SYDNEY - Australia will send charter flights carrying tonnes of urgent medical supplies and other support to Pacific island nations to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The deliveries come as the Pacific Islands Forum moves closer to agreeing on the creation of a "humanitarian corridor" to keep medical and food supplies flowing amid travel and movement restrictions, and China steps up its aid to the region.
Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison recently told G20 leaders Pacific island nations and Timor-Leste must be a "focus of international support".
The Morrison government will look at how to use its $2 billion infrastructure lending facility, announced as part of the Pacific "step-up", on projects that help the region recover from the pandemic.
The $1.4 billion in foreign aid earmarked for the region this year will also be used to help island states prevent and combat outbreaks of Covid-19.
Unlike other places in the world, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has kept all essential personnel in the region and all its posts remain open.
While there have been no major outbreaks of the virus in the South Pacific, there are growing concerns from governments in the region that many island states will eventually confront a major health crisis on top of the crippling challenges they already face due to the global economic downturn.
The Asian Development Bank has warned Covid-19 will smash countries across the Pacific that rely on international tourism, with economic growth to fall by 0.3% this year.
Fiji's capital went into lockdown on Friday, just ahead of a spike in cases over the weekend taking its total to 12.
The Australian government has advised its citizens in PNG, which declared a state of emergency since last month, to leave as soon as possible.
Australia has been sending medical supplies and other support to Pacific island nations but many have placed further restrictions on travel and movement over the past week, highlighting the need for a special agreement from the Pacific Islands Forum, an association of regional governments, to keep routes open.
China has been sending its own medical supplies including protective equipment to countries including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa, and has committed small sums of money to some in the region. It has also been trying to send supplies to Timor-Leste.
There is growing concern within Australia's intelligence agencies about Beijing's growing influence in the South Pacific and its recent propaganda efforts, including claiming the US Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak.