-year-old Auckland woman who’d flown to Sāmoa on March 11 to celebrate her 21st. Yesterday, Sāmoa confirmed it was waiting on tests for another seven suspected cases — all with a history of travel or contact with a relative who had travelled to Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, or Spain.
The possibility that Sāmoa may be dealt another terrible blow so soon after the measles epidemic doesn’t bear thinking about.
Up until two weeks ago, it seemed as though the Pacific Islands might be able to protect themselves from coronavirus. But, as I write, there are 34 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Pacific countries and territories, with another 37 in the US state of Hawai’i.
And just as all of New Zealand’s Covid-19 cases so far are linked to people coming in from overseas, so too are the cases in the Pacific.
How do we ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, given how vulnerable the Pacific Islands are? In New Zealand at least, there now seems to be a more heightened awareness of our responsibility towards the Pacific.
Last week, when Jacinda Ardern ushered in the mandatory 14-day self-isolation requirements for all but the Pacific Islands, she talked about New Zealand’s responsibility to look after the Pacific Islands and how seriously her government took that duty of care.
As Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna noted, the border controls gave the Cook Islands “an additional layer of protection and more time to prepare for ‘not if, but when’ Covid-19 arrives.”
At the time, Immigration NZ was warning travellers to the Pacific that our health officers would be screening everyone before they’d be allowed to depart New Zealand for the Pacific, and that airlines wouldn’t be allowing anyone with Covid-19 symptoms to board.
The new border closures which came into effect at midnight on March 19 have added yet another layer of protection for the Pacific. They restrict entry into New Zealand for everyone but citizens and permanent residents — with some exemptions for the Pacific for humanitarian reasons and key workers in the health sector.
As Jacinda Ardern has said, closing our borders protects the Pacific Islands, as well as ourselves.
Whether we like it or not, Aotearoa is a disease gateway to the Pacific and this is a great step by New Zealand to help keep our islands safe. Let’s hope we managed to close the gates in time.
For Pacific communities here in Aotearoa, we need to hunker down and keep our immediate communities safe, but we also need to not put our beloved islands in further danger.
The full impact of Covid-19 to the Pacific is incomprehensible right now. Our islands will need us to come back and help contribute to their economies, but right now they need us to stay away.
Covid-19 in the Pacific
There now are 34 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Pacific countries and territories, with another 37 in the US state of Hawai’i. Guam has 14, French Polynesia 15, New Caledonia 2, Fiji 2, and Papua New Guinea 1.
What are our island nations doing to keep cases to a minimum?
Hawai’i: 37 confirmed cases. Hawai’i’s governor has asked for social gatherings to be limited to 10 people or fewer. Bars, clubs, theatres, and tourist attractions are being told to close. Places of worship are being suspended, and all non-essential state workers are being told to stay home for at least 15 days. Although tourists are being asked to stay away for at least 30 days, they’re still allowed in, but are being screened on arrival.
Guam: 14 confirmed cases. Worst hit of the Pacific countries and territories, with dozens of cases waiting for test results. All public spaces, bars, restaurants, recreation and leisure facilities ordered to close. Restrictions on public gatherings. Churches asked to stop public attendance and limit numbers at funerals. All public schools and government offices closed (same as the Northern Marianas) with an immediate mandatory quarantine for all arrivals.
French Polynesia: 15 cases confirmed. People told to stay home for at least 15 days. Schools are closed, meetings banned, and municipal elections have been called off. Non-residents banned, cruise ship tourism has been suspended, and interisland movement minimised.
New Caledonia: 2 cases. All flights to New Caledonia are suspended although “a minimum link with the mainland (France) will be maintained, in particular for health reasons.” All incoming passengers had been required to self-isolate, with a penalty of 750 euros for those not complying, but the ability to quarantine had reached its limits. All public places are closed and gatherings of more than 20 people are not allowed.
Fiji: 2 confirmed cases. The first patient recently returned from overseas, and the second case is the first patient’s mother. The two are from Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest town. Lautoka is now in lockdown — all schools and non-essential businesses ordered to close. Gatherings of more than 20 people now banned, and all nightclubs, gyms, cinemas, swimming pools and fitness centres also ordered to close. Travel restrictions extended to include US, UK, and Europe, there’s a ban on all cruise ships, and all arrivals are required to self-isolate for 14 days.
Papua New Guinea: 1 confirmed case from a mine worker who had travelled to Papua New Guinea from Spain via Singapore. One week ban on all international flights now imposed.
Sāmoa: 8 suspected cases awaiting test results. State of emergency declared. Border closed to all but returning citizens for 14 days. All flights from Australia now suspended. Public gatherings restricted to five. Public transport carrying more than five people temporarily stopped, and nightclubs, restaurants and cinemas to be closed. Street vendors told to cease operating and over-60s told to stay home. Limits on travel to Savai’i and non-essential public servants having their hours reduced.
Tonga: State of emergency declared. All foreign nationals banned until April 17. All Tongans and emergency officials arriving in Tonga now required to go through 14-day quarantine. A quarantine site has been set up at the Taliai Army Camp with three people there already. Cruise ships and yachts are banned indefinitely. Nightclubs, bars and kava clubs to close from March 25, and public gatherings restricted to 20 indoors and 40 outdoors.
Cook Islands: All flights from everywhere but New Zealand have been stopped. All travellers required to self-quarantine in New Zealand for 14 days before heading there. All non-essential surgery and dental care cancelled to free up medical capacity. Over-the-phone GP consultations only, with prescriptions being filled to three-month periods.
Tokelau: New Zealand territory. Only accessible by boat. Anyone coming from a country with confirmed cases of Covid-19 will not be allowed to board. Returning Tokelau residents must spend 14-days self-isolating in Sāmoa before boarding.
Niue: Travellers who’ve been in China, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, or Thailand not allowed in without written authorisation from the government. That may soon be updated to include Australia.
RNZ reports that the sitting of the Niue High Court — where the judge travels from New Zealand — has been postponed.
Nauru: The first island nation to declare a national emergency. Flights in and out of Nauru limited to once a fortnight to Brisbane only. All travellers required to be isolated for 14 days in approved accommodation before being allowed back into the community.
Tuvalu: State of emergency declared for at least 14 days. Public gatherings restricted to no more than 10 people. All travellers required to spend 14-days of isolation in Fiji, Kiribati, Sāmoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, or Solomon Islands before embarking for the country.
Solomon Islands: Schools ordered to take an early break. Major reduction in international flights in. 90-day ban on all cruise ships and private yachts. All arrivals required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Public gatherings discouraged.
Vanuatu: Suspension of all seasonal worker schemes in Australia and New Zealand. Cruise ships are banned and international flights reduced. They’ve also introduced vigorous cleaning routines for public gathering spaces.
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