Apr 01, 2020

Coronavirus in the Pacific

Infection figures remain low for the Pacific, but they have more than doubled since last week. The WHO reports more than 120 positive cases in the Pacific, excluding Australia and New Zealand. The second Covid-19-related death in the region was confirmed on Tuesday afternoon; both deaths occurred in Guam.

Below is an article by The Guardian. Photograph: Kalo Fainu/The Guardian

International travel bans have hamstrung testing efforts. Only Papua New Guinea and Fiji currently have any domestic testing capability. China is stealing a march on other development partners, with France Info Polynesie reporting that a plane containing medical supplies, including four million masks had arrived from China. China is also slated to deliver ventilators and test kits to Vanuatu, reports the Vanuatu Daily Post.

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has sought to reassure Pacific island nations. After a meeting of G20 leaders, he said Australia “would be taking particular responsibility, with our cousins across the ditch in New Zealand, to ensure that we do everything we can to support our Pacific family.”

Fears continue about the impact of the outbreak on Pacific economies, with economists telling the Guardian that they expect double digit drops in GDP in nations that depend on tourism and remittances.

A woman washes her hands at the running water station which was set up as a requirement to keep the Gunanur market running in accordance with state of emergency measures cross East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea.


What has happened this week?

Guam is the region’s hotspot with two deaths and 58 cases, nearly double last week’s total. Seven people have recovered. The Pacific Daily News reports that local authorities have been promised more testing kits by the US government and are sourcing others from Asia, but there are fears the island is fast approaching capacity in its hospitals and deaths could increase.

French Polynesia has 35 confirmed cases. A planeload of supplies arrived last week from China carrying equipment and medical supplies, including four million masks.

New Caledonia has 15 cases.

Fiji has five confirmed cases. More than 30 fever clinics have been established nationwide. The government reports that 346 tests have been conducted.

Papua New Guinea has one confirmed case. The health minister has advised that 85 tests have been done in-country and that PPE distribution has commenced. The National reports that 97 contacts of the confirmed case are urgently being sought.

West Papua: In the Indonesian region, which shares a border with PNG, the region’s Covid-19 taskforce has recorded seven cases. A local media outlet, Tabloid Jubi, reported one death. Indonesian authorities reported 22 cases in Jayapura and 10 in Merauke.

The Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) has two confirmed cases, who are now in isolation. Authorities are conducting contact tracing. CNMI, home to 55,000 people, doesn’t have the ability to conduct local tests and so has been sending specimens to Guam, but Guam’s public health director Linda Denorcey said Guam was only testing up to five specimens from the Marianas per day.

Palau: One person, who travelled from Guam on 16 March, is under investigation. Taiwan has committed to helping the nation fight the virus.

Vanuatu has no cases. A cyclone could hit the southern half of the country on Monday or Tuesday.

Tonga has no recorded cases. A total of eight suspected cases have been tested, with all results now returned negative.

Solomon Islands has no reported cases. The Solomon Star reported that massive crowds gathered at Honiara wharves following the Prime Minister’s call for people to return to their home islands if they could.


What are Pacific governments doing?

The Pope’s planned visit to Papua New Guinea has been postponed indefinitely. The government faces an economic crisis as revenues from mining and other resource projects have slowed to a trickle. Speaking on background, advisors to the government told the Guardian the nation faces a graver crisis by far than the turbulent years of the late 1990s, which saw widespread unrest. Roughly 4,000 nurses are expected to strike this week over fears that the nation is utterly unprepared. Prime minister James Marape tried to assuage their fears, announcing that distribution of PPEs was already underway.

Fiji: A curfew from 10pm and 5am was imposed on Monday and more than 100 checkpoints have been set up around the country to limit local travel. Extensive contact tracing of the confirmed cases is taking place, with people ordered to self-quarantine if they had any interaction with the confirmed cases. A number of people, including an opposition MP, have been charged with spreading misinformation about Covid-19. The government has announced a US $400 million stimulus package, which includes wage subsidies for tourism workers. MPs, including government ministers, will take a 20% pay cut.

Solomon Islands: A state of emergency has been declared, but there is no official lockdown as yet. Solomon Airlines has suspended all commercial flights to and from Australia. The National Referral Hospital in Honiara has implemented emergency measures including suspension of non-essential procedures and limits on visiting.

Vanuatu: A state of emergency has been declared. A curfew has been imposed on businesses and public transport, and commercial domestic air travel was suspended on 30 March.

Samoa: A state of emergency remains in place and all international travel in and out of the country has been suspended. The country has been in lockdown since midnight on 25 March and the government has said that those breaching the regulations will be fined.

Tonga: Schools were closed on 27 March for a two-week period. A full lockdown was initiated at 1am on Sunday 29 March, lasting one week.

Kiribati: There have been no reported cases, but president has announced a state of public emergency, which includes a partial shutdown. Schools will be closed for a period of two weeks from 30 March.

Nauru: Strict quarantining measures are being applied in relation to anyone entering the contry. Taiwan is to provide a testing machine so that samples from any suspected cases can be tested in country.

French Polynesia: A curfew from 8pm to 5 am daily is in place and will remain until 15 April. Hospital staff stand outside the Tanunda War Memorial Hospital clinic, a dedicated Covid-19 testing clinic to deal with the expected uptick in cases, in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. Photograph: David Mariuz/EPA


Australia and New Zealand

The number of confirmed cases in Australia stands at more than 4,000, almost half of them in New South Wales. Nineteen people have died. Increased restrictions on people’s movements have been introduced at federal and state levels. All Australians returning from overseas are being forcibly quarantined in hotels on entry into the country.

New Zealand’s four-week lockdown began on 25 March. The first Covid-19 related death was recorded last weekend. NZ has roughly 600 confirmed cases.


Fake news

In Fiji there have been a number of arrests and charges against people allegedly spreading misinformation, particularly via social media. Among those who have been charged is Lynda Tabuya, a member of parliament in the opposition.


What did they say

Self-quarantine isn’t a voluntary measure. It’s not simply a ‘nice thing to do’. It is a compulsory, legally-mandated order. And these Fijians will be investigated. If necessary, they will be arrested, charged and punished accordingly. So, if you have been directed to self-quarantine and you’re hearing this message, ask yourself: Where would you rather be? Quarantined in the comfort of your home for 14 days, or in prison for violating the law?

- Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji


Good news

In Vanuatu, the popular Wan Smolbag theatre group have turned their talents to providing short public awareness videos. They include advice to bus drivers about keeping their vehicles clean and how to manage questions of etiquette at funerals in this time of physical distancing. Local language education is essential to success in the Pacific.