Coronavirus in the Pacific: weekly briefing

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Tess Newton Cain
Composite: Getty

Here is the latest news about the Covid-19 outbreak across the Pacific, from Dan McGarry and Tess Newton Cain on Wednesday 27 May.

The total number of cases of Covid-19 infection across the region stands at 292, an increase of 15 since last week, the majority of which were in Guam.

The economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic looms larger and larger in the region as fears of widespread infection subside. This week, Fiji Airways delivered termination letters to 758 staff, including all of its cabin crews. Covid-19 was cited as the cause. Staff will be asked to reapply for their positions should they become open again.

In Tonga, the prime minister has recommended that parliamentarians take a 20% pay cut due to the massive budget hole facing the country.

Related: 'Bring our boys back home': rugby team from Tonga trapped in New Zealand due to Covid-19

The virus crisis is fuelling a drive by many Pacific island countries to reduce their reliance on tourism, replacing it with output from other sectors, including the creative economy.

What has happened this week?

  • West Papua: RNZ reports that the region has seen more than 65 new cases in just days, bringing the total to roughly 685 confirmed cases. PNG authorities are expressing increasing concern about spillover across their very porous border. Gunmen accused by a local military commander of being independence fighters attacked two health workers in the restive area.

  • Guam: With 166 confirmed cases, Guam remains the hardest-hit Pacific nation. A recently announced new case has given pause to the government, which had been prepared to begin loosening restrictions. The person reported having recently travelled from the continental United States.

  • CNMI: A new case has been reported, bringing the total to 22, with two deaths. Nonetheless, the government has gone ahead with easing some of the restrictions in place.

  • Papua New Guinea: The country is steady at eight cases, all of whom have recovered. But that number may drop with the revelation that the first confirmed case has tested negative for virus antibodies, suggesting she may never have had the virus. All eyes are now on the border with Indonesia, where new case numbers appear to be spiralling out of control.

  • French Pacific territories: Cases in French Polynesia and New Caledonia remain stable, with 60 and 18 respectively.

  • Fiji: The number of confirmed cases is stable at 18 and it has been more than a month since the last new case was reported. Schools were scheduled to reopen on 15 June, but the prime minister has confirmed they will stay closed until there are no Covid-19 cases in the country.

  • Solomon Islands: The country is now able to do testing in-country, thanks to donations of equipment from Australia and China. Repatriation of citizens from Australia, Fiji and Vanuatu began this week. All returning citizens and residents will be required to undergo mandatory quarantine on arrival into Honiara.

  • Vanuatu: The country remains virus-free. The first repatriation flight is expected this week, originating in Solomon Islands, which is also virus-free. The announcement came just days after the public health director announced that the country’s new quarantine and treatment unit was ready for use.

  • Marshall Islands: After weeks of negotiations and preparations, United Airlines was able to land an “island hopper” flight at Majuro. Essential supplies were carried on the plane, including cash for the Bank of Guam, which was brought by a courier. Meanwhile, the mayor of Dubuque, Iowa, has appealed to the state’s congressional leaders to advocate for people from the Marshall Islands to be provided with health insurance or Medicaid coverage. The Marshallese death toll from Covid-19 in Dubuque amounts to 40% of the county’s total, despite the Marshallese community making up just 1% of the overall population.

Related: Coronavirus in the Pacific: sign up for weekly email updates

What are Pacific governments doing?

  • Papua New Guinea: Concerns remain about the level of testing done by the government. To date, slightly fewer than 3,000 tests have been conducted on a population of nearly 9 million.

  • Fiji: Economy minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum was accused by Pacific island neighbours of trying to jump the queue when he made a direct pitch to the governments of Australia and New Zealand to include Fiji in a proposed regional travel bubble. The move was supported by Australian officials.

  • Solomon Islands: Prime minister Manasseh Sogavare pushed back against claims that his government was using the pandemic to ignore the constitution, saying that the constitutionality of state-of-emergency provisions is a matter for the courts. For reasons not entirely made clear, the government announced a three-day practice lockdown of the capital last week.

  • Vanuatu: The government’s new chair of the citizenship commission has cited the nation’s passport sale program as the primary reason the country has been able to afford one of the most lavish bailout packages in the Pacific. This, he says, is reason enough to consider expanding the program even further. The sale of passports has been the subject of considerable controversy since its inception, but it is also responsible for the country’s cash reserves.

  • Samoa: Uncertainty still reigns over the isolation and quarantine requirements for a group of six VIPs, including the nation’s new chief justice, who arrived recently in Apia. Further repatriation flights are expected but it is not known when they will occur. The prime minister has indicated that returning citizens and residents may be required to contribute to the costs of their quarantine on arrival in the country.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia’s total of Covid-19 infections stands at just over 7,100, with 102 deaths. New Zealand has seen just over 1,500 cases and 21 deaths. Jacinda Ardern announced that from Friday, gatherings of up to 100 people would be permitted, allowing for larger weddings, funerals and religious services.

Talks are ongoing between Australian and New Zealand officials about a “trans-Tasman bubble”. There are mixed messages as to how Pacific island countries may be able to be part of this. To date, Pacific island officials have not been invited to be part of these conversations, even though a number of leaders have indicated they would like to be included.

What did they say?

To date, there are no deaths in the country and therefore our health team and the security forces are on the ground ensuring that this Covid-19 transmission must not take place.

– Paison Dakulala, Papua New Guinea’s deputy minister for health, on the threat posed by increased infections in West Papua

Good news

Locals in tourism destinations such as Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu are benefiting from deals and offers as operators look to domestic tourism to keep their businesses ticking over until international tourists can return.

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