Coronavirus in the Pacific: weekly briefing

Tess Newton Cain and Dan McGarry
Composite: Getty

There are now more than 220 confirmed cases across the Pacific Islands region (excluding Australia and New Zealand) and six deaths.

This week brought into sharp relief the true nature of vulnerability and risk in the Pacific Islands region as Tropical Cyclone Harold left death and destruction in its wake. In Solomon Islands, more than 20 people were feared dead after being swept off a boat that was transporting passengers from Honiara to Malaita following a government instruction that everyone in the capital who could go home should do so.

As the cyclone intensified and headed to Vanuatu, the government relaxed its Covid-19 state of emergency measures, which restrict gatherings to no more than five people, to allow people to shelter together in mass evacuation centres.

Related: 'If it comes, it will be a disaster': life in one of the only countries without coronavirus

As the enormity of the economic impact of the pandemic became clear the World Bank announced a $US14bn finance package for east Asia and the Pacific to support their Covid-19 response. This follows Asian Development Bank predictions of significant economic contraction across the region, particularly in tourism-reliant countries.

The foreign ministers of the nations that make up the Pacific Islands Forum held an online meeting on Tuesday to discuss a regional response to Covid-19, including how to work with development partners to create a “humanitarian corridor” to get urgent supplies into countries that have effectively closed their borders.

What has happened this week?

  • Guam reported a total of 113 cases with four deaths. This does not include cases (in excess of 150) from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been moored off Guam for some time. There is anger in Guam at the fact that sailors have been allowed to come ashore and complete their quarantine in hotels in the territory.

  • French Polynesia has 42 cases.

  • The Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands has eight confirmed cases. There has been one death and authorities believe there is community transmission within the territory.

  • New Caledonia has 18 cases recorded. President Thierry Santa is in self-isolation after a member of his staff tested positive.

  • Fiji has seen a dramatic increase in cases to 15. Most of them arise from a single person who did not self-isolate. The most recent cases are reported as being isolated and stable in hospital.

  • Papua New Guinea has reported a second case, this time in East New Britain. The province has been placed into lockdown and a medical team has been deployed to assist.

  • West Papua is reported by the Jakarta Post as having 26 confirmed cases and one death.

  • In Vanuatu, roughly 60 people were released from quarantine following a clean bill of health after 14 days of surveillance and isolation.

  • Tonga has no cases reported.

  • In Samoa more than 200 people are in quarantine after arriving into the country. They are required to be fully isolated for 14 days. A number of hotels in Apia have been pressed into service as quarantine facilities.

  • Solomon Islands has no reported cases. Eleven suspected cases have been tested and all returned negative.

  • Palau remains virus-free, having had a test from a suspected case come back negative.

What are Pacific governments doing?

  • Papua New Guinea: parliament voted to extend the state of emergency for two months although domestic air services resumed as of 6 April after a two-week shutdown.

  • Fiji: government and law enforcement, assisted by the military, is maintaining lockdowns and curfews across the country. There have been hundreds of arrests for breach of curfews, leading the PM to threaten even stricter measures.

  • French Polynesia: medical supplies sourced from China have yet to arrive and are expected to land within the next week.

  • Solomon Islands: parliament resumed on 6 April to debate an extension of the state of public emergency for a period of four months. The prime minister said that people found to be spreading “rumours and speculation” will be arrested. Non-essential public servants have been instructed to take one month leave.

  • New Caledonia: restrictions on movements and gatherings of people have been extended until 13 April. The government has undertaken repatriation flights from Australia, Japan and Vanuatu.

  • Samoa: The government has extended the state of emergency for a further four weeks.

  • Tonga: the national lockdown has been extended until 12 April although some activities, including inter-island shipping, have been able to resume. Matangi Tonga reports that doctors are warning that insufficient resources are being devoted to preparing for a “flood of patients” suffering from Covid-19.

  • Vanuatu: the government has allocated VT3bn (AU$40m) to infrastructure projects with the aims of supporting food security and providing employment opportunities. Initial announcements by the government suggested that international travel restrictions would not be varied to allow for humanitarian assistance to cross the border without meeting quarantine requirements.

  • Kiribati: the government announced on Facebook that Air Kiribati would fly a special flight from Brisbane to Tarawa in order to deliver essential medical supplies.

  • Marshall Islands: the government has announced an extension of the complete suspension of international passenger arrivals into the country until 5 May. Restrictions on fishing vessels have also been tightened.

  • Palau: the government has ordered that the borders will remain closed to passengers until 30 April. Cargo flights will continue. A donation of testing equipment from Taiwan will allow Palau to do its own testing in-country.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia’s death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic has reached 45, with nearly 5,900 confirmed infections. There are 96 people in intensive care, with 35 on ventilators. Health authorities in Australia have expressed cautious optimism that Australia may be able to limit the domestic coronavirus outbreak but have warned against complacency or relaxing social distancing rules too early.

In New Zealand there is some positive news, with cases beginning to stabilise and decline two weeks after some of the strictest lockdown rules in the world were introduced.

There have been 1,160 cases of coronavirus so far, and experts say the country may be the only western nation with a chance of eradicating the disease. One person – an older woman with pre-existing health issues – has died from the illness.

Fake news

Concerns have been expressed in Fiji about confidential information about Covid-19 patients being leaked and then circulated on social media.

What did they say

If ever there was a time where the region and its partners needed to work together in strong solidarity to overcome a direct and immediate threat to the lives of our people across our Blue Pacific region – it is now.

– Dame Meg Taylor, secretary general to the Pacific Islands Forum.

Good news

The Fijian prime minister reports that on Saturday, Fiji Airways organised a charter flight to return 300 Mormon missionaries from across the Pacific to Utah, in the US, via Nadi, FIji.

Eleven Fijians trapped in Kiribati and hoping to return to Fiji sought to travel on one of these regional flights, from Kiribati to Nadi.

“To cut the weight of cargo and allow these 11 Fijians to make it aboard, 68 missionaries left their bags and possessions behind in Kiribati,” wrote Frank Bainimarama on Facebook. “Thanks to their sacrifice, these Fijians are all safely back in Fiji, where they’ll be reunited with their families after a mandatory two-week quarantine.”