Pacific islands bucking odds to remain COVID-free

Guam National Guard-main
A member of the Guam Army National Guard at a COVID-19 isolation site in Tamuning, Guam. Copyright: JoAnna Delfin/U.S. Army National Guard (CC BY 2.0).

Speed read

  • Of the 22 Pacific island states, 16 are still COVID-19 free
  • The islands pool resources and coordinate responses to fight the virus
  • But Cyclone Harold disrupts plans based on social distancing

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[WELLINGTON] Of the 22 Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICT), 16 are still COVID-19 free and the remote region is still regarded as the world’s safest refuge from the rapidly spreading virus.  
As of 7 April, a total of 198 cases and five deaths have been reported from the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.
“This is something we can be proud of — PICTs have been very proactive in this pandemic situation,” says Paula Vivili, the Pacific Community’s public health director. 

“This is something we can be proud of — PICTs have been very proactive in this pandemic situation”

Paula Vivili, Pacific Community

“From early January, all countries have been working hard to contain the spread of COVID-19,” says Angela Merianos, coordinator for the Pacific Health Security and Communicable Diseases of the World Health Organization (WHO). “All islands have created national plans for this disease, mobilising people and resources across government, engaging with their communities and implementing strategies to control COVID-19.”
PICTs moved early to stop entry of the virus into the island territories by closing borders, cancelling flights and most cargoes, with only few essential goods allowed in remote islands, imposing a quarantine regime on those returning home and restricting social activities.
“All communities took it very seriously — church services, traditional meeting places and wedding events don’t occur anymore,” says Vivili. “It is the first time ever that we have experienced such a situation, but nobody is complaining.”
But being far from everything also makes the COVID-19 response a regional challenge. Of the 22 islands, only five – Fiji, Guam, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea – have laboratories capable of running tests for COVID-19. Other islands need to prepare the samples and send it to these five islands or to Australia and New Zealand.
“In a pandemic situation, where planes stay on the ground, you can imagine that it is a big issue,” says Vivili.

COVID cases in the Pacific

PICTs have reported 198 cases and 5 deaths, excluding the number of cases from USS Theodore Roosevelt currently docked in Guam. Copyright : SPC 

If the COVID-19 spreads, Pacific communities are very much at risk. A number of studies have shown that obesity is a big problem in the island states and a number of the residents have health issues as a result. Between 20—40 per cent of the population has diabetes, while lung and respiratory diseases are common. This could imply intensive care if infected by COVID-19. But, on average, each Pacific island has only five intensive care beds.  
Since January, Merianos has been coordinating the Pacific Joint Incident Management Team for COVID-19. Along with other UN organisations and partners such as the Fiji-based Pacific Community, she has helped pool resources to assist Pacific countries on response actions and ensure availability of laboratory services, personal protective equipment and medical supplies.  
Over the next few weeks, the Pacific islands will have the capability to test people on site using existing equipment for testing for TB but modified for COVID-19.  
“The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is facilitating a humanitarian pathway to ensure that essential support and movements can continue between countries,” says Merianos.

For now, COVID-19 management in the Pacific islands appears under control, but this could change with extreme external events, such as Cyclone Harold. After the tropical cyclone hit landfall in northern Vanuatu on Monday, the government allowed people to shelter and congregate in evacuation centres, waiving social distancing rules put in place to prevent transmission of the highly contagious virus. In Fiji, a country with 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the category 4 storm forced on Wednesday 1,778 people to move into 69 evacuation centres.

Cyclone Harold
On April 6th 2020, Harold hit north part of Vanuatu with gusts winds of 235 km/h. copyright : NASA, DP

There are also worries that an extended closing of borders could have a dramatic economic impact on the Pacific Islands. “Most countries rely on tourism, and these months are the high season. All exports are stopped and we don’t expect a return to normal before the end of the year,” says Vivili. 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.