Coronavirus: Risk of devastation if vulnerable Pacific nations can’t control spread

Police at the Natalau checkpoint in Lautoka. PM Voreqe Bainimarama has warned Fijians intending to disregard border protection measures that they would be dealt with according to the seriousness of the offence. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

WELLINGTON/AUCKLAND, 24 MARCH 2020 (STUFF NZ) – Pacific Island nations are staring down the barrel of devastation if the coronavirus is able to spread across the Pacific.

And humanitarian organisations who are the first-line of defence in times of crisis are preparing to fight the disease alongside our neighbours, but their ammunition may be limited as donations dry up in one of the worst global health crises in modern times.

It is something the sector, which relies predominantly on donations, is working hard to ensure does not affect their work in the Pacific as they look at new ways of managing in this new era.

As they grapple with how to raise funds, the small island nations are feeling the impact of Covid-19. The first wave was the death of tourism due to the global shutdown which has crippled already fragile Pacific economies.

The second wave is slowly building as suspected and confirmed cases begin to plague the already vulnerable communities.

And they have not been immune to loss, there are currently 15 confirmed cases in Guam with one death. Of the nine suspected cases in Samoa, seven have returned negative results and the results for the remaining two are still to be received.

In Fiji there have been three confirmed cases.

Tonga and Samoa have implemented state of emergency sanctions.

The coming months for the Pacific weigh heavily on the mind of Josie Pagani, the executive director of the Council for International Development, a national umbrella organisation for New Zealand humanitarian organisations working in development (CIDS).

More than 40 humanitarian organisations belong to CIDS.

Pagani says all New Zealand humanitarian aid workers have been brought home from the Pacific but are working at full capacity and using technology to ensure our Pacific neighbours are still supported through the pandemic.

The developing crisis at home and abroad has Pagani worried.

Humanitarian groups are NGOs (non-government organisations) that depend heavily on public donations. With the current climate, donations have understandably taken a hit.

She said the massive problem will be waiting for aid workers as the smoke clears in a few months’ time and Pagani had a plea for Kiwis who were in a position to help.

“To all New Zealanders, while you’re looking after your families and your communities, and that’s your priority, don’t forget that our nearest cousins, brothers and sisters in the Pacific need our help too and they’re in a much more vulnerable position than us,” she said.

“If you can keep donating to the charities that you already donate too, please keep doing that and look out for any fundraising that does come your way. Please we need your help.”

Pagani said with the Pacific economies taking a hit with falling tourism, it was impacting hard on already vulnerable communities and said in the coming weeks they will discuss a collaborative approach to the Pacific with the New Zealand Government.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the country would go into insolation from Wednesday midnight, moving the country from Covid-19 alert level two through to alert level four.

Currently, New Zealand has 102 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with more expected.

The developing crisis in New Zealand hasn’t stopped humanitarian work. Pagani said the help must continue despite the financial setbacks.

“We’ve already had discussions amongst all the charities about collaborating at that time so that we’re working together and whoever can provide help we’ll do it in a coordinated manner and we’ll do it in coordination with the New Zealand government.”

And it’s a challenge UNICEF NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn has been working to overcome as her team continues to aid those in the Pacific.

UNICEF responds to almost 300 emergencies every year, including the recent Samoan measles outbreak in 2019.

“The pandemic has definitely shifted the (Samoan) national priorities to Covid-19 but Unicef NZ appreciates the Pacific Island government’s efforts in addressing the work post measles outbreak as well as working on preparedness and response plans for Covid-19,” Maidaborn said.

“The gains from the measles outbreak response are solid platforms for the Covid-19 response. Pacific authorities have been collaborating and sharing information with Unicef and World Health Organisation. Unicef is monitoring the situation on the ground and is ready to increase its assistance when needed.”

And Maidaborn knows the potential a virus like Covid-19 will have on the Pacific’s most vulnerable countries if it isn’t stopped in its tracks. The Pacific islands have numerous issues that need urgent addressing like access to fresh water for rural villages and the lack of medical equipment to deal with the virus.

“We are in a completely unique situation,” Maidaborn said.

“We have to see the Pacific as our neighbourhood and we have to continue to support them and other vulnerable communities. Countries are running out of medical supplies – masks, gowns, gloves, goggles and swabs. Unicef is racing against time to fill the supply gaps. We’re scaling up our efforts to deliver tonnes of medical supplies around the world. We’re even supplying oxygen equipment, desperately needed by the most severely ill.

“We know that hand washing with clean water and soap is the first line of defence against Covid-19 and yet so many people can’t access clean water in the Pacific. It’s critical that we continue to provide clean water and soap.”

But for now, Pagani says New Zealand humanitarian workers will continue to support our Pacific neighbours during this unprecedented health crisis.

And they’re fighting battles on many fronts in the Pacific that range from vulnerable communities with compromised health problems and ill-equipped Pacific hospitals which would not be able to handle a crisis of this magnitude if it spread.

“We hope to God that the rollout of the virus through the Pacific doesn’t accelerate and they’re able to contain it,” she said.

“We’ve got health systems in the Pacific that are in no way ready to respond to massive needs… so if it gets out of control in the Pacific it will be really devastating,” said Pagani.

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