Australia and the challenge of COVID-19 in the Pacific

Josephine Warnant | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

The Pacific region will be significantly impacted by COVID-19, with the dual health and economic crises posed by the virus likely to have ongoing effects.

As the crisis continues, Australia has reaffirmed its position that the Pacific nations are valued partners. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has made it clear that Australia is committed to tackling the crisis “with our Pacific partners, in the long-term interest of the stability, prosperity and resilience of our region.”

At the time of writing, the regional total of COVID-19 cases in the Pacific was 260. By closing regional borders early and restricting access, Pacific nations have so far been able to evade a significant outbreak. But concerns remain of the risk of case numbers continuing to grow.

"We have to keep watching [for] widespread community transmission and we must prepare for that," said Dr Corinne Capuano, the Director of the World Health Organisation's Division for Pacific Technical Support, in an ABC article.

Substantial concerns remain for Papua New Guinea, with public officials fearing that the largest and most populous nation in the region could be at risk of a major outbreak.

The Pacific is uniquely vulnerable to the health impacts from COVID-19. The region’s limited health infrastructure and medical resources leave the Pacific in a weak position to respond to a major outbreak. Just last year, a localised epidemic of measles killed 83 people in Samoa. High rates of underlying health conditions, including diabetes, coupled with crowded living conditions for many Pacific peoples, could lead to crippling pressures on these health systems should a COVID-19 outbreak occur.

The economic impact of COVID-19 on the Pacific is also likely to be debilitating. In the Pacific, tourism delivers as much as 70 per cent of some nation’s overall GDP, meaning that travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 have the potential to collapse local economies. But, the economic impact is not just limited to tourism, with the World Bank identifying other significant financial risks including the reduction of commercial fishing and fish exports, and disruptions to infrastructure projects.

The UN has also issued a warning that Pacific nations’ populations are at significant risk from the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19. “There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others,” said Guy Berger, the Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO.

COVID-19 has also escalated the China-Australia contest in the Pacific, with Beijing using the pandemic as an opportunity to further solidify power in the region. China recently convened a video conference for more than 100 Pacific government Ministers and has also launched the US $1.9 million China-Pacific Islands Countries Anti-COVID-19 Cooperation fund.

This means that assisting Pacific nations in the fight against COVID-19 is a strategic as well as humanitarian issue for Australia. “Our support for, and partnership with, our Pacific family is essential for our regional health security and our long-term interests,” said Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

So, what action can be taken to assist the Pacific region?

Immediately, Australia must provide further humanitarian assistance to the Pacific. Australia is already acting as a transit country by moving a small number of international experts, as well as necessary essential supplies, medicines and food across the Pacific to manage the logistical challenges associated with border closures. Australia has also worked to ensure access to rapid diagnostic COVID-19 kits in a joint initiative with the World Health Organisation, the United States and New Zealand. These actions represent positive steps and must continue to be managed and supported by Australia to ensure ongoing stability in the region.

Australia’s aid funding to health programs must also be re-evaluated. Over the past five years, the Australian government has reduced aid funding to health programs in the Pacific, instead focusing on infrastructure. This is despite recent outbreaks of measles, polio and tuberculosis. This must be rectified to assist the region in improving its health systems and in creating long-term resilience to infectious diseases.

Recently, the idea has also been floated that Australia should consider including the Pacific in dialogues surrounding travel within the Trans-Tasman bubble. Due to the region’s economic reliance on tourism, this would be a way of stimulating the Pacific economy in a safe manner.

During this time of unprecedented crisis, Australia must re-assess and re-affirm support for its Pacific partners to ensure its continued commitment to the Pacific Step-Up program.

Josephine Warnant is Young Australians in International Affairs' Australian Foreign Policy Fellow.

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