Coronavirus in the Pacific: weekly briefing

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Tess Newton Cain
·8-min read
<span>Composite: Getty</span>
Composite: Getty

The total number of cases of Covid-19 infection listed by the World Health Organisation for the region stands at 426, an increase of 44 since last week. The main contributor to this rise is the increase in infections in Guam.

The factors that make the Pacific resistant to infection – remoteness, scattered populations and the high cost of travel and transportation – are the very same elements driving the region deeper into economic distress.

These factors have been holding back development gains for decades. And even if it never lands on their shores, Covid-19 will further constrain livelihoods and development opportunities in Pacific nations for years.

Related: Quarter of businesses in Pacific fear they will not survive Covid-19 pandemic

Fiji and Papua New Guinea, with their relatively sizeable populations and economies, are the most visibly affected.

One NGO estimates that half of all Fijians are facing “severe” financial distress. A major resort in Fiji has announced that nearly 500 staff will be made redundant as of next month.

The reserve bank has predicted a contraction of 21.7% in the country’s economy, driven largely by the drop-off in tourist arrivals as a result of Covid-19 impacts.

In what may be a backhanded admission that tourism is not coming back any time soon, the Fijian government announced a ‘PayNowStayLater’ digital platform that would provide a room at a future date in exchange for cash today.

The fact that the government is either unwilling or unable to inject cash of its own is cause for concern.

There are some tough decisions to be made in the coming weeks and months. But it’s not clear there exists the political will to make them.

Pacific island nations have escaped the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, but now face a stark choice between a risky reopening to tourists and economic collapse.
Pacific island nations have escaped the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, but now face a stark choice between a risky reopening to tourists and economic collapse. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty Images

What has happened this week?

Fiji: Three new cases this week, bringing the total to 21, with no deaths. The cases have been linked to a repatriation flight from India on 1 July. A Fijian citizen died on the same flight, having suffered breathing difficulties. Authorities have not counted this as a fatality in Fiji.

Guam: With over 100 active cases, Guam appears to be struggling with a sizeable second wave of infections. The WHO reports 280 cases, 40 more than last week. Five people have died. Over 100 sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt who had recovered from the virus volunteered plasma samples in a four-day collection effort the US Naval Hospital in Guam says will help the Navy better treat the disease and determine active duty readiness.

CNMI: The territory has registered another case, bringing the total number of infections to 31, with two deaths. This case came 30 days after the last infection was recorded.

Papua New Guinea: The number of confirmed cases remains at 11, with no deaths.

United States: The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on Pacific islanders, and particularly Marshallese, is becoming ever more evident. In Arkansas, Pacific islanders account for 8% of the Covid-19 cases, even though they make up only 0.3% of the population. Even more concerning is the information from Spokane, in Washington where Marshallese people constitute less than 1% of the county’s population but make up around 30% of the number of Covid-19 cases.

West Papua: There have been 2,276 reported cases with 20 deaths in the Papuan provinces, according to the Jakarta Post.

French Pacific Territories: The total number of infections remains unchanged at 62 in French Polynesia and 21 in New Caledonia. The final relief flight in a series of nine landed in Tahiti having come from France via Canada. In total these flights, funded by the French government, have repatriated 2,000 people and transferred 100 tonnes of cargo. Regular flights between French Polynesia and France have now resumed in an attempt to restart tourism.

Tonga: There are no recorded infections in Tonga. Repatriation flights will commence with uplifting Tongan nationals, including medical staff, from Fiji.

Samoa: Around 400 seafarers remain stranded overseas, and are looking to NZ to help get them home. The NZ horticulture industry has agreed to fund the cost of charter flights to repatriate stranded workers.

Cook Islands: The government has been progressing talks with New Zealand officials and ministers, including deputy PM Winston Peters, to establish a travel bubble between the two countries.

Vanuatu: There are no cases of Covid-19 in the country. The first outbound repatriation flight will take place this week in order to return people to New Caledonia. The owners of Vanuatu Ferry, whose ship was sanctioned for entering territorial waters without permission, yesterday complained that numerous attempts to negotiate the return of their vessel did not even receive a reply from authorities. The ship and its crew are being detained offshore.

Solomon Islands: There are no reported infections in the country. To the end of June, 278 tests have been conducted in-country: all have returned negative.

Marshall Islands: There are still no plans to allow Marshallese people to return to their country with a strict ban on inward travel only exempted in extreme circumstances. Outward government travel is forbidden and a plan to ban private citizens from leaving the country is under consideration. This stems from the fact that the US is the destination to which most Marshallese people travel.

What are Pacific governments doing?

Fiji: The minister for health reassured the public that Fiji’s testing regime is safe and effective. Authorities insist there is minimal risk from the repatriation of a group of military personnel who have returned from UN peacekeeping duties.

Vanuatu: Three of the government coalition’s parties attended an online meeting with Chinese Communist Party officials, discussing combatting the health and economic effects of Covid-19. Finance minister Johnny Koanapo yesterday confirmed that he will be asking the council of ministers to endorse a one-month extension of the $25m employment support programme. Many applicants say they have yet to receive anything from the programme, which was slated to end in June. Koanapo hinted it may be possible for travel to resume to and from Australia, even if the virus is not eradicated.

Samoa: the government has extended the state of emergency for another month and it will now expire on 2 August.

Tonga: After initially saying that plans to commence repatriation had been deferred, the government has since advised that they plan to repatriate 58 Tongans from Fiji this week. They have been stranded there since Tonga closed its borders on 23 March.

Cook Islands: Interim prime minister Mark Brown has said that the financial situation in his country is dire following the collapse of the tourism sector. Last month’s budget will see the country through to September. After that, the government will need to borrow money in order to keep functioning.

Solomon Islands: Independence Day celebrations on 7 July were cancelled because of the ongoing state of emergency.

Marshall Islands: The ban on inbound travel has been extended for another month until 5 August. The borders have been closed since 8 March.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia has 8,586 confirmed cases of Covid-19, an increase of 819 from last week. The number of deaths has gone up from 104 to 106.

In New Zealand, there are 1,533 confirmed cases, an increase of six. The number of deaths remains unchanged at 22.

Concerns are growing about the level of community transmission in Melbourne: the state government has taken the dramatic step of imposing a full lockdown on around 3,000 people who live in nine public housing complexes. The border between New South Wales and Victoria was closed on 7 July, for the first time in 100 years.

In New Zealand, the foreign minister Winston Peters has asked border security and immigration officials to look into a quarantine exemption that will apply to “important” people travelling from Cook Islands. If it goes ahead it will be the first such exemption granted by New Zealand.

Firefighters dressed in personal protective equipment prepare to distribute food throughout a public housing tower in North Melbourne, Australia.
Firefighters dressed in personal protective equipment prepare to distribute food throughout a public housing tower in North Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: James Ross/EPA

What did they say?

As the tourism-starved Cooks head towards insolvency, will they be forced to turn to China to bail them out? China is anywhere and everywhere in the Pacific with the money and the resources to take over the South Pacific Islands.

Mike Pero, New Zealand real estate magnate, animates geostrategic anxieties to pressure Wellington to open its border with Cook Islands.

Related: Coronavirus in the Pacific: sign up for weekly email updates

Fake News

Solomon Islands police have arrested a man under their state of emergency powers. He is accused of posting a photo to social media, falsely identifying an elderly Tulagi man as the first case of Covid-19 in the country.

Good news

In Fiji, parents were able to breathe a sigh of relief as schools reopened on 6 July. They had been closed since 20 March.

This is our last weekly Pacific Covid-19 bulletin. The Guardian’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis in the Pacific will continue, as will Tess and Dan’s contributions.