Around the world, nations are scrambling to respond to the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) or at best are preparing for the virus to arrive in their country.
With more than 735,000 confirmed cases of the virus in at least 177 countries, COVID-19 has forced businesses to close, halted international trade and travel, crashed economies, and in some places brought hospitals and other healthcare facilities to the brink of collapse. More than 34,000 people have died while more than 40,000 remain in serious or critical condition. With cases around the world doubling every five to seven days, few countries have been spared.
The Pacific has, however, so far fared well. There has been one confirmed case in Papua New Guinea, five in Fiji, 15 in New Caledonia, 35 in French Polynesia, and 45 in Guam and no reported cases in the 12 other countries and territories in the region.
This is considerably low compared to the more than 270,000 cases in Europe, 130,000 cases in Asia, or the 140,000 cases in the United States.
The impact of a localized epidemic in the Pacific was seen in October last year when a measles outbreak in Samoa killed 83 people, mostly children, and infected more than 5,600. Therefore, as COVID-19 began threatening the Pacific, Samoa was quick to respond.
“All those intending to travel to Samoa to attend birthdays, weddings, reunions, funerals, conferences, sports, etc. need to cancel their travel plans,” the Samoan health ministry said in a statement.
The Marshall Islands was also quick to shut down its borders, especially as its healthcare system is already overburdened by a dengue fever epidemic, which has run for eight months.
Papua New Guinea even forced a Qantas jet carrying PNG citizens to turn back to Australia for fear of infections on board. The state of emergency declared in PNG states that no one is allowed to enter the country, even its own citizens.
The Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Kiribati have also on occasion denied entry to their own citizens when arriving from high-risk countries. Earlier in March, Samoa’s minister of commerce, industry, and labor was refused entry at the airport and was deported to Fiji.
Fiji has now closed its international airport, leaving tourists in Fiji and Fijian citizens abroad stranded. Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama also confirmed that all local shipping services to outer islands would cease on Sunday to prevent the virus spreading.
The Federated States of Micronesia has banned entry to anyone who has been in any country with a confirmed case of coronavirus in the past two weeks.
If there is an outbreak in the Pacific, the island countries are likely to face a heightened mortality rate due to lower levels of immunity to outside diseases, as was the case during the 1918 flu in which countries such as Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti lost up to 20 percent of their populations due to a lack of previous exposure.
The virus could also spread rapidly in the Pacific due to communal living situations, with up to 20 people living in one house. This exacerbated the measles outbreak in Samoa. It took officials almost three months to gain control of the situation and ultimately resulted in a 25 percent crash in tourism in the last quarter of the financial year.
Still, for now, the Pacific seems like a pretty safe place to wait this out, and thanks to international travel restrictions some Pacific nations may make it through the pandemic with no major outbreaks. But that does not render them immune to the far-reaching effects of COVID-19.
In the Pacific, tourism delivers as much as 70 percent of some nations’ overall GDP. And with travel restrictions comes a sharp reduction in tourist numbers and a major disruption to supply chains. French Polynesia’s tourist minister said the economy would go through “dark times” in the coming weeks.
Chinese, Australian, and New Zealand tourists have made up the bulk of travelers in the Pacific for much of the past decade. The Australian and New Zealand governments have both warned against any nonessential travel and the effects of Pacific nations having closed their doors to Chinese tourists earlier this year are already being noticed.
Just last week the managing director of the famed Rarotongan resort in the Cook Islands announced to more than 200 staff that their three resorts will close, and most jobs will also go. “I told our staff the facts, they are intelligent people, that in a week’s time we will have no guests, zero occupancy means no income,” he told the Cook Islands News.
With Pacific countries particularly vulnerable in the case of an outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) heads a cooperation strategy between Pacific island nations and their larger and more economically stable neighbors, Australia and New Zealand. Together, they have already produced a Novel Coronavirus Preparedness and Action Report and a six-month Pacific Action Plan. Australia and New Zealand have also began sending supplies to effected countries to treat infected people and are testing suspected cases in Australian labs.
Health experts are concerned that they may need much more than just supplies to fight an outbreak, but as Australia and New Zealand’s own healthcare systems come under pressure from domestic cases, they simply may not have any medical teams to spare.
Outbreak or not, the longevity of the lockdown may be a silent killer in the Pacific. For example, the Achilles heel of tourism in the Pacific is cruises, which took a hit early in the pandemic due to concerns over their ability to infect a large number of people quickly and to move throughout the region.
Cruises have since been banned from countries around the world following reports of hundreds of infected people disembarking in Sydney, San Francisco, and elsewhere and of thousands of people stranded on cruise ships in the ocean with no country willing to let them dock.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said 11 cruise ships have been refused entry so far. Each ship brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Puna said the move was necessary to safeguard “the well-being of the people.”
“Cook Islands Tourism looks forward to a time when these restrictions are lifted, and our pa enua communities can, again, safely engage in the cruise tourism industry,” he said.
Some tour guides fear that the whole situation may have tarnished cruises beyond this pandemic, and that it may take many years for the industry to recover, and along with it, reliant Pacific economies.