Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Pacific Islands Nations Threatened With Disaster By Coronavirus

By John Braddock, Socialist Equality Group

The remote micro-states and island chains across the Pacific face a terrifying situation due to the global coronavirus pandemic. While geographically isolated, their impoverished, neo-colonial status, lack of health facilities and dependency on tourism make them particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

On March 19, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 11; three in French Polynesia followed by five in the US territory of Guam, two in New Caledonia and one in Fiji. They included Tahitian parliamentarian Maina Sage, whose infection was discovered on her return from France. The Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa have one person each under investigation. The latter is a traveler from Auckland whose test samples were sent to Melbourne, with a possible 10–20 day turn-around time.

A widespread outbreak of the COVID-19 virus anywhere in the Pacific threatens a disaster for the indigenous populations. They already suffer from diseases associated with poverty and poor diet, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. In Fiji, diabetes-related amputations account for 40 percent of all hospital operations. Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are rife in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the largest Pacific country, where life expectancy is just 62.8 years.

A sharp reduction in tourist numbers, lack of air freight, and disrupted supply chains are already hitting the island states, prompting fears about how their fragile economies will weather a prolonged crisis. French Polynesia’s tourism minister, Nicole Bouteau, said the economy would go through “dark times” in the coming weeks.

To prevent the arrival of the virus, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and Tonga have all implemented strict health checks and quarantine measures. Most countries had limited or suspended cruise ships before the industry announced a worldwide shutdown of operations on March 13.

The Marshall Islands National Disaster Committee closed the country to all incoming passengers for two weeks from early March. Health secretary Jack Niedenthal told Radio NZ the country’s health system had already been overburdened with an eight-month dengue fever epidemic.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said 11 cruise ships had been prohibited from the outer islands and travellers from 16 countries banned from entering. Each ship brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Puna said the move was necessary to safeguard “the well-being of the people.”

Some of the strictest measures are in Samoa, which was devastated by a measles epidemic that originated in New Zealand last October and killed 83 people, mostly children. Samoa’s government is now urging anyone planning to go to the country to stay away, saying the risk to the country from Covid-19 is “very high.” A health ministry statement said, “all those intending to travel to Samoa to attend birthdays, weddings, reunions, funerals, conferences, sports, etc. to CANCEL their travel plans.”

Samoa Tourism Authority head Fa’amatuainu Lenata’i Suifua said he backed the government’s actions but the country’s biggest industry was in for “a tough time.” Tourism employs more than 5,000 workers directly, as well as others in supporting services.

The measles epidemic in Samoa, which was only brought under control after Christmas, shut down much of the economy and overwhelmed the impoverished country’s limited healthcare system. For the last quarter of the financial year, an estimated 20 to 25 percent drop was already expected for tourist arrivals and earnings.

Border closures announced Thursday by Australia and New Zealand will exacerbate the economic disruption. Both countries, which supply significant numbers of tourists to the Pacific, have now banned all non-citizens and non-residents from entry, effectively ending seasonal work opportunities which support thousands of Pacific families.

New Zealand’s Pacific Island community is particularly vulnerable. COVID-19 hits those with heart and lung disease and diabetes the hardest. Nine percent of Pacific peoples in NZ have been diagnosed with diabetes—three times the general population. The largely working-class Pacific community suffers from overcrowded and inadequate housing and has difficulty accessing health care. Thousands will be affected by looming job losses.

Among the earliest and worst hit islands were the Northern Marianas (CNMI), a US territory in the North Pacific. Beijing promptly suspended all tourist excursions, while South Korea declared quarantine zones. Fifty percent of CNMI’s visitors come from Korea and 40 percent from China.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce declared that the CNMI’s tourist industry had collapsed within six weeks. Over 1,000 workers were laid off, while thousands more had hours reduced. The government revised its annual budget down to $US90 million, from $147 million. In 2018 the budget was $237 million. Harsh austerity measures have been imposed, including cuts to public sector pay and working weeks.

In a letter to US President Trump appealing for federal help, CNMI Governor Ralph Torres said the loss of the tourism market would result in the “unequivocal and complete collapse of the foundations of our private sector.”

Fiji’s government is introducing a supplementary budget this week which Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum declared was necessary to reduce the impact of the coronavirus. Fiji’s economy was already facing a major downturn, presaging further attacks by the authoritarian Bainimarama government on wages, social welfare and essential services. According to reports from the World Bank and IMF last October, a reduction in government expenditure of $394 million would sharply contract the economy. A liquidity crunch had seen banks struggling to get funds to finance loans while the vital sugarcane industry is battling falling global prices and declining production.

Neelesh Gounder, an economist at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, said the coronavirus outbreak would affect all island countries’ wider economic relationships with China, including aid projects and the Belt and Road initiative, which have been hit by delays and quarantine measures preventing Chinese labourers reaching building sites.

With governments around the world failing to act in any coordinated manner, the beleaguered Pacific Island nations will inevitably be left to sink or swim. The local imperialist powers, Australia and New Zealand, will only do what is necessary to protect their geo-strategic interests in opposition to China.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the two countries would only jointly help to fund the World Health Organisation’s Pacific coronavirus response plan. They will assist with access to medical supplies from the WHO’s stockpiles and technical advice, including testing samples from the region free of charge.

These meagre undertakings are entirely hollow. New Zealand has had only two laboratories testing for COVID-19, producing about 500 test results in the past week. The ruling elites of both countries are meanwhile carrying through nationalist “fortress” measures and imposing the crisis on their populations. What will not be forthcoming are the billions of dollars in aid and health support desperately needed to rebuild the economies and sustain the health of the people in this fragile region.

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Gordon Campbell: On The Use Of Existing Drugs To Reduce The Effects Of Coronavirus

So now, we’re all getting up to speed with the travel bans, the rigorous handwashing and drying, the social distancing, and the avoidance of public transport wherever possible. Right. At a wider level…so far, the public health system has ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On Oil Market And Regulation Crusades

Safe to say, Vladimir Putin did not expect the response he has received amidships from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Earlier, Russia chose to walk away from the OPEC talks in Vienna that were aimed at reaching an agreement on how to reduce world oil production (and protect oil prices) in the light of the fall in demand being caused by the coronavirus. No doubt, Russia and its allies in the US shale industry probably glimpsed an opportunity to undercut OPEC and seize some of its customers. Bad move. In reply, Saudi Arabia has smashed the oil market by hugely ramping up production, signing up customers and drastically cutting the oil price in a fashion designed to knock Russia and other oil suppliers right out of contention. More>>

Gordon Campbell: On 22 Short Takes About Super Tuesday

With obvious apologies to the Simpsons….Here’s my 22 short takes on the 14 Super Tuesday primaries that combined yesterday to produce a common narrative –Bernie Sanders NOT running away with the nomination, Joe Biden coming back from the dead, and the really, really rich guy proving to be really, really bad at politics. In the months ahead, it will be fascinating to see if the real Joe Biden can live up to the idea of Joe Biden that people voted for yesterday – namely, the wise old guy who can save the country from the political extremism of the right and the left... More>>

Gordon Campbell On Shane Jones: A Liability No-One Needs To Bear

New Zealand First has needed a diversion after weeks of bad coverage over its dodgy handling of donations, but it really, really doesn’t need what Shane Jones has chosen to provide. According to Jones, New Zealand has ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Strong Man Legacies: Burying Mubarak

Reviled strongmen of one era are often the celebrated ones of others. Citizens otherwise tormented find that replacements are poor, in some cases even crueller, than the original artefact. Such strongmen also serve as ideal alibis for rehabilitation ... More>>

Caitlin Johnstone: Humanity Is Making A Very Important Choice When It Comes To Assange

The propagandists have all gone dead silent on the WikiLeaks founder they previously were smearing with relentless viciousness, because they no longer have an argument. The facts are all in, and yes, it turns out the US government is certainly and undeniably working to exploit legal loopholes to imprison a journalist for exposing its war crimes. That is happening, and there is no justifying it... More>>

Gail Duncan: Reframing Welfare Report

Michael Joseph Savage, the architect of the 1938 Social Security Act, wouldn’t recognise today’s Social Security Act as having anything to do with the kind, cooperative, caring society he envisioned 80 years ago. Instead society in 2020 has been reduced ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On The Addiction To Chinese Student Fees

Last week, Australian PM Scott Morrison extended its ban on foreign visitors from or passing through from mainland China – including Chinese students - for a third week. New Zealand has dutifully followed suit, with our travel ban ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On Coronavirus, And The Iowa Debacle

As Bloomberg says, the coronavirus shutdown is creating the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment. On the upside, the mortality rate with the current outbreak is lower than with SARS in 2003, but (for a number of reasons) the economic impact this time ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On Dodging A Bullet Over The Transport Cost Over-Runs

As New Zealand gears up to begin its $6.8 billion programme of large scale roading projects all around the country, we should be aware of this morning’s sobering headlines from New South Wales, where the cost overruns on major transport projects ... More>>


  • PublicAddress
  • Pundit
  • Kiwiblog