Currency, coconuts and coronavirus: rough seas ahead for the Pacific Islands
Photo credit: Niki Kuautonga, Illustration credit: Alexandra Ioana Enache

As COVID-19 was beginning to emerge in Wuhan, a small island nation in the South Pacific was battling an epidemic of its own. Samoa faced an unprecedented measles outbreak, sparking a six-week state of emergency from mid-November to the end of December. On December 29, as Hubei hospitals disclosed four cases of a “pneumonia of unknown etiology”, Samoa reported 81 deaths – the overwhelming majority young children and babies.

The measles crisis was largely attributed to travellers from Auckland, New Zealand, which had experienced its own outbreak earlier in the year. With the fragility of its public health services exposed, Samoa shut its borders when COVID-19 began to spread around the world earlier this year.  Most other South Pacific nations followed suit. Thanks to these efforts, most of the Pacific Islands have avoided COVID-19.

Out of the twelve nations that have so far not reported any COVID-19 cases, ten are in the Pacific Islands. Even in the parts of the Pacific Islands that have reported cases, numbers are rapidly declining and community transmission has been low. Fiji was even able to join the ranks of New Zealand last week in declaring that it had now eradicated the virus. All in all, efforts to keep COVID-19 out of the South Pacific appear to have been a roaring success – but where do the Pacific Islands go from here?

While COVID-19 has not yet sparked mass deaths in these islands, it has wrecked destruction in another form. Heavily dependent on tourism and the import of essential goods, any disruptions to the world economy were bound to hit the Pacific Islands hard. Ports that were once packed with cruise ships of Australians, New Zealanders, and Americans are now empty. Boutique hotels, normally frequented by couples in search of a romantic holiday, are now also empty. Markets once crowded with bubus (grandmothers) who sold handmade crafts to tourists are now desolate.

This has translated into mass unemployment and a widespread economic crisis. Fiji Airways has announced that it plans to cut 51% of its staff (amounting to 758 employees) and permanently reduce pay for remaining staff by 20%. In Samoa, 70 hotels and resorts have already collapsed. Vanuatu – already feeling the economic effects of COVID-19 – was hit by a category-5 cyclone (Cyclone Harold) in early April, further dampening the prospects of a quick economic comeback. All of this has had a massive effect on the day-to-day lives of most of those living in the Pacific Islands. Essential goods, imported from their larger neighbours, have risen dramatically in price. Many women have been forced to choose between food or sanitary products.

However, worse is likely still to come. Research by Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) predicts further job losses and massive hits to GDP. The Cook Islands – which have recorded no cases on its shores – are set to miss out on 141,100 air arrivals over the next three months, and their GDP is set to decline by 60.4%. ANZ also predicts that Fiji and Vanuatu could respectively lose nearly 25% and 40% of their total jobs as a result of no tourists in the immediate future. As the economies of the Pacific Island nations are so closely tied to tourism, it will be an upwards battle to recover.

Thankfully, plans are already in place to supply emergency assistance from organisations and other nations. The World Bank has secured US$8.4 million for Tonga to strengthen its economic resilience and to better prepare its health sector for a further outbreak. Likewise, the International Monetary Fund approved US$22.03 million to help Samoa pay its debts, with the aim of putting the country in a better place to support its struggling private businesses. However, long-term solutions are required if the region is to thrive rather than just survive.  

A possible solution is participation in the proposed travel ‘bubble’ between Australia and New Zealand, whereby tourists from these nations could travel freely while borders are still closed to those outside. Holidaymakers from Australia and New Zealand, key tourist markets for the Pacific Islands, could do a great deal for helping rejuvenate the region’s economy. Likewise, a bubble would also allow Pacific Islanders to travel to their neighbours not only for leisure, but for educational and medical reasons, as was commonplace before COVID-19.  

Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, has already acknowledged that “our broader Pacific family” could be the next to be included in the arrangement between Australia and New Zealand. However, progress has been cautious. Winston Peters, the New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, told Newshub that “The last thing we want to do is imperil those populations”.

There are still very real fears about the potential impact of widespread community transmission in the Pacific Islands, if the bubble failed to be effective. Visiting Fiji and the Cook Islands has always revealed islands of contrast – while resorts and beach-front hotels have attracted glamour and Instagram models, the lives of ordinary Pasifika families are a far-cry from this. With cases of extreme poverty, remote communities, and fragile public health infrastructure, it would be difficult to stop a pandemic if it gained a strong foothold in these communities. Pasifika populations have also been shown to have higher proportions of comorbidities (such as diabetes) than their white peers, meaning that COVID-19 could be especially deadly.

The Pacific Islands therefore faces a difficult choice – do they risk opening their borders to potential new outbreaks, or do they survive on aid money for as long as they can before their economy crashes? While the Pacific Islands may have avoided the worst of the health effects of COVID-19 – for now – it has been devasted in other ways. While climate change was poised to be the biggest threat for the Pacific Islands as we entered this decade, do we now have a new challenger?