COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 6 May 2021

There are now 51 active cases of COVID-19 in Fiji, following the detection of the Indian-variant of the virus in the country. Fiji has now recorded 121 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. 55,000 tests have been conducted in the country, with almost 6,000 in the past fortnight alone.

Case numbers continue to rise in Papua New Guinea, which has now recorded 11,273 cases and 121 deaths. The UK-variant of COVID-19 has now been detected in Guam, which has recorded 7,770 cases and 136 deaths.

Elsewhere in the region, 18,765 cases and 141 deaths have been recorded in French Polynesia, 453 cases and 7 deaths have been recorded in Wallis and Futuna, the Northern Mariana Islands has recorded 168 cases and 2 deaths, and 124 cases have been recorded in New Caledonia. The Solomon Islands (20), the Marshall Islands (4), Vanuatu (3) and Samoa (1) each now have no active cases of COVID-19.

The fortnight in review

300,000 Fijians living in the Suva-Nausori corridor are only allowed to leave home for essential purposes, with the city divided into two containment zones. This follows a snap lockdown in response to the outbreak of a second-wave of COVID-19 on Viti Levu. Authorities are scrambling to track and trace close contacts of two doctors who have tested positive, as well as factory garment workers who may have come into contact with another positive case, however flash-flooding in Nausori is delaying these efforts.

Permanent Secretary of the Health Minister, Dr James Fong, has said Fijians should prepare for a long battle with COVID-19, saying transmission of the Indian variant is more difficult to manage. With schools now closed in the country he has not indicated when in-person learning may resume. A number of schools have been converted into isolation facilities.

The impact of the lockdown on lives and livelihoods is already being witnessed, with FRIEND stating that people are running out of food, with food insecurity particularly dire in Nadi, where 80 percent of businesses are closed100,000 calls have been placed with the food ration hotline, which has begun deliveries in the Suva-Nausori corridor.

Papua New Guinea’s nationwide vaccine rollout commenced on May 4, with 100,000 frontline workers identified as priority recipients for vaccines. Health Minister Jelta Wong has said that the country’s vaccine drive has been delayed due to vaccine hesitancy. The PNG Chamber of Commerce has said delays in the vaccine rollout process has threatened the country’s economic recovery. Despite the government taking steps to convince populations to receive the vaccine, pandemic controller David Manning has issued a reminder to employers that they cannot force employees to receive the vaccine.

The PNG Nurses Association is raising concerns about how the government has spent COVID-19 funds, pointing to the lack of medical supplies. Doctors have said hospitals continue to be under-resourced, with basic supplies including gloves and tape running low, resulting in some hospitals closing their doors.

Test kits remain in critical shortage. New figures from Western Province reveal just 4,760 tests have been conducted to-date, with 951 returning a positive result. Despite these shortages, Australian AUSMAT workers are set to leave PNG shortly.

Political leadership has been in focus in PNG this fortnight, after Prime Minister James Marape used the COVID-19 situation to suspend parliament, thus avoiding a likely leadership challenge from Peter O’Neill, resulting in widespread condemnation. Transparency watchers have called for greater oversight of COVID-19 funds, saying that faith in institutions is not strong in PNG.

Many Pacific countries have increased barriers to travel in light of Fiji’s COVID-19 outbreak, and the worsening situation in India. PNG’s government has barred any returning passengers from India, while Samoa has suspended a planned repatriation flight from the US. All travel into Fiji has been suspended.

Conversely, French Polynesia has again reopened its borders to quarantine-free international travel, after a three-month border closure. The first flight has arrived from Los Angeles. Access is restricted to vaccinated Americans who have tested negative. Meanwhile, the Cook Islands’ quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand is now slated to commence on 17 May.

In economic news, the Asian Development Bank has predicted that the Pacific will return to economic growth in 2021, after a 5.8 percent economic contraction in 2020. Growth of 1.4 percent is tipped, contingent on a return of tourism, recommencing delayed construction projects and increased labour mobility and international trade.

Vaccines were welcomed enthusiastically to Fiji’s Western Division, with 4,400 people inoculated during day one of the vaccine administration campaign in Lautoka and Nadi. 4,289 people have now been vaccinated in Honiara, and 201 in Western Province, as the Solomon Islands’ vaccine drive gathers pace, while 64,000 vaccines have been delivered in Guam. With around half of the adult population now fully-vaccinated, the Northern Mariana Islands has scrapped its mask mandate for people who are now fully vaccinated. A pause on administration of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine has now been lifted. Australia has provided additional funds for vaccine supply for Vanuatu, as the Health Ministry has engaged with public health partners and NGOs to assist the rollout process and reduce vaccine hesitancy. 83 percent of Australians believe that Australia should help Pacific Island countries pay for COVID-19 vaccines, according to new polling released by the Lowy Institute.

Briefly: construction of the Solomon Islands National Stadium is due to begin this week, after 120 Chinese workers from CCECC completed their two-week hotel quarantine; 189 Samoan seasonal workers and 177 Fijian workers will travel to Australia this month; Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said that Australia will prioritise gender equality support to the Pacific in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; the first person in Wallis and Futuna to contract COVID-19 in the community has died after spending 51 days in intensive care, bringing the territory’s death toll to 7.

Hugh McClure

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