Many Pacific Island nations have kept Covid at bay. But attempts to reopen are fraught with danger

People carrying face masks at a grocery store in Suva, Fiji, April 23, 2021.

Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Countries everywhere in the world have seen Covid-19 circumstances surge because the emergence of the extremely transmissible omicron variant, with new infections soaring by 20% globally over the past week.

In the Pacific Islands, nevertheless, it has been a special story.

Many of the small island states nestled within the Pacific Ocean have had no new circumstances of the virus for months — and a few of these international locations have remained nearly Covid-free all through the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, Tonga, Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands had no lively circumstances of the virus, in accordance to figures from Our World in Data.

Maintaining a long-term state of zero Covid infections has largely been achieved by closing the islands off to all non-essential worldwide journey and implementing strict quarantine measures to management the unfold of the few circumstances that have been imported.

Although most of the islands’ borders are nonetheless closed, some have tentatively begun to reopen. Those international locations that stay remoted now discover themselves in a precarious place as they try to steadiness public well being with the restoration of their tourism-reliant economies.

Zero Covid a ‘non-starter’ as a long-term coverage

Andrew Preston, a professor of microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath within the U.Okay., informed CNBC that zero-Covid methods had been unsustainable, partially due to the emergence of omicron.

“The scenario under which zero Covid had the greatest credibility was maintaining it while very high levels of immunity were built with vaccination,” he stated. “However, for most countries, it has proved very difficult to get a level of vaccination high enough to prevent any spread of an imported case, and now with the ability of omicron to reinfect and infect those vaccinated it appears to be a non-starter as a long-term policy.”

Zero-Covid methods have additionally taken an enormous financial toll on most of the islands, placing strain on governments to ramp up vaccination in order that borders might be reopened safely.

According to an IMF report printed in October, GDP throughout the Pacific Islands contracted by 3.7% in 2020, with tourism-dependent international locations — Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu — anticipated to have seen a 6.5% decline in actual GDP in 2021.

The Cook Islands, which has political ties to New Zealand, presently has no circumstances of the virus. Its Covid response technique is linked to the state of affairs in New Zealand, the place 80 new circumstances had been recorded on Monday.

Some restrictions are in place, together with limits of 100 individuals at social gatherings and the enforcement of social distancing in eating places and bars. Face coverings are inspired however not mandated.

Last week, the Cook Islands took steps to reopen its borders. All incoming guests should journey by way of New Zealand, the place they are required to spend 10 full days earlier than departing for the Cook Islands. Visitors should additionally present proof of Covid vaccination in addition to a unfavorable PCR take a look at.

In a press release on Dec. 16, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown stated the “best weapons” the nation had had all through the pandemic had been “isolation and closed borders, and now mass vaccination.”

“We have worked very, very hard in the last two years to maintain our Covid-free status, and these [travel] regulations and our continual drive to get all our eligible people vaccinated, is a continuation of that,” he added.

According to official knowledge, 96% p.c of the eligible inhabitants — these over the age of 12 — within the Cook Islands has been totally vaccinated in opposition to Covid. Around 70% of the inhabitants has obtained a booster dose.

By reopening to the world, the Cook Islands authorities might be hoping to recoup a few of the substantial financial losses the nation has suffered due to the pandemic. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the Cook Islands’ GDP loss by way of the disaster might be as heavy as 32%.

‘Dire’ Covid prospects

For different Pacific Island international locations, borders stay closed as authorities work to catch up with the Cook Islands’ vaccination success. Reopening too quickly might be an enormous public well being danger, on condition that populations doubtless have little or no immunity acquired by way of an infection — notably to the omicron variant.

Samoa and Tonga have totally vaccinated round 60% of their populations, in accordance to Our World in Data, whereas simply over half of individuals dwelling in Wallis and Futuna have obtained two doses. Meanwhile, in Kiribati, roughly one-third of the inhabitants is totally vaccinated.

In some Pacific Island international locations, wider well being issues additionally add to the chance. In Samoa, for instance, Covid poses a major danger to a lot of the inhabitants due to excessive charges of non-communicable ailments that the WHO says account for roughly 68% of the nation’s untimely deaths.

Berlin Kafoa, director of the general public well being division at the Pacific Community, informed CNBC there was “huge concern” over the potential for extreme Covid epidemics as Pacific Island international locations reopen their borders.

“The consequences are dire, as Covid-19 outbreaks will overwhelm fragile health systems if [these countries] are not assisted now,” he stated in an electronic mail, including that the WHO and different U.N. businesses had been working with Pacific Island governments to put together every nation.

Individual international locations and territories throughout the area are presently working to set vaccination targets at which they really feel they’ll safely reopen their borders. However, Kafoa stated that each one Pacific Island international locations confronted challenges when it comes to accessing Covid vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.  

Official knowledge from Vanuatu — which has kept circumstances close to or at zero all through the pandemic — reveals simply 37% of the inhabitants has been totally vaccinated.

Being closely reliant on tourism means the speed of Vanuatu’s financial restoration is pinned on having the ability to safely reopen its borders. Tourism accounted for 31.7% of nationwide GDP in 2018, a 2020 report from the U.N. stated. The business was chargeable for greater than one-third of jobs nationwide prior to the pandemic.

Olivier Ponti, vice chairman of insights at journey evaluation agency ForwardKeys, informed CNBC that as of Jan 8., first-quarter worldwide bookings to the Pacific Islands stood at 12% of pre-pandemic ranges.

French Polynesia, which reopened final May, was seeing the strongest restoration, Ponti stated, with bookings to the nation presently at 75% of the degrees seen the identical time two years in the past.

Flights to Fiji and New Caledonia had been up to 51% and 38% respectively of the degrees seen in Jan. 2020. Vanuatu, in the meantime, “is not expecting any international visitors,” Ponti stated.

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