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Former Cook Islands Leader Dies From Virus In New Zealand

Pasifika Medical Association via AP
This undated photo released by Pasifika Medical Association, shows Joe Williams. Williams, a medical leader in the South Pacific who served a brief term as prime minister of the Cook Islands, has died from the coronavirus, according to friends and family.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Joe Williams may have been 85 years old, but when the coronavirus struck this year, the Auckland doctor worked extra hard to warn his Pacific Island patients of its dangers. His friend suggested he take a vacation, but Williams was having none of it.

“That's the trouble with young people — they're always thinking about time off,” Williams jokingly told Dr. Api Talemaitoga, the 60-year-old recalled. “I'll be all right, don't worry about me.”

But Williams ended up catching the virus last month and died from it Friday night, friends and family said. Known to many affectionately as Papa Joe, Williams was a medical leader who served a brief stint as prime minister of the Cook Islands.

Williams was born in the Cook Islands and split his time living there and in New Zealand. He graduated from Otago Medical School and later completed a master's degree in public health at the University of Hawaii.

He was recognized by the World Health Organization for his work in the Cook Islands helping stamp out the tropical disease lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis.

In Auckland, he started a clinic that grew to serve over 15,000 patients, many of them Pacific Islanders who traveled from all over to see him.

Williams became the patron of the Pasifika Medical Association, a group that would have yearly conferences either in New Zealand or in the islands and would often attract about 300 people.

“I have this vision of him at breakfast and dinner walking around talking to everybody," Talemaitoga said. “He was particularly interested in the younger Pasifika doctors coming through, finding out who they were and what they were specializing in. He was a real fatherly figure."

He loved talking so much that a planned five-minute speech would sometimes take an hour. Nephew Kiki Maoate, a surgeon and president of the Pasifika Medical Association, said he eventually gave up trying to get his uncle off the stage.

“Along with everything else he did, he was a great orator,” Maoate said. “He acknowledged people and really got into his story.”

Williams first got involved in politics in 1964, serving as New Zealand's representative to the Cook Islands. With a population of just under 10,000, the Cooks is self-governing but in free association with New Zealand.

Williams later served various political roles in the Cooks, including prime minister for several months in 1999.

“It was a real rock-and-roll time in Cook Island politics,” with frequent leadership changes, Maoate said.

In 2011, Williams was awarded a New Zealand honor, the Queens Service Order, for services to the Cook Islands community.

Last month, Auckland had its first community transmission of the coronavirus in more than three months, and it spread in the Pacific Island community.

Maoate said he called his uncle a couple of days before he was admitted to the hospital and thought he sounded very tired. He said Williams seemed to be making progress in fighting the disease but then it suddenly took him.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Williams was a dedicated and passionate man.

“As a doctor, a health researcher and as a politician, Dr. Williams made a serious mark on the communities he served," Peters said. "He will be greatly missed in both New Zealand and the Cook Islands.”

Williams is survived by his wife, Jill; children Richard, Karina, Joanna and Jamie; and a number of grandchildren.

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