Here is the latest news about the Covid-19 outbreak across the Pacific, from Dan McGarry and Tess Newton Cain on Wednesday 3 June.
The total number of cases of Covid-19 infection across the region stands at 294, an increase of two since last week, both in Guam.
As the global and regional situation stabilises and the direct threat of Covid-19 recedes, Pacific countries are beginning to ramp up repatriation efforts. Thousands of agricultural and cruise ship workers, diplomats and officials, as well as people simply caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, are finally being afforded the chance to return.
Some people in virus-free countries, such as Palau, remain ultra-cautious about any potential for infection by these new arrivals.
The 2020 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting – the most significant regional diplomatic meeting – has been postponed due to the uncertainty and economic impacts facing the country due to Covid-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold, which recently devastated parts of the country. Vanuatu will offer to host the 2021 meeting instead.
Surveys of businesses conducted by the International Finance Corporation in Fiji and Solomon Islands have revealed the serious economic impact of Covid-19. Nearly 80% of surveyed businesses in Solomon Islands experienced a reduction in turnover or cash flow and 56% said they may need to downsize in the next year due to impacts of Covid-19. Employers also feared that Covid-19 led to increases of sexual and domestic violence, with two-thirds of companies in Fiji who were surveyed by IFC saying they believed the pandemic has increased employees’ experiences of domestic and sexual violence.
What has happened this week?
West Papua: The latest official figures reported by The Jakarta Post show that there are 168 confirmed cases, with two deaths. Many have questioned the reliability of the count. Independence leader Benny Wenda decried the death of a West Papuan man on 25 May after he was struck down by a water cannon, allegedly for failing to comply with social distancing directives. Wenda also accused Indonesian authorities of failing to provide proper medical care to Bazoka Logo, who heads the political bureau of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Logo allegedly contracted the virus in prison.
Guam: Citing the Government’s Joint Information Centre, the USA Today Guam reported two new cases over the weekend, raising the total to 171 cases, but as of 31 May, the World Health Organisation still showed only 166 confirmed cases.
Papua New Guinea: The number of confirmed cases remains at eight. Transparency International PNG is not letting go of accusations concerning the alleged misspending of 23 million Kina in Covid-19 funds, which the government stands accused of wasting on cars and media flacks. Prime minister James Marape denied these claims, but has yet to provide an accounting, says a TIPNG statement, which includes a detailed funding timeline derived from public sources.
French Pacific Territories: Two new cases have been reported in New Caledonia bringing the total in that territory to 20, with no deaths. The number of confirmed cases in French Polynesia remains unchanged at 60. France is looking at loosening quarantine restrictions and creating travel corridors to provide options for people from France to visit during the upcoming summer holidays.
Fiji: There are no new cases reported, leaving the total of recorded infections for Fiji at 18 with no deaths. The health minister advises that 2,400 people have been tested in the country so far.
CNMI: There are no new cases reported. The total number of infections stands at 22 with two deaths.
Solomon Islands: The country remains virus-free. Repatriation of citizens has begun, starting with a reciprocal flight returning Vanuatu and Solomon Islands residents to their respective countries.
Samoa: There are no reported cases of Covid-19 in Samoa. Repatriation flights have commenced from Auckland are expected to occur fortnightly to allow Samoans who are stranded in New Zealand to return home.
Tonga: The country remains virus-free. Some restrictions have eased but a nightly curfew remains in place.
Vanuatu: The director of the Vanuatu Tourism Office has said that they are working to reopen the borders by 1 September and would look to have tourists from the key markets of Australia and New Zealand early next year. Stakeholders are using this time to look at how tourism can be done differently. This includes taking a step back from participation in cruise tourism for the time being.
Marshall Islands: The Marshall Islands Journal reports that the US army has negotiated an arrangement with local authorities on Kwajalein to allow military personnel to be deployed to the base on the island. Six members of the US military considered ‘critical’ will be allowed onto the island subject to a 14-day quarantine period and being tested three times.
What are Pacific governments doing?
Papua New Guinea: The state of emergency comes to an end on 2 June. The government has issued an accelerated funding request to Unicef for nearly US$10m. The request is being coordinated jointly by Unicef and the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. The money will be used to mitigate the impact of school closures on PNG children.
New Caledonia: The French Senate has chosen to ignore concerns raised in New Caledonia about its plan to reignite interest in tourism by relaxing travel requirements. Political resistance has been rising against any relaxation of the rules, and has become a rallying point for independence politicians.
Bougainville: Buka now has its own isolation facility. The project was funded jointly by the governments of Australia and New Zealand and was opened on 27 May.
Fiji: Police have charged one man – “patient number nine”, with breaching his quarantine order. The 57-year-old man was diagnosed with Covid-19 after returning from India. He is alleged to have slipped quarantine and traveled to visit family. He appears to have infected five of them. He has been granted bail on strict conditions.
Vanuatu: Repatriation efforts are finally getting underway. Following a dry run designed to quell fears about the return of residents from overseas, prime minister Bob Loughman confirmed that Vanuatu would be bringing 289 people home in the first phase of the operation from New Caledonia, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Solomon Islands. The process should take about a month, he said. The first return flight carried seven people from Solomon Islands, which is also virus-free.
Samoa: A new emergency order comes into effect on 3 June. It provides for ongoing restrictions on opening hours for public commercial gatherings (such as markets, shops, and casinos), and reminds people to observe physical distancing guidelines. People aged over 60 are encouraged to remain at home.
French Polynesia: Government officials in Tahiti have admitted that many homeless people have left the state-funded shelters provided for them at the outset of the crisis in schools and sports halls. Only 80 out of 205 remain, they said.
CNMI: The Marianas governor has acted to allay fears of infection within its correctional facilities, issuing a statement that “all employees, officers, and inmates” have been tested and found to be virus-free.
Cook Islands: The government hopes another infusion of cash will be enough to tide the country through the massive economic downturn caused by the disruption to its tourism industry. It’s been estimated that economic activity could drop by as much as 60% due to the pandemic.
Australia and New Zealand
The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Australia has crept up to 7,202 and there have been 103 deaths. As of 1 June, New Zealand has recorded 10 days with no new cases reported and is down to one active case remaining. There have been a total of 1,504 confirmed and probable cases, with 22 deaths.
The government of Australia has announced that it will “pivot” its aid programme to focus on supporting partners to deal with the health and economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The support is targeted at the Pacific, Timor-Leste and Indonesia. It does not include any new budgetary allocations. The move is valued at AU$100m and will be funded by savings elsewhere in the aid programme, including on scholarships and the costs associated with deploying advisers and consultants.
In New Zealand there has been some talk of opening a travel bubble with Covid-free Pacific Island countries in preference to Australia. Level 2 restrictions will be eased from Friday. And as early as next week, the government will consider lifting all internal Covid-19 restrictions – border controls will remain – after prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the country was on track to eliminate the virus “ahead of schedule”.
Government officials in Vanuatu generated their own fake news last week when they announced a number of new restrictions to coincide with the first repatriation flights, then promptly countermanded them. Measures included a return to home schooling during the quarantine period for repatriated residents, and a freeze on domestic travel to and from the other islands. After the director of public health told the Daily Post that he’d not even been consulted, the Council of Ministers finally stepped in and quashed what officials insisted were “rumours” with an announcement that schools and travel would be unaffected.
What did they say?
It’s going be hard to sustain economies to the level they were in 2019.
– Dame Meg Taylor, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum on the economic impact of Covid-19 in the Pacific.
Guam residents may soon have a new way to while away the hours as the country’s nascent adult-use marijuana regulations are finalised and circulated for consultation. If implemented, Guam would be the first Pacific Island nation to allow legal consumption of the drug.
Infection and fatality figures in this article are valid as of 1 June. They are based on WHO daily situation reports, and supplemented in some cases by national government updates.