COVID19 and Its Impact on Pacific Island States
May 29, 2020
By William W. Ellis
TORONTO, May 29 2020 (IPS)
By now, the impact of COVID19 on our daily lives has been well documented, especially in advanced economies. Anxiety about the future continues to grow everywhere. Much of the corporate news coverage we consume has focused on the toll this pandemic will take on mainland countries. Often neglected, however, is the unique position Pacific Island States find themselves in.
Globally, there are close to 6 million confirmed cases of COVID19. According to the Pacific Community (SPC), there are 292 cases of the virus across its membership – a truly small number, considering Papua New Guinea’s population of 8.6 million people. Indeed, many of the SPC’s members are seemingly untouched by the global pandemic – as of May 6th, for example, American Samoa had no cases of the virus at all.
Despite the current picture, the Pacific Islands share unique challenges. Small in size, geographically remote, vulnerable to extreme environmental shock, and limited in economies of scale, these islands could be devastated by COVID19.
Over 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population, for example, reside in rural regions where health care infrastructure is limited. Clinics frequently run out of supplies and 4,000 nurses recently went on strike due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). In the outer islands and in rural villages across the Pacific, basic services and access to intensive care or fully equipped hospitals is impossible. As reported in The Guardian, Vanuatu only has two ventilators for a population of 300,000 people. Only a few Pacific nations can test effectively for COVID19 and processing samples through Australia, New Zealand or the United States may delay results.
Infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases are also a worrisome factor – the Pacific has the world’s highest levels of Type 2 diabetes and suffer from exceptionally high levels of obesity. These chronic conditions tend to place people in death’s path when exposed to the virus.
Furthermore, Pacific Island culture revolves around large extended families, exacerbating the risk of community transmission. Social isolation may have worked in large, industrial nations, but is exceedingly difficult to implement in the Pacific diaspora. And the U.N. recently warned that misinformation about the virus could be another deadly risk for these people. A high-profile malpractice scandal in 2018 destroyed public trust in the Samoan health care system, contributing to low vaccination rates during a 2019 measles outbreak. The mistrust was also stoked by anti-vaccination misinformation campaigners overseas.
The economic impact of this global crisis is already being felt in the Pacific as well. Reliant on the export of commodities to shuttered buyers overseas, some countries face massive challenges as demand crashes. Travel and tourism – a principal economic driver – have come to a screeching halt, and countries like Fiji and Vanuatu could see their GDP fall by almost 50%. Unemployment figures are likely to be staggering as well, as close to 40% of the latter’s workforce is dependent on tourism.
There is a silver lining to all these issues. According to Dr. Stuart Minchin, Director General of the Pacific Community (SPC), the region is no stranger to disasters and challenges, having endured cyclones and the recent measles epidemic. In a recent interview he suggested that the community has “very good regional mechanisms in place to help countries deal with these issues, and more importantly to recover from these issues when they occur.”
The SPC is the principal scientific and technical organization in the Pacific region. An international development organization, owned and governed by its 26 country and territory members, the SPC’s mission is to work for the well-being of Pacific people through effective and innovative application of science and knowledge, guided by a deep understanding of Pacific Island contexts and cultures.
Working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the region, the SPC has been supporting countries through this global crisis. In Dr. Minchin’s words, “with this invisible enemy we’re facing, we’re only as strong as our weakest link, so we have to work together as a region to make sure we can tackle this crisis together.”
“It is important to recognize that this crisis is not going to be over quickly. The health emergency may pass, but there will likely be an economic impact on local economies in the region over quite an extensive period of time. It is therefore really important that we help the countries and territories plan for that.
It is not going to reduce the importance of anything SPC does. In fact, the importance of the work that we do is going to be heightened because the countries will have to deal with challenges in terms of food security, access to water and sanitation, education, livelihoods and the continuing impacts of climate change. There are going to be risks around social and human rights issues as well, so we really need to be focused on how we help countries face these potential crises.”
The approach taken by the SPC reflects the Pacific region’s familial culture and fortitude. So far, the region has warded off the virus by imposing strict quarantines and taking advantage of their isolation from the rest of the world. For example, the Marshall Islands was one of the first countries in the world to impose a travel ban in January. And whilst Samoa’s health system is still strained in the aftermath of the measles outbreak, it has been a clear influence on the region, prompting swift reaction to the threat of COVID19.
As Dr. Minchin has said, “Pacific Countries have done a wonderful job in acting quickly and decisively to protect us but making a difference on how we act and interact every day is in our hands.”
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