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W. John Hopkins
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Leanne Avila
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1 The Changing Nature of the Pacific COVID Response1

In 2021, the focus of pandemic response in the region changed dramatically with COVID-19 finally breaching the defences of most states in the region. This resulted in a series of lockdowns and similar measures in all the affected states, as a much-delayed first COVID wave swept through the region. At the start of the year, the island states within the region had recorded only 25.572 cases, with 250 COVID-19 related deaths. However, by the end of 2021, the number of cases had increased 7-fold to 173.333 cases, with the number of COVID-19 related deaths being reported as 2.495.2 Even so, the outbreaks in several states and territories became uncontrolled (e.g., Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia) and these figures are likely to be significant under-estimates. By the end of 2021, only Palau, Kiribati and Nauru remained free of community transmission.

The rapid rise of cases within the region saw a fundamental shift in policy, with most states moving from the goal of isolating/eliminating the virus to vaccinating their populations, as first the Delta and then Omicron variants proved extremely adept at avoiding border closures and quarantine measures. Vaccination campaigns were accelerated across the region, especially within the metropolitan states of Australia and New Zealand, in response to the emergence of community transmission of the Delta variant in particular, which due to its high transmissibility and short incubation period, proved capable of breaching the border measures imposed in 2020.3 Although strict lockdowns were often still applied, states rushed to vaccinate their populations, before abandoning their elimination strategies in favour of high vaccination rates as the primary defence against COVID.

At the start of the year, vaccination rates differed dramatically across the region with some states exhibiting exceptionally high rates (Palau, had an initial vaccination rate of 99%) while others struggled to reach their populations. In both the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, rates were less than 30% of the eligible population. The concern, of course, was that the limited health services in most Pacific islands states would become overwhelmed as Delta emerged. However, this scenario was largely avoided. In Fiji, for example, where relaxation of the border controls led to over 50.000 cases, a rapid vaccination programme coupled with significant restrictions on movement allowed the pandemic to be managed, and the borders were opened in December.4

2 Regional Developments

The continued impact of the pandemic upon the Pacific highlighted the importance of greater regional co-operation in the field of disaster response. The (virtual) 50th Pacific Islands Forum leaders retreat meeting, held in early 2021, emphasised the need to rapidly increase vaccination rates as a way of tackling the economic and social impacts of COVID-19. This led to a commitment to get 80% of the eligible population vaccinated in the Pacific region by the first quarter of 2022. The region made significant use of the COVAX facility, alongside support from Australia and New Zealand in driving these goals. It was particularly noticeable that regional responses remained a focus for the Pacific and saw increased support for the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19. The obvious benefits that co-operation brought to the COVID-19 response meant that it was no surprise that the 2050 Blue Pacific strategy was re-confirmed and the implementation process advanced, despite the difficulties that 2021 created.5

However, despite the immediate difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change remains the biggest threat to the region and the main policy focus for the field of DRR. In preparation for COP26, the PIF leaders met virtually at the 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Retreat. The leaders reaffirmed that climate change is the biggest threat the region faces, therefore, there is a need to recommit to the goals of the Paris Agreement, and thus urged all parties to the Paris Agreement to deliver a result that supports greater openness and maintains efforts to keep global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.6 In addition, the PIF leaders endorsed a Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise, referencing the good faith clause of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and confirming their support for the continuation of current EEZ borders for states and territories considered at risk from climate change.

One other notable regional development in the field was the establishment of the Pacific Resilience Facility (PRF). The PRF provides a regional financial mechanism focussed on building resilience to climate change and disaster impacts in the context of the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FDRP). Unusually for a regional fund, the PRF aims to fund, directly, small-scale community-based disaster preparedness projects that might not receive traditional DRR funding. Examples given include multi-purpose community halls and logistic centres that can also serve as shelters and evacuation centres; improved ICT facilities and small-scale community-based water and energy projects that can withstand the impact of both climate change and natural hazards. Although the PRF is intended to be an autonomous international fund, it currently operates as a programme of the PIFS, pending accreditation as an international organisation.7

Further regional DRR developments include moves to develop regional Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the facilitation of humanitarian aid, with a workshop held between the World Customs Organisation and the Oceania Customs Organisation (OCO) in October 2021.8 Although developed under the WCO COVID-19 project (funded by the government of Japan), these developments are in line with the Boe Declaration’s action plan to develop ‘a standard operating procedure for regional responses to humanitarian assistance and disaster response’ and the ongoing activities of the Technical Working Group for Risk Governance Development in this field.9

One particular DRR focus for 2021 was the inclusion of marginalised groups in building disaster resilience under the Sendai Framework. For example, in Samoa, the Samoa Red Cross, with the support of the IFRC, led a project to incorporate services for marginalised groups across DRR law and policy as well as enhancing their involvement in the decision-making process.10 Similarly, there has been a continuing emphasis on building DRR capacity amongst women. 2021 saw the Pacific Women Lead initiative launched (with Australian funding) to raise gender equality throughout the region.11 Programmes specific to DRR include the Women’s Resilience to Disasters Programme, launched by United Nations Women and the Australian Government, in partnership with partners in Kiribati, Vanuatu and Fiji. This aims to improve DRR over the next four years, in parallel with the UN Women’s Strategic Plan 2022–2025.12

3 Micronesian Withdrawal from the PIFS

Despite the positive moves towards greater DRR co-operation in the Pacific region explored above, the Pacific regional architecture suffered a significant blow during the early part of 2021 with the decision by the five Micronesian members of the Pacific Forum (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Republic of Marshall Islands and Palau) to withdraw their membership (a year-long process). The decision, formalised in February 2021, was a direct result of the appointment of Henry Puna (former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands) as the next Secretary-General, in preference to Gerald Zackios (RMI’s Ambassador to the United States). That the decision went to a vote at all was a surprise, given the “Pacific Way’s” emphasis on consensus and the existing agreement that the leadership would rotate around the three “sub-regions” of the forum (Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia).13

While such informal agreements may have limited traction in the wider diplomatic world, in the Pacific they are core to the workings of regional institutions. The informality of the Pacific Way pervades almost all Pacific regional initiatives, including in the field of DRR. The failure of key states to honour this agreement was therefore significant for the whole regional model and represented the final straw for the Micronesian states who have long felt side-lined by their South Pacific counterparts. In February 2022, the Micronesian states announced, just prior to their final departure, a decision to temporarily “pause” their withdrawal from the PIF pending the implementation of “reforms” agreed with other members of the forum.14 It is not clear what these reforms are and whether the Micronesian leaders will accept the final outcome, but in either case, what appears to have been a serious diplomatic miscalculation by PIF member states still risks having serious consequences for the proposals to develop a regional approach to DRR and disaster law in the coming years. The conclusion of this episode will be discussed in a future Pacific update.

4 National Developments

Most Pacific states experienced their first COVID-19 lockdowns in 2021 as the virus entered the community. These experiences varied widely, driven at least partially by the vaccination rates in individual states. In Fiji, a severe COVID-19 outbreak began in April 2021 with the arrival of the Delta variant. At the time, Fiji’s vaccination rate was almost zero (less than 1% of the eligible population had received a first dose). The immediate response was a series of localised lockdowns, a national curfew and mandatory requirements around social behaviours. Fines, applicable to both individuals and companies, were introduced for failing to follow requirements around mask wearing, curfew hours, social gatherings, contact sports and isolation orders.15 These measures were unable to contain the virus as the outbreak spread. However, despite the case numbers and the hospitalisations, the government refused to implement a national lockdown on the grounds that such a response would have a greater impact upon the population than the virus itself.

Instead, frustrated by widespread flouting of public health measures, the government instigated a rapid vaccination drive accompanied by a vaccine mandate for all workers.16 The results have been effective, with Fiji recording over 80% of adults having at least one dose of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine by 1 November 2021 (the declared target).17 Nevertheless, COVID continued to put significant strain on Fijian health resources throughout 2021.

Tonga was particularly affected by vaccine hesitancy, apparently driven by the attitude of some church leaders. As a result, when its first case arrived from New Zealand in November 2021, the Tongan government introduced a strict lockdown.18 This was followed by the enactment of laws to strengthen the ability of the Tongan Ministry of Health to make vaccines (including for COVID-19) compulsory.19 Under the Vaccination (Amendment) Act 2021 (VA) and Public Health (Amendment) Act 2021 (PHA), the Chief Executive for Health may require compulsory vaccination during a public health emergency.20 As yet, the power has not been exercised and Tonga’s Ministry of Health has stated that it will only utilise this power if there is a risk of an infectious disease (this also includes COVID-19) spreading uncontrollably.21 The consequences for non-compliance are severe with a fine of up to T$1.000 or imprisonment for up to 6 months as the maximum level of penalty.22

Despite the complexities of managing COVID-19 outbreaks across the Pacific, a number of states have continued updating their disaster law frameworks. In Papua New Guinea, government consultations have begun on reviewing the current Disaster Management Act, which dates from 1984. Palau has also begun a process to create a Disaster Risk Management Act (which it currently lacks), whilst Tonga has announced plans to amend its current Act.

Alongside these positive developments, the weaknesses of existing disaster, emergency and public health laws has led to several emergency laws (and States of Emergency) remaining in force across Pacific states during 2021. This continued a trend, recognised in 2020, towards concerning levels of authority being concentrated to the executive branches of these states.23 In some cases this has led to concerns around political freedoms and democratic processes in these states.24 Given the fragility of democracy in a number of Pacific Island states and their continuing vulnerability, this is a matter of ongoing concern for the region.

*

Professor of Law and Director, LEAD Institute of Law, Emergencies and Disasters, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand.

**

Research Assistant, LEAD Institute of Law, Emergencies and Disasters, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand.

1

The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Finau Leveni (IFRC Asia-Pacific Disaster Law Coordinator) in the preparation of this report. Any errors or omissions are those of the authors.

2

This figure includes statistics compiled from American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Wallis, Futuna and Samoa. See ‘COVID-19: Pacific Community Updates’ (Pacific Community | Communauté du Pacifique, 21 March 2022) <https://www.spc.int/updates/blog/2022/05/covid-19-pacific-community-updates> last accessed (as any subsequent URL) on 30 May 2022.

3

Noellie Gay et al., ‘Pacific island nations face an urgent need for actions and future research on COVID-19’ (2022) 18 The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific, 1.

4

COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 2021 in review’ (Asia & The Pacific Policy Society, 16 December 2021) <https://www.policyforum.net/covid-19-the-pacific-response-2021-in-review/>.

5

‘Fifty-First Pacific Islands Forum, Virtual, 6 August 2021’ (Pacific Islands Forum, 6 August 2021) <https://www.forumsec.org/2021/08/11/communique/>.

6

Ibid.

7

See ‘Prospectus Pacific Resilience Facility: Building Community Resilience in Extraordinary Times’ (Pacific Islands Forum, 2021) <https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PRF-Prospectus.pdf>.

8

‘The WCO COVID-19 Project supports Pacific islands Customs in efficiently facilitating the movement of emergency goods during disruptive events’ (World Customs Organization | Organisation mondiale des douanes, 27 October 2021) <http://www.wcoomd.org/en/media/newsroom/2021/october/the-wco-covid-19-project-supports-pacific-islands-customs.aspx>.

9

PIFS, ‘Action Plan to Implement the Boe Declaration on Regional Security’, (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Suva, Fiji, 2018) Strategic Focus Area 2 (viii) <https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/BOE-document-Action-Plan.pdf>.

10

IFRC, The Disaster Law Programme in Asia Pacific: Leaving No One Behind’ (IFRC, 2021) <https://disasterlaw.ifrc.org/sites/default/files/media/disaster_law/2021-02/DL-Leaving-no-on-behind.pdf>.

11

‘Australia stands with Pacific women: Media release’ (Ministry for Foreign Affairs: Minister for Women, 27 April 2021) <https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-stands-pacific-women>.

12

‘Press release: Building inclusive resilience in the Pacific through the new Women’s Resilience to Disasters Programme’ (UN Women, 12 October 2021) <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/10/press-release-un-women-launches-programme-to-increase-womens-resilience-to-disasters-in-the-pacific>.

13

Graeme Dobell ‘Micronesia’s exit from the Pacific Islands Forum’ (Australia Strategic Policy Institute: The Strategist, 7 February 2022) <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/micronesias-exit-from-the-pacific-islands-forum/>.

14

‘Micronesia temporarily rescinds withdrawal from Pacific forum’ (Reuters, 12 February 2022) <https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/micronesia-temporarily-rescind-withdrawal-pacific-forum-2022-02-12/>.

15

PM Bainimarama’s Statement on COVID-19 – 08.07.21’ (The Fijian Government, 8 July 2021) <https://www.fiji.gov.fj/Media-Centre/Speeches/English/PM-JVB-STATEMENT-ON-COVID-19-080721>.

16

‘Fiji to make COVID vaccine compulsory for all workers, but no lockdown despite a surge in Delta cases’ (ABC News, 9 July 2021) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-09/fiji-to-make-vaccine-compulsory/100281540>.

17

Lice Movono, ‘Covid-19: Fiji eases restrictions further’ (RNZ, 18 November 2021) <https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/455976/covid-19-fiji-eases-restrictions-further>.

18

Barbara Dreaver, ‘Tonga announces lockdown after Covid case arrives from NZ’ (1 News, 1 November 2021) <https://www.1news.co.nz/2021/11/01/tonga-announces-lockdown-after-covid-case-arrives-from-nz/>.

19

Contrary to many media reports, vaccinations in Tonga could already be made compulsory and subject to criminal sanction (a TOP 20 fine or imprisonment for up to 10 days) under the Vaccination Act, s 4 (as amended in 1988).

20

Vaccination (Amendment) Act 2021, s 4(1) and Public Health (Amendment) Act 2021, s 181A.

21

‘In brief: News from around the Pacific’ (RNZ, 9 November 2021) ‘In brief: News From Around the Pacific’ (9 November 2021) RNZ <https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/455273/in-brief-news-from-around-the-pacific>.

22

Vaccination (Amendment) Act 2021 (TON), s 4(2).

23

Laura Braid and W. John Hopkins, ‘Pacific (2020)’ (2021) 3 YIDL, 490–496 <https://doi.org/10.1163/26662531_00301_024>.

24

Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga all fell in the 2021 Reporters Without Border, Press Freedom ‘Index’ as a result of these measures, <https://rsf.org/en/index?year=2021>. See Pacific Media Watch, ‘Fiji drops three places in RSF press freedom index over gagging critics’ (Asia Pacific Report, 21 April 21 2021) <https://asiapacificreport.nz/2021/04/21/fiji-drops-three-places-in-rsf-press-freedom-index-over-gagging-critics/>.

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