TORONTO, CANADA - By now, the impact of the coronavirus on our daily lives has been well-documented, especially in advanced economies.
Anxiety about the future continues to grow. But often neglected in news coverage is the position of Pacific Island states.
Globally, there are well over six million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 370,000 deaths.
In the Pacific community, though, there have been 292 cases and seven deaths — most of these in Guam and the Marianas.
This is a good outcome so far especially considering Papua New Guinea’s population of eight million people.
Indeed, most Pacific island states have been untouched by the global pandemic.
Despite the current picture, the Pacific islands – generally small in size, geographically remote, and vulnerable to extreme environmental shock - could be devastated by Covid-19.
Over 80% of Papua New Guinea’s population, for example, resides in rural regions where healthcare 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.
In the outer islands and rural villages of the Pacific, basic services and access to intensive care or fully equipped hospitals is non-existent.
Vanuatu, for example, has only two ventilators for a population of 300,000. Only a few Pacific nations can test effectively for Covid-19 and need to process samples through Australia, New Zealand or the United States.
Infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases are also worrying. The measles outbreak in Samoa last year caused scores of deaths due to a low vaccination rate. It was low because of mistrust stoked by anti-vaccination campaigners.
Despite the low impact of Covid-19 in the Pacific so far, the economic impact of the global crisis is being felt.
Reliant on the export of commodities to shuttered buyers overseas, some countries face massive challenges.
Tourism — a principal economic driver — has come to a screeching halt, and countries like Fiji and Vanuatu could see their gross domestic product fall by 50%. Unemployment figures have also escalated to figures around 40% in some cases.
But there is a silver lining to these issues. According to Dr Stuart Minchin, director-general of the Pacific Community (SPC), there are “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 organisation in the Pacific region governed by its 26 country and territory members.
Its 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 Organisation, 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.”
The approach taken by 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. And while Samoa’s health system is still strained in the aftermath of the measles outbreak, it had a swift reaction to the threat of Covid-19.
As Dr. Minchin 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.”