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Only 12 countries are free of COVID — 10 of them in the Pacific

With the memory of last year’s catastrophic Samoan measles outbreak looming large, the Pacific states conceded they did not have the capacity to respond to a communicable disease outbreak.

Kiribati, home to just 110,000 people spread across 32 atolls covering a slice of the ocean the size of India, said it lacked the human resources and the capacity to prevent the spread of the disease if it entered the country.

“The people of Kiribati are very vulnerable to this virus,” a government statement concluded.

Kiribati citizens working overseas were locked out of their own country to prevent the importation of the coronavirus.

Kiribati citizens working overseas were locked out of their own country to prevent the importation of the coronavirus.Credit:Justin McManus

It echoed leaders’ sentiments throughout the region: health systems were simply too under-resourced to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19.

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The Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection reported no ICU beds in the Solomon Islands or Nauru, while the Cook Islands had just two respirators. In Kiribati, President Taneti Maamau called for patience, refusing to allow even its own citizens to return home until the government had built an isolation facility. Six months on, borders remain closed and I-Kiribatis remain locked out.

Similarly, non-repatriation of seasonal Pacific workers on contract in Australia and New Zealand has left families separated. In June, the Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman halted repatriation of 2300 seasonal workers, citing a lack of quarantine capacity and concern for how a potential outbreak among returning workers would overwhelm his country’s health system.

According to Dr Nicholas Thomson, a public health epidemiologist with the Australia Pacific Security College, the decisive response to shut borders has been vindicated.

“There is no doubt that the border closures have been critical in preventing COVID-19 taking hold in the Pacific. The key now is balancing when and how to open up, and ensuring that agencies working on the front line of borders, such as customs and immigration officials, are as well prepared as possible.”

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To many Australians, the Pacific Islands and their pristine beaches are a tourist mecca. Yet 80 per cent of islanders live rurally, many with no connection to the global economy or the tourism industry. It is in these communities that the border closures have been welcomed.

The resumption of international tourism would present an enormous health threat but add little to their material living standards. Frequently tested by challenges such as natural disasters, Pacific islanders are a resilient lot. In times of trouble, they have learnt to survive by harvesting their gardens and relying on a safety net provided by the kastom (informal) economy.

Marie is one of the “market mamas” at Port Vila’s open-air marketplace. Her business, selling fresh tropical fruit and vegetables, has taken a hit from the reduced number of shoppers, but she believes the Vanuatu government did the right thing.

“Healthcare in our country is very limited. We can’t let this virus come in, otherwise it will be a disaster. Prevention is better than cure,” she says.

It’s clear why islanders like Marie want the borders to remain closed. In desperation to restart revenue streams, French Polynesia opened its borders to French and American tourists in July. It’s a decision that has ended in disaster. The first wave recorded between 62-69 cases of COVID-19. So far the second wave has recorded 1130 cases and the French territory’s first two deaths.

The issue is compounded because many indigenous Tahitians opposed the reopening, but were overruled by their French administrators. It highlights an uncomfortable truth – the most infected Pacific communities have been in territories ruled by metropolitan powers, such as the US territory of Guam, French Polynesia and Indonesian-ruled West Papua.

Papua New Guinea border traders who shop in West Papua have likely imported most of the infections occurring in PNG – now above 500 cases.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape.Credit:Bloomberg

PNG was initially strict with its border closure. Citing a lack of health infrastructure the government even turned around a Qantas flight carrying citizens home from Brisbane mid-journey. But fatigued, PNG Prime Minister James Marape is now unwilling to keep his nation’s economy in the freezer, saying his citizens will have to learn to “live with the virus”.

Just as Marape looks to the future, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor has said the virus has highlighted the need for investment in the region’s health infrastructure.

Effective border closures have so far papered over the shortfalls.

Dr Henry Ivarature is a Pacific fellow and Hugh McClure the research officer with the Australia Pacific Security College. He has been tallying the numbers of infections in the Pacific.

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correction

Corrected to reflect Bob Loughman as the current Prime Minister of Vanuatu, replacing Charlot Salwai as of April this year. The error was made in production. 

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