Approximately four months after COVID-19 was first detected, the South Pacific Islands have not yet reported any cases of the infectious disease. Recognising the threats the spread of this disease would cause, the governments of these small island nations immediately began instituting travel bans to prevent incoming passengers, and in some cases, even denying permission to cruise ships and cargo ships.
In March, reports emerged of wealthy American citizens attempting to escape the coronavirus outbreak by travelling to New Zealand — one of the Pacific island nations that has recorded COVID-19 infections but at lower rates — to take “shelter” in multi-million dollar bunkers, before the country closed its borders to foreigners.
The archipelagos in the South Pacific constitute island nations with complex diplomatic statuses — some are independent nations with defence and immigration agreements with the nearby nations of New Zealand and Australia, whereas some others are completely independent. Some are territories while others are associated states.
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Which South Pacific islands have recorded cases of COVID-19?
Fiji recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 19, four days after the country closed its borders to international travellers. Thereafter, the infection spread through people who had come into contact with the first patient, a Fiji Airways flight attendant. Since the last week of April, the country has not recorded any cases of COVID-19.
Guam, a territory of the US in the South Pacific, witnessed an outbreak among the staff onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Since the outbreak began in mid-March, there have been more than 150 registered COVID-19 cases in the territory. New Caledonia also recorded its first COVID-19 cases in mid-March, with links to overseas travel. However, it was reported that by the end of the first week of May, all 15 cases of infections had recovered.
The Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru have no recorded cases of COVID-19.
What impact will COVID-19 have on Pacific island nations?
A widespread outbreak of COVID-19 will have a disastrous impact on these island nations. This was one reason why many governments closed their borders to international passengers starting in the last week of January itself, when news of the outbreak first emerged. Although the South Pacific islands are popular with tourists, the outer islands and rural villages are home to indigenous populations. Most of these areas have very basic infrastructure for healthcare, with larger hospitals and medical centers located in bigger towns.
Even in everyday circumstances, these small medical centers struggle due to the lack of medical supplies. An outbreak like COVID-19, that even hospitals in cities like London and New York are struggling to tackle, would be impossible to manage for these small hospitals.
Very few of these island nations even have the ability to undertake tests for COVID-19. Hence these samples are being sent to testing centres in Australia and New Zealand. Taiwan has sent face masks and thermal guns to its four allies in the region, Tuvalu, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Palau. For the past few years, China has been making attempts to use its economic and diplomatic might to break these ties that Taiwan has to countries in the South Pacific.
The Pacific also has some of the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases, and underlying conditions make individuals more susceptible to COVID-19. Researchers have said that socio-cultural factors, like the prevalence of large families in this region, also make the individuals susceptible to community transmission. There is also a lack of access to running water, making sanitation difficult.
Environmental factors like the seasonal tropical cyclone that swept through the region in April, led to the displacement of hundreds of people in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga. These people were transferred to temporary shelters where shortages of essentials like water and soap and other hygiene products were reported. An outbreak of COVID-19 would further exacerbate the challenging circumstances in which these displaced individuals have been managing to live.
Most of these island nations are also heavily dependent on tourism, where in some cases, according to a report by the AFP, the industry contributes to 50% of the GDP. Closing their borders to international arrivals would impact their economies. These countries are also reliant on importing and exporting products, including food, and a long-term lockdown will impact those sectors as well. While many of these island nations have managed to control a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, a opening up their borders would once again leave them susceptible to a spike in cases that they may not be able to control, especially if people from severely-infected nations like the US look to escape to these tropical islands for their personal safety.
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