Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversityFiji now heads the grim list of Pacific nations counting their dead from coronavirus, having just passed Papua New Guinea’s toll. So far, 254 Fijians have died from the disease, and the nation is recording 1,000 new cases every day.
But numbers are an inadequate and inaccurate way to calculate the cost of the pandemic in the Pacific. Even in the Pacific’s COVID-free countries, the pandemic casts an ominous shadow.
The Delta variant has drastically altered the situation for the Pacific. It was first detected in Fiji in April and spread quickly. This is despite Fiji being the first Pacific nation to receive AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX program in March.
The Bainimarama government is being blamed for not executing a rapid mass vaccination campaign and not sufficiently locking down the nation. The other contagion accompanying coronavirus around the globe – misinformation – has also been blamed for widespread Fijian vaccine reluctance.
A mandatory vaccination order was issued on July 8 to all government workers. Non-compliance will be punished by job loss. Currently, 25% of Fijians are fully vaccinated. The government has also expanded curfews for the main island and the outbreak epicentre, Viti Levu.
Beyond the urgency of saving lives and halting the disease’s spread, Fiji is also economically devastated by the pandemic. Most Pacific borders were closed by March 2020, instantly cutting the economic lifeblood of tourism.
Being a Pacific hub, Fiji is a dangerous launching point for the Delta strain to other nations. In early July, for example, nine travellers from Fiji arrived in New Zealand infected with COVID-19.
The Solomons and Vanuatu
Repatriating students and their families from Fiji remains a serious concern for both the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The Solomons has decided to repatriate some, but most will remain in Fiji until more vaccines have been administered at home (currently under 3% are fully vaccinated).
Papua New Guinea
PNG’s official toll is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg, as COVID testing was scaled back once vaccinations became the main focus for health authorities. And this was before PNG’s first confirmed case of the Delta variant was announced on July 16.
Again, mass vaccinations are PNG’s only defence. Vaccine donations have arrived from various sources, but only about 1% of the population is fully vaccinated according to available government reporting.
Australia has already donated thousands of doses to PNG and other Pacific nations, but with a reported stockpile of 3 million unused doses of AstraZeneca, the Pacific nations would be obvious places to send these.
Papua and West Papua
Over PNG’s border with Indonesia, COVID-19’s spread is clashing with another surge in political unrest. Tensions had been building again following the rebel killing of an Indonesian general in April. Then Indonesian legislators voted on July 17 to again controversially reshape Papua.
Papuan activists are concerned vaccine distribution will be withheld from rebel populations as an Indonesian tactic to further weaken them. West Papua leader Benny Wenda has called on the West to vaccinate Indigenous Papuans because COVID is an additional existential threat to his people. Wenda’s fears may have foundation. The Papua province has the lowest vaccination rates in Indonesia, at about 6%.
Elsewhere in the Pacific
The news is better in other parts of the Pacific. Numerous Pacific nations, including Tonga, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and American Samoa, have not recorded any confirmed COVID cases. Kiribati recently reported its first case, matching Samoa’s record to date.
The natural isolation of many Pacific populations will protect them for only so long. Analysis of the 1918 influenza epidemic shows outbreaks persisted in the Pacific through to 1921. When it reached the phosphate-mining island of Nauru in 1920, it killed 18% of the local populace.
A century later, Nauru has vaccinated all its adults against COVID and claims this as a “world record”.
Niue has also achieved herd immunity thanks to New Zealand’s swift donation of Pfizer vaccines, a process now being repeated in Tokelau. The Cook Islands, with its more complex geography, nonetheless has a high vaccination rate (55%) sustaining the travel bubble with New Zealand that opened in May 2021.
In the US territory of Guam, where the first COVID death in the Pacific was recorded in March 2020, tourism and vaccinations have merged in a different way. Travellers from Taiwan began taking “vacation and vaccination” trips from early July. While Guam recently reached 80% vaccinated, it also recorded its 142nd death attributed to the pandemic.
Yet Hawaii is seeing the same recent surge as is afflicting mainland US. The Delta variant and July 4 parties have combined to unleash what President Joe Biden called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.
French Polynesia has grappled with the costs of an operating tourist industry since early 2020. Twice, borders have been closed when cases numbers and deaths rose, and then reopened. Now President Edouard Fritch is calling for compulsory vaccinations.
In New Caledonia, COVID has complicated a fractious political situation as it heads towards its final referendum on independence from France in December. In February 2021, a budget crisis exacerbated by COVID’s economic impact led to the collapse of the government. In July, the territory elected its first Kanak pro-independence leader in 40 years, increasing the likelihood of a vote to break with France.
COVID has also added complications to the protracted political crisis in Samoa that ended on July 26. Closed borders prevented non-resident voters returning to cast ballots in the April 9 election that saw Fiame Naomi Mata’afa become prime minister.
Samoa has seen the same economic and social stresses due to COVID as elsewhere in the region. Many saw the introduction and extension of emergency powers by the now-defeated government (despite having only one case and no deaths) as another move towards autocracy. The political crisis has been a drag on all Samoan government functions, not least a sluggish vaccine rollout.
In another disaster, COVID pushes climate change to the backburner
Every Pacific nation faces its own challenges due to COVID. The region also has shared ones. The Pacific Islands Forum lost one-third of its members in February 2021 in part because meetings were held virtually. The fracturing of this regional body comes at a bad moment, not least in the fight against climate change.
Until COVID, this was the immediate existential crisis facing the region. Now activist worry climate change initiatives have stalled at the long-term peril of the region. As the Federated States of Micronesia president has argued, “economies can die and be revived but human beings cannot”. Whether this also applies to the planet remains to be seen.
Jonathan Pryke, Australian National UniversityFor most of the last year, the Pacific Islands have been remarkably isolated from the devastating effects of the COVID crisis. By walling themselves off early from the outside world, most Pacific nations remain completely COVID free.
Historians will look back on this as a remarkable achievement by Pacific nations, and a great credit to the swift actions taken by their leaders.
While isolation has proven itself to be an effective preventative strategy, it is not a perfect one. Border closures have taken an severe toll on these nations’ fledgling economies.
And even the most robust border and quarantine control systems can break down. In the Pacific, the cracks are now starting to show.
Localised outbreaks and lockdowns
With a porous land border with Indonesia and weak quarantine controls, it’s remarkable the virus did not get out of control sooner. However, it is now running unchecked in the capital, Port Moresby, and has spread to every province in the country.
The health system came very close to complete breakdown in March, and despite hopeful signs of case numbers stabilising in the capital (now at a much higher level), the country remains in dire need of further assistance.
Fiji was the most successful nation in the region in containing community transmission a year ago. It, too, is now showing cracks in the armour.
In a familiar story, a soldier working at a quarantine facility caught the virus from a traveller who had recently returned from India. Now identified as the new and extremely infectious Indian strain, it has quickly spread.
Much of the country’s main island of Viti Levu is in lockdown as contact tracing is conducted. While Fiji is the most capable country in the region to handle an outbreak, it also comes at a terrible time for the tourism-dependent nation, which is desperate to reopen to the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Over in Vanuatu, the dead body of a Filipino sailor from a visiting cargo vessel that washed ashore on April 11 tested positive for the virus. The vessel is now in Australian waters, with all but one of the 12 sailors on board testing positive for COVID-19.
Getting vaccines is step one
The solution to the Pacific’s imperfect isolation strategy is the same as Australia’s – vaccines.
Given the enormous global demand for vaccines, and the small size and limited bargaining power of Pacific Island nations, there has been a very real threat they would be left at the back of the queue in the vaccine scramble.
However, assertive work by donor nations like Australia and New Zealand, combined with access to the World Health Organisation-led global COVAX facility, has so far meant Pacific nations are not being left out in the cold.
The North Pacific nations of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau are well on their way to being fully vaccinated courtesy of the United States’ Operation Warp Speed program.
Initial batches of between 4,800-132,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines have also been delivered to Fiji, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu via the COVAX initiative.
Australia sent an emergency batch of 8,000 vaccine doses to PNG in March, and is now sending 10,000 locally produced AstraZeneca doses to the region each week. This number is likely to climb as production ramps up and the appetite for AstraZeneca wanes at home.
Both PNG and the Solomon Islands are adamant that they will not roll out the vaccine until it receives approval by the WHO, but the presence of Chinese vaccines ups the stakes for the vaccine diplomacy battle now underway in the Pacific.
Logistics are now the big challenge
Just two months ago, the worry for most Pacific nations was getting hold of vaccines. For many, the challenge has now quickly morphed to a larger, and much more challenging, question — how to roll them out.
There are enormous challenges involved with an effective rollout campaign in many countries, especially those with many islands like Kiribati or Solomon Islands or with large populations in remote communities spread across mountains and islands, like PNG.
Pacific leaders and health professionals also face widespread misinformation about vaccines, cultural stigma (many Pacific nations have never run an adult vaccination campaign), and logistical challenges related to cold chain storage and their already-stretched health systems.
Illustrating this point, of the 8,000 doses Australia provided to PNG more than a month ago, only 2,900 have been administered. While some nations, like Fiji, have quickly run through their allotted COVAX vaccines, others, such as PNG, run the risk of vaccines expiring before they get into people’s arms.
It will take a much more significant and coordinated effort from Pacific nations, and all of their donor counterparts, to effectively vaccinate the region.
A massive logistics campaign tailored to the needs of each nation must now get underway. NGOs, churches, and the private sector should all be expected to do their part. Alongside this, the Pacific nations need smart and widespread information campaigns to promote the efficacy and importance of the vaccines and help overcome misinformation and stigma.
If more concerted effort is not applied to getting needles into Pacific Islanders’ arms, then at best these countries will be left behind as other economies open up to one another, and at worst quarantine systems will fail and the virus itself will overwhelm their vulnerable systems.
The Pacific region has done extremely well in combating the COVID crisis to date. Let’s not stop now.
News of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials has raised hopes in the Pacific that the hard-hit tourism industry will begin to re-open in 2021.
Even before the vaccine announcements, there was excitement in the Cook Islands over a recent New Zealand government delegation to survey the country’s borders and discuss a potential travel bubble.
Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce chairperson Fletcher Melvin spoke for many when he said:
The New Zealand officials are here, and that has been the biggest breakthrough for many, many months. We are hopeful they will get here and see we are prepared and confirm that we are COVID-free and we are ready to welcome Kiwis back to our shores.
At the same time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dampened hopes of a trans-Tasman bubble before Christmas due to different tolerances for community transmission in New Zealand and Australia.
Beyond the ongoing uncertainty, though, the possibility of a Cook Islands-New Zealand bubble raises further questions about how Pacific tourism can and should be revived in general.
Culture and commerce
Our research examines these questions and provides interesting insights into how Pacific peoples are re-imagining the place of tourism in their lives.
The global pandemic has effectively closed Pacific state borders to international tourists for eight months. With thousands of jobs gone and economies undermined, many people in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and beyond have had to make huge adjustments.
In many cases, they have adapted to the lack of tourism income by drawing on their natural, cultural and spiritual resources. From this we can appreciate the strengths of Pacific cultures and how they might adapt to future uncertainties, including those associated with climate change.
Those affected by the pandemic now report wanting more time for family (including caring for the vulnerable), planting food and fishing, sharing surplus harvests, attending to cultural and religious obligations, relearning traditional skills and strengthening food systems.
Old ways should change
The crisis, while difficult, has allowed people to consider a more regenerative approach to tourism based on well-being and better work-life balance. As one Fijian elder put it:
Tourism must complement our way of life, rather than taking over.
The “old” tourism model is now seen by some as compromising their family’s well-being. Working long hours while commuting daily from a village to a hotel, or spending six weeks away from home at an island resort before getting one week off, is not ideal for parents of young children.
Many are on casual contracts and earn just above the minimum wage: FJ$2.68 (NZ$1.84) per hour in Fiji and NZ$7.60 per hour in Cook Islands.
Most tourism employees want tourism to return, but they hope for better terms, wages and working conditions. While a few called for caps on numbers in heavily touristed areas, others urged governments to open up new locations and promote off-season tourism.
People would also like to see greater local ownership and control of tourism enterprises, including joint ventures, building on existing strengths such as cultural or tropical garden tours and agri-tourism.
Life beyond tourism
Despite 73% of those surveyed living in households that experienced a major decline in income due to COVID-19, 38% were unsure about staying in tourism, or would prefer to find jobs in other areas.
Those interviewed sought more opportunities to pursue higher education, training in IT and trades, and wanted greater government support for creative industries.
This need for economic diversification is acknowledged across the Pacific region. But there has been little progress or policy development by governments to diversify economies in meaningful ways during the pandemic.
Perhaps understandably, given the severe economic pressures, many governments have focused on returning to the way things were. Fiji has enthusiastically urged tourists to return, opening “blue lanes” for yachties and a “bula bubble” for wealthy travellers.
Towards a new model
In this context the pandemic is being seen as an interruption, albeit welcome in some ways, to business as usual. As one Cook Islands elder expressed it:
This time to me is about restoring and renewing things, relationships, and giving our environment time to restore and breathe again before it gets busy, because I’m optimistic we will come out of this. People want to travel.
However, the pandemic should also provide an opportunity for Pacific countries to reset and chart a new way forward. When travel bubbles do open, they should do so in a way that benefits Pacific peoples, complements their way of life, and builds resilience in the process.
If and when Pacific travel is allowed again, the clear calls for culture and well-being to play a more central role in the lives of communities must be heard. One woman, a former resort employee in Fiji, put it well:
This break has given us a new breath of life. We have since analysed and pondered on what are the most important things in life apart from money. We have strengthened our relationships with friends and family, worked together, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. We have strengthened our spiritual life and have never felt better after moving back to the village.
The photo of the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of schoolboys caused a storm on social media earlier this month. Some saw it as a symbol of China’s sinister intentions in the Pacific and others argued it reflected local customs which should be respected.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in its defence,
We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Let’s set aside the argument over the incident itself. I’d just note in passing there were several occasions when, as a senior Australian representative in the region, I had to quietly back away from ceremonies where my involvement could have sent the wrong signal.
The foreign ministry’s statement raises a more important point. As a genuine regional partner, it’s not enough for China to “do as the Romans do”. Those who aspire to a meaningful partnership with the Pacific also need to be clear about what they stand for themselves.
What then, does China stand for in the Pacific? Does it really have what it takes to be a constructive, long-term partner for the region?
What does China want from the Pacific?
There’s been no clear answer to the first question from Beijing, apart from broad statements about “mutual respect and common development”.
China maintains it does not have strategic interests in the region, and that its engagement there is simply a function of its growth.
Many observers point to its hunger for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term objective to establish a naval base there — an unthinkable outcome for Australia.
Others say China’s financial aid is essentially “debt-trap diplomacy”, with unsustainable loans providing a pathway for China to control the strategic assets of Pacific states.
The Lowy Institute has shown that China has not been a major driver behind rising debt in the Pacific, but it nevertheless has a responsibility to help prevent future debt risks. The scale of its lending patterns — and the absence of mechanisms to protect recipients from debt — present substantial hazards for some countries.
There’s been no sign yet that Beijing is prepared to collaborate with western donors as they engage with regional countries to mitigate these risks. This would signal China cares about the region’s sustainability — an important qualification for a genuine partner.
A top-down approach isn’t going to be effective
Chinese representatives sometimes struggle to understand that centralised control is not the Pacific way. In the commercial sphere, effective partnerships require patient management of multiple stakeholder relationships — with landowners, local authorities and environmentalists.
In Papua New Guinea, however, Chinese firms like Shenzen Energy and Ramu Nickel have been disappointed that agreements they have signed with the country’s prime minister haven’t guaranteed smooth project implementation.
China also showed great frustration in the Solomon Islands when provincial leaders thanked Taiwan for coronavirus-related aid, which was delivered after the national government had switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Success also requires conscious support for national development aspirations and a willingness to lean in at difficult moments.
Australia and New Zealand don’t always escape criticism from the region; climate change and labour market access continue to be sore points.
But over time, these traditional partners have shown their commitment to the region’s development through the investment of billions of dollars. They have helped run elections, repeatedly deliver disaster relief and mount stabilisation missions in regional hot spots.
This kind of comprehensive partnership, recently reaffirmed in a new economic and strategic development agreement signed between Australia and PNG, is outside Beijing’s traditional comfort zone.
China hasn’t stepped up with real coronavirus support
The current pandemic poses very serious risks to the fragile economies of the Pacific. It’s an important moment for regional partners to show their commitment.
Beijing has highlighted its Pacific Conference on COVID-19, a video link-up in May between the Chinese vice foreign minister and senior Pacific representatives, as a sign of its support for the region.
But there were no substantive outcomes, and despite multiple press releases, China appears to have announced only A$3.5 million in virus-related regional support.
This contribution by the world’s second-largest economy is about half what one Australian mid-sized company has committed in COVID-19 support to PNG alone.
It also pales in comparison to the A$100 million that Australia announced in March would be redirected from existing aid programs to mitigate the regional effects of the virus.
Australia has also stepped up in other practical ways, for instance, by processing some coronvirus tests from the Pacific, sending rapid diagnostic testing equipment to the region and deploying Australian Medical Assistance Teams to support PNG’s response to rising cases there.
And perhaps most notably, Australia announced recently it will deliver a future coronavirus vaccine to the people of the Pacific, once it’s approved.
China might actually have some things to offer the region, including lessons from its highly successful development model.
But it will need to be more thoughtful about the region’s actual needs and aspirations if it wants to build a substantial and effective partnership with the Pacific in the wake of this pandemic.
Sea level rise is a serious threat to the low-lying islands of the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean. To fight it, their president recently announced he plans to raise the islands to make them habitable as long as possible.
President Taneti Maamau will seek support from China for this ambitious strategy, and recently switched his nation’s allegiance from Taiwan to China to make this happen. It’s a bold move, considering China’s sights are set on military and economic expansion across the Pacific region, yet Maamau insists on maintaining Kiribati’s independence.
Maamau’s response to the looming climate crisis in Kiribati shows he is a president determined not to capitulate to western narratives of vulnerability.
Unlike President Anote Tong before him, who held the widely commended policy of migration, the Maamau viewpoint is not simply a difference of opinion – it’s a culturally grounded expression of human dignity.
Kiribati is made up of atolls – the sinking summits of volcanic islands from the flanks of which coral reefs grow upwards. Unconsolidated sands and gravels tossed up onto these reefs by storm waves form the atoll islands, which are typically narrow, sinuous and low.
Most of us cannot imagine the everyday challenges of life there. The ocean is omnipresent, impossible to ignore, and a threat that could extinguish life on the island with just a short-lived flourish.
But for too long, the people of Kiribati have been pummelled and demeaned by global narratives that treat them as vulnerable.
This view ignores the fact that proud peoples have lived on atolls in the equatorial Pacific for millennia, surviving countless disasters.
For example, the people of Pukapuka Atoll in the northern Cook Islands speak of a night about 400 years ago as “te mate wolo” (the great death). Then, a giant wave washed over the island, destroying all the houses and food gardens, and killing everyone save two women and 17 men who were left to rebuild Pukapukan society.
Fight or flight
By the end of this century, the average global sea level may be over a metre higher than today. The highest point of most atolls in Kiribati (and elsewhere) is less than three metres.
Such stark figures might ring alarm bells for those pondering atoll life, but many atoll islands show few signs of shrinking. That said, no scientists studying this unexpected resilience believe the situation will last indefinitely.
Like sprawling low-lying river deltas and low-lying coasts in every part of the world, the effect of rising sea level for the remainder of the 21st century and beyond will force profound changes to coastal geographies – atoll islands included.
There are two ways to respond. One is to agree with the Western narrative and accept that the rapidly rising sea level will progressively eat away at the fabric of your islands until they become uninhabitable, and eventually submerged. This idea of moving elsewhere – to a less fragile place – is a natural response, and the view former Kiribati president Anote Tong held.
But Tong is no longer in charge. Taneti Maamau has been elected president of Kiribati in the last two elections. His response, which clearly has popular appeal given his latest resounding win, 26,053 to 17,866, is quite different.
He is confronting the overwhelmingly negative international rhetoric about atoll futures, designing and driving a way forward that will ensure livelihoods can be sustained in Kiribati for the foreseeable future.
He needs help, a role China appears willing to assume, but on his own terms – no large loans and no military bases.
Whether this position proves realistic is uncertain. Like many smaller Pacific Island countries, Kiribati has exhibited a growing dependence on foreign aid for the provision of basic services over the past few decades.
However, such dependence is unsustainable given the likely soaring costs of domestic adaptation to climate change in donor countries.
Yet Kiribati is a special case. Its Exclusive Economic Zone (where it claims exclusive rights for economic activities such as fishing or drilling) covers a huge area of almost 3.5 million square kilometres, giving it a bargaining chip with more affluent yet less well-endowed nations.
Raising the islands
Today, raised causeways connect many atoll islands rising from the same reef for people and vehicles to cross.
Causeways are relatively cheap to construct but also inhibit water movements between atoll lagoons and the surrounding ocean, focusing wave attack on particular parts of islands.
Maamau’s plan is to replace these causeways with bridges, to improve lagoon-ocean water exchange and perhaps help restore island coasts to their natural state. It’s an expensive and engineeringly-challenging solution the Chinese are likely to relish given their construction of lengthy bridges at home.
In addition, Maamau’s government will deploy dredgers to suck up vast quantities of sand from lagoon floors and dump it along exposed island coasts, not just for protection but also to build up more land for planting crops.
This is a short-term low-cost solution, but one likely to prove sustainable for only a few decades at most, given the expected increases in prolonged island inundation in this region.
It would be a tragedy if Pacific Island countries, their people and their cultures, became lost a century or more from now.
But as the pandemic has reminded us, we in developed countries are much like the people of the atolls: we’re living on the edge and want to believe life is indefinitely sustainable where we are. The truth is, we have to adjust to survive.
Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, Adjunct Research Fellow in Geography and Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast