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The relative isolation of Pacific island nations provides a level of protection from global pandemics, as long as border controls, quarantine and health systems are in place to monitor arrivals. During the global coronavirus pandemic, Fiji and Papua New Guinea are the only independent nations in the region with confirmed cases of COVID-19, while most Pacific countries are COVID-free: Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau currently have no confirmed diagnoses of the disease.

In contrast, many US and French territories in the region have been battered by the pandemic. The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Pacific Islands occurred in French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii and New Caledonia, all of them American and French colonial dependencies (along with Papua New Guinea, a nation of 8 million people, these territories also had the highest rates of HIV infection during the AIDS pandemic in the late 20th Century).

Early in 2020, when reports emerged of mass infection of COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships, Pacific governments moved quickly to ban such visits. On 8 March, the Republic of Marshall Islands took the unprecedented step of banning all flights in and out of the country. In late March, Tuvalu, Nauru, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa all declared states of emergency, with other countries soon following.

What seemed to be extreme measures at the time are now commonplace, as countries close their borders and the global aviation industry faces collapse. But isolation poses particular challenges to island nations: national and international carriers are a vital economic lifeline, carrying tourists, imports and exports, development workers and migrant labourers. Pre-pandemic, revenues from international tourism provided 40% of GDP for countries like Fiji, Vanuatu and Cook Islands, so the border lockdown has led to massive job loss and social impacts.

Pacific finance and economic ministers met in August to co-ordinate a regional response to these economic woes: the triple whammy of loss of remittances, tourism and export opportunities; increased debt burden; and ongoing loss and damage from climate change (Cyclone Harold hit Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April). The ministers reported: “We recognise the three-pronged crisis currently facing the region – the impact of COVID-19, the devastating effects of climate change and natural disasters, and the fragile economic health of the region as a consequence of inherent vulnerabilities.”

Despite the weakness of health systems in the islands, years of work to prepare for natural disasters and climate change provide an invaluable base for community response to the pandemic. Urban networks and rural villages have established community disaster committees, mapped local vulnerabilities, engaged women and young people, and developed culturally appropriate community education. This culture of adaptation and resilience is coming to the fore in the pandemic response, as people plant new gardens to ward off food insecurity, establish barter networks on social media and navigate the cultural complexities of physical distancing in extended families.

Despite this response, the pandemic has revealed the fault lines of class, race and gender in each Pacific society. It’s also highlighted the constraints for the US and French colonies in the region, which lack full sovereign control over governance, regulation, health systems and borders. The first coronavirus-related death in the Pacific was announced in the US territory of Guam on 22 March. Numbers are changing rapidly, but new cases highlight the way some non-self-governing territories have shown limited capacity to control surges of the disease.

As of 1 September, France’s Pacific dependency of French Polynesia has 573 cases – small by global standards but devastating for a small island state. The local government initially controlled early cases, but under pressure from the battered tourism industry, re-opened borders to international tourists in July. During the month of August, as American and French tourists arrived in “paradise”, there were 511 new cases. 

In contrast, New Caledonia only has 23 cases since March. Indigenous Kanak leaders and the independence movement FLNKS have pressed for strong quarantine measures for international arrivals. The country is less reliant on tourism (benefitting from strong nickel exports) and maintains greater control over the health system under a local political framework known as the Noumea Accord. Arrivals in Wallis and Futuna must transit through New Caledonia, so the small Polynesian territory also remains untouched – so far.

The failure of the Trump administration to respond to the health and economic crisis reverberates in the Pacific. By 1 September, the US territory of Guam had suffered 1,395 cases (with 10 deaths), while the US state of Hawai’i faced 8,472 cases (with 70 deaths). 

Both island groups host US military facilities and the role of police and military as a vector of transmission is striking. The US 7th Fleet, which operates across the Pacific, has been hit by its own COVID-19 crisis. Hundreds of crew from the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

In March, more than 2,200 sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt were moved into empty tourist hotels in Guam to avoid further cross contamination on the warship. Indigenous Chamoru groups angrily protested the threat to hotel staff and the potential pressure on local medical services. There are only two civilian hospitals and – given nearly one third of the land area of Guam is controlled by the US armed forces – US military hospitals should have provided support to the crew. The warship was in dock for two months, after more than 1,100 sailors tested positive.

In early April, foreign ministers from the Pacific Islands Forum – the main regional intergovernmental organisation – agreed to establish a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19.” Island governments want donors to use the humanitarian pathway to assist island governments with medical supplies and equipment as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. However the international response has been entangled in geo-politics, at a time of strategic competition between China and the ANZUS allies. 

While Australia and New Zealand have been supplying humanitarian support – often through their defence forces – support has also come from the Chinese government and state-owned corporations. This is matched by initiatives from Chinese private companies as well as the Jack Ma Foundation, created by the “Chinese Bill Gates”, billionaire tech entrepreneur Jack Ma. Chinese corporations involved in regional infrastructure projects are now branching out to supply medical equipment.

Despite Western concern about China’s strategic intentions in the region, many island governments are eager to diversity their economic and diplomatic ties beyond traditional partners and have welcomed South–South solidarity from China and other nations. COVID geo-politics will likely continue into 2021, as China, the EU and United States compete to share any vaccine with developing countries.

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Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands. He is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and has written and broadcast for Pacnews, Radio Australia, Inside Story and other regional media. He was recently awarded the 2020 Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism by the Walkley Foundation. He tweets at @MaclellanNic Nic is a friend of IPCS.

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