Widespread community transmission of Covid-19 would be calamitous in the Pacific Islands, where health infrastructure is limited. What steps are they taking to fend it off?
The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by Spinoff Members. To support this work, join Spinoff Members here.
Update 19/03, 2:45pm: Fiji has confirmed its first case of Covid-19 in Lautoka, according to Fiji’s health minister.
The 2019 measles outbreak in Samoa resulted in the deaths of 83 people, and an infection rate of almost 3% of the entire population. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, governments in the Pacific Islands have taken extra precautions to ensure an outbreak of Covid-19 does not occur.
So far there have been eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Pacific Islands, five in Guam and three in French Polynesia. Yesterday Samoa reported its first suspected case, a person who arrived from New Zealand on March 11. Samples have been sent to Australia for testing and will be weeks before the results get back.
No community transmission has been reported on any island.
Pacific nations have banned the berthing of cruise ships and most have strict rules in place for travellers from countries with high infection rates.
The economic effect
In the Financial Times, Fiji’s economy minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, laid out the impending impact of the crisis for the region.
“Fiji, and other small island developing states across the world, are bracing themselves for an economic impact that could well exceed a severe tropical hurricane, such as Cyclone Winston which struck Fiji in 2016 and wiped out one-third of our gross domestic product in just 36 hour,” he wrote.
“Our 850,000 annual visitors contribute up to 38% of gross domestic product. Tourism revenues help fund critical infrastructure projects; a 10% environmental and climate adaptation levy on the rum punch you drink at a Fijian resort helps fund the reconstruction of schools destroyed by tropical cyclones. But as Fiji closes its borders to some countries, and other nations impose restrictions on their returning citizens, that once-reliable income will dissipate.”
Sayed-Khaiyum called for international help. “If multilateral development banks withhold support until the virus strikes small island states, they’ll leave us exposed. With the worst yet to come, every day of delay risks robbing the world of a sustainable future.”
That the islands of the Pacific are willing to bear such economic impact only underscores the direct health impact that they are hoping to forestall. So what are these small nations doing to combat Covid-19?
Mindful of the devastating impact of the recent measles outbreak, the Samoan government introduced strong restrictions to keep Covid-19 from their shores. All chartered flights and cruise ships into Samoa have been cancelled until further notice and anyone wishing to enter Samoa must provide a medical report before they are issued a boarding pass to enter Samoa.
As of today the restrictions get tighter still, with anyone wishing to enter Samoa from a list of 33 countries (including Australia, the US and UK) requiring a negative Covid-19 test (not just a medical report) conducted within five days of arrival. New Zealand has now begun screening outgoing passengers to the Pacific Islands, but it’s unknown whether that would have intercepted the “suspected case of coronavirus” reported last night. Only a tiny fraction of people tested in New Zealand have so far been found positive, so the hope will be that it is no more than suspicion.
Fiji has closed its borders to all travellers who have been in mainland China, South Korea, Italy, Iran or Spain within 14 days of their arrival in Fiji, according to a statement from the Department of Immigration.
Cruise ships have been barred from berthing and all international travel by government ministers, permanent secretaries, civil servants and statutory body staff members has been banned.
FBC news reports a 40% drop in hotel bookings for the next three months due to Covid-19. Hotel and Tourism Association chief executive Fantasha Lockington says reservations are reducing daily and small operators will be hit hardest.
Suva-based journalist Geraldine Panapasa said Fijian people are taking advice from health professionals very seriously.
“Simple things that were taken for granted like a handshake, hug, a pat on the back or a peck on the cheek when we greet someone the Pacific way has become a no-no for some people. You’d see people decline a handshake and use other gestures to greet/welcome a friend. I mean subtle forms of social distancing can be seen now … People are going about their daily lives, just a bit more mindful of personal hygiene,” she said.
The Cook Islands have barred all incoming flights from Australia, the US and French Polynesia. Travellers from these areas will now need to first come to New Zealand and isolate for 14 days before continuing on.
The prime minister, Henry Puna, said in a statement that he appreciates the strict border controls New Zealand has in place as a preventative measure against the virus ending up in the Pacific. “The border restriction steps New Zealand is implementing gives the Cook Islands an additional layer of protection and more time to prepare for ‘not if, but when’ Covid-19 arrives,” he said.
“My government is adding another layer of protection to the outer islands (including Aitutaki) of the Cook Islands, our Pa Enua, by closing their borders effective Saturday 21 March, after then there will be a voluntary 14 day supervised quarantine for anyone wishing to travel to the Pa Enua … The success of the Cook Islands national response relies on everyone working together to protect population health and minimise disruption to essential services.”
Foreign cruise ships are also banned, and there are now 13 high-risk countries from which travellers are required to complete a 14-day quarantine.
As with other Pacific nations, all cruise ships and yachts have been banned, and any visitors travelling from a country with community transmission of the virus must first complete a 14-day quarantine in a country with fewer than 60 cases.
The restrictions do not apply to Tongan permanent residents or citizens or their immediate families.
Similar to the measures in New Zealand and Australia, all returning residents will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days from when they arrive back in the country.
There have been no confirmed cases in Vanuatu yet, but the Ministry of Health says a quarantine has been set up in Vila Central Hospital.
The prime minister, Charlot Salwai, said on Tuesday that there will be a temporary restriction on all seasonal work schemes in New Zealand and Australia. He added there would be measures taken to ensure the hygiene of schools and churches and other spaces of community gathering.
The Federated States of Micronesia
In response to five positive cases of Covid-19 confirmed in Guam, located near the Federated States of Micronesia, president David W Panuelo confirmed there had been no cases in his country, but three people had been taken into isolation for testing on Wednesday. All schools in the FSM are closed.
A statement from the secretary of health and social affairs said the government is currently working to “enhance our capacities for surveillance and early detection, quarantine, isolation, infection control, case management, contact tracing, lab testing, and risk communication. At the same time, we are finalising our respective contingency plans for effective and coordinated response for Covid-19 across the FSM States.”
A national emergency has been declared in Nauru, reports RNZ. All flights have been suspended apart from a fortnightly Brisbane service.
Nauru is the smallest island nation in the world, and particularly vulnerable to the threat of Covid-19, according to a statement on government social media. “The global impact indicates that should this virus enter Nauru, the results could be devastating. This is a risk your Government is not willing to take. Our first & foremost objective is to protect our people.”
One person on the Marshall Islands is in isolation with a suspected case of Covid-19. Schools are still open but there is a ban on all incoming international travel.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.