New Zealand scraps big Pacific festival over virus fears

Wellington (AFP) –


New Zealand cancelled one of the Pacific's largest cultural festivals on Friday, saying there was too much risk of attendees contracting coronavirus then spreading it throughout vulnerable island nations.

Auckland's annual Pasifika Festival normally attracts more than 60,000 people from across the region and is billed as the biggest Polynesian celebration in the world.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she feared allowing it to proceed could lead to an outbreak similar to the measles epidemic in Samoa late last year that killed 83 people, mostly babies and toddlers.

"New Zealand has a responsibility, as the gateway to the Pacific, to do what we can to prevent any chance of transmission into the Pacific," she told reporters.

"Because of the ability of their health system to cope with cases, it would be hugely damaging -- we've already seen what happened with measles."

A combination of geographic isolation and under-resourced health infrastructure makes containing outbreaks particularly difficult in the Pacific islands.

Ardern said the festival, due to be held this weekend, would have brought together people from the islands who would have then returned home, potentially dispersing the virus.

"That was a risk there was no appetite for," she said.

New Zealand, most notably Auckland, serves as a hub for Pacific islanders and some epidemiologists criticised New Zealand for not doing enough over the measles outbreak to contain the illness.

French Polynesia recorded the South Pacific's first confirmed case of coronavirus on Thursday when it was revealed parliamentarian Maina Sage had tested positive.

There have been two confirmed cases of the virus in the US state of Hawaii but no others on Pacific islands, with suspected cases in the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Palau all testing negative.

New Zealand has had just five confirmed cases and no fatalities.