By Sri Krishnamurthi
AUCKLAND (Asia Pacific Report/Pacific Media Watch): Pacific health specialist Dr Collin Tukuitonga is worried that the latest community transmission of covid-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand “could get very messy”.
“The latest cluster is a worry because the source is unknown and highly probable as community transmission,” says Dr Tukuitonga, who was heavily involved during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic as the chief executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in 2009.
He has already been seconded to the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) one day a week- and service does the covid-19 contact tracing – apart from his role as associate dean Pacific at the University of Auckland.
“Community transmission may decimate the Pacific, Māori and other low-income communities. It is important we get on top smartly,” he told Pacific Media Watch as locked down Auckland braced for a cluster of 13 new cases.
He believes complacency had crept into New Zealand because it had gone 102 days covid-19 free.
“Yes, I think we became complacent – all of New Zealand, not just Pacific,” he said.
Back in early July he called for a designated population health agency saying the covid-19 pandemic had exposed major shortcomings in the funding and delivery of public health.
Testing under par
“Clearly more is needed take for example that testing was under par and they are scrambling to cope with demand now.
“You could argue that this should have been anticipated,” he says.
“A lot depends on the number of new cases. If it is small we’ll cope but if there are many it could get out of hand,” he said.
“Testing levels have dropped and should have been maintained at a high level. We were flying blind,” he said.
His advice was the same as it was in 2009 during the H1N1 flu.
“Yes, we are in Level 3 and 2 and that means avoid mass gatherings, stay home, tangi, celebrations, church gatherings are to be avoided for everyone,” he said.
Following social distancing advice, washing hands and the new advice of wearing a mask in public were all prudent measures, he said.
“We may get more cases so this could get very messy,” he said.
A worry about source
“The worry of course is that we don’t know what the source is and there is a high likelihood of community transmission getting underway and that is the risk for Māori, Pacific and low-income New Zealanders.”
He said it could be the start of the second wave in Aotearoa, but it depended on how quickly the authorities could get on top of it.
“These viral threats are very common features and each outbreak will have its own unique features. It just depends on the outbreaks because some will cause more deaths than others,” Dr Tukuitonga said.
“Clearly covid-19 is much bigger and much more difficult to control.”
Pacific and Māori communities were in a very difficult position because of the level of co-morbidities such as diabetes and respiratory diseases, but more fundamentally there was the problem of overcrowding, housing conditions not conducive and not enough space for people to social distance.
”I’d say forget the kava bowl, forget mass gatherings because you just need one super-spreader in a big gathering and it will just explode,” he said.
The possibility of going to level 4 lockdown remained realistic, he said.
Cancel the rugby
As for the Super Rugby Aotearoa game that had been set down for a sold out Eden Park between the Blues and the Crusaders on Sunday, he said: “Cancel it”.
“If we get more cases tomorrow and the next day it would be just irresponsible to go ahead with that game,” Dr Tukuitonga said.
And having advocated for the opening of a travel bubble with Cook Islands, he now believed that a delay would make sense.
“I was a keen promoter of that idea, but I would suggest right away to stop it. The problem is we don’t know what the spread is like in New Zealand and people could well go to the Cooks or Niue and integrate the virus there. So I would discourage it.”