Pandemic in the Pacific – the double-edged sword of isolation in a time of crisis
Of the 16 countries yet to report a coronavirus case (as of15 April 2020), 12 were small island states. Their relative isolation and the ability to effectively close borders at short notice may have helped to keep coronavirus pandemic which has left some of the most developed and affluent countries in the world reeling from overwhelming infection and death rates at bay. But while some small island developing states (SIDS) may, as yet, be mercifully free of the covid-19 infection, the pandemic is exacerbating the vulnerability of SIDS to global shocks that affect their populations’ rights very seriously.
The threat of pandemic is acute for SIDS with limited health resources and infrastructure. Samoa, which has so far had no reported cases of coronavirus, was hit hard by a measles epidemic just last October which put huge strain on the government. And lower immunity to outside diseases means SIDS populations can suffer higher mortality rates when infections hit them – in the 1918 global flu pandemic, Tahiti, Tonga and Samoa lost up to 20% of their populations due to lack of previous exposure. When infections do arrive in such small countries, their health infrastructure is quickly overrun as they have limited resources to deal with mass outbreaks and very little ability to reach out across borders for assistance. Vanuatu, another country so far free of covid-19 has only 2 intensive care beds. Should the virus hit, the healthcare system would be absolutely incapable of responding to the scale of the problem and it is certain that many lives would be lost. Vanuatu is not alone, most SIDS have very limited capacity in their healthcare systems reflecting the small size of their populations and limited finances and technical resources.
But Covid-19 is not the only problem threatening lives in SIDS. This month Tropical Cyclone Harold hit several SIDS in the Pacific with devastating consequences highlighting their vulnerability to climactic events and the challenges of their isolation. In the Solomon Islands, 27 people died tragically when a ferry was sunk in the storm. The boat had set out despite weather warnings because people were desperate to get home to neighbouring islands before the threatened lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus prevented them from moving. While in Vanuatu, hit hard by Tropical Cyclone Harold, the humanitarian response has shown the deeper impacts of the coronavirus crisis with charitable donations to help the relief effort hugely depleted and crucial supplies sent from Australia having to be held for days in quarantine before they can be taken to devastated communities. The country has also prohibited foreign personnel entering to help with the relief effort in line with the border closure to prevent the virus reaching its shores. With an estimated 160,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance, 90% of buildings and infrastructure destroyed in some islands and infection rates rising in the aftermath of the cyclone, the country may be free of coronavirus, but it is by no means untouched by the global pandemic.
Fiji, another country hit directly by Tropical Cyclone Harold is having to manage that devastation while also struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus. While many of us are being told to stay at home, in Fiji, thousands have been left without homes to stay in. The country had introduced strict social distancing rules, extensive testing and a curfew in an effort to contain the virus in moves that appeared to be having some success as the infection rate was limited, but in makeshift shelters, social distancing is a distant dream.
Coronavirus is changing the world we live in, impacting human rights and highlighting inequality and gaps and failings in our systems in countries large and small. But the seismic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable and isolated SIDS goes far beyond the terrifying reality of global death tolls. Tight controls on freedom of movement have caused women’s groups in Fiji to worry about a spike in domestic violence cases. The challenges of size mean that even relatively low infection and mortality rates can have a huge impact on basic services that rely on a very small number of people to carry out essential tasks for governance and infrastructure. Lockdown and closed borders make it even harder than usual for human rights defenders and journalists to challenge government policy and practice and support vulnerable communities. Fear of the virus has led to many countries considering draconian measures which would never be accepted in normal times. Monitoring these developments in small, remote locations Even for those islands who may succeed in keeping the virus out, the economic impact of the implosion of global tourism combined with a downturn in aid and the ongoing cycle of natural disasters fuelled by climate change creates an existential challenge. Islands are both uniquely placed to keep out infection and particularly susceptible to the impact of global shocks. A pandemic requires a global response to protect lives and ensure that human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights are truly universal. We must make sure that vulnerable SIDS are not forgotten when the world starts healing its wounds after this crisis is over.