Pacific island nations can learn from the early roll-out of coronavirus vaccines in the north Pacific says the World Health Organisation’s Representative in the South Pacific.
The Pacific’s COVID response is on the agenda of today’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders virtual retreat, along with the election of a new PIF Secretary General and action on climate change. A number of PIF members—including Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau—are already vaccinating their citizens.
WHO’s Dr Corinne Capuano says while their initial projections were to see the vaccine rollout in the second half of this year in the South Pacific, there is a lot of work being done and it may be earlier, although it’s a complex issue. Forum members are talking to their development partners about vaccine procurement as COVAX is not expected to meet all vaccine requirements.
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus recently said the world faces moral failure if it doesn’t ensure vaccine equity. “Rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait,” he said, challenging world and health leaders to ensure that vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries within the first 100 days of 2021.
It’s a message the next Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama reiterated when he opened the Pacific Island Forum’s reconstructed fale in Suva last week: “With vaccines rolling out across the developed world, we must not allow our region to be cast to the fate of “immunity inequality”. Our people must be kept protected. Our economies must keep pace with what may well be the most important economic recovery in a century. For that to happen, COVID-19 vaccines must become available to our citizens, not months or – God forbid – years after the developed nations, but alongside them. Because we know none of us is safe, until all of us are.”
Suva-based Dr Capuano says there are things to be learnt from vaccination campaigns already underway, including logistics such as cold chain management, and the importance of identifying priority recipients, that is, people most at risk of being exposed to the disease such as health care workers and people working at our borders.
She says dealing with any side effects will also be important; “making sure you have in place systems that are able to deal with any side effects. It is important that you can take care of any side effects after the vaccination and that you have a surveillance system in place so you can monitor what is happening after vaccination.
“The other element is that the vaccine that is currently used in the Pacific requires two doses of injections, so you also want to make sure that you provide full vaccination to people, so you have a registering system that is allowing you to ensure that if people that get the first dose, they get the second as well.”
Dr Capuano cautions that the vaccine is “not a magic bullet” and “non-pharmaceutical interventions”—handwashing, physical distancing and the wearing of masks—remain important, especially in places with community transmission.
She says Fiji and other Pacific nations have been “working very hard” to prepare for vaccine deployment, including messages to overcome the so-called vaccine hesitancy that has been seen in some other countries.
“As the campaign is rolling in other countries in the world, people also see what is going on and that this is the value of being vaccinated. So we see a lot of critical information coming from other parts of the world that can be useful for the Pacific.”
Dr Capuano made the comments at the recent signing of an agreement between the WHO, European Union, United Nations Food Programme and Pacific Community to strengthen the health sector across the Pacific. The European Union has repurposed US$24 million under the EU-Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Financing Agreement to fund this work in Cook Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, the Republic of Marshall Island, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Responses to the Fiji budget have been mixed. A summary follows.
The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association has welcomed the budget and its move to reduce overheads, calling it “bold and innovative.”
“We are confident that our members will support the initiatives to ensure that the savings are passed on to the customers and know they are keen to provide value for money packages to rekindle the tourism industry. Government has taken a critical enabling step towards this goal.
The Association says it is optimistic that quarantine-free travel will start soon with New Zealand, and shortly thereafter with Australia. Many Fiji tourism operators are currently participating in the “Love our Locals” campaign. The FHTA says while domestic consumption is “highly appreciated”, its not sufficient for the industry’s long term sustainability.
The Unity Fiji party headed by former Reserve Bank of Fiji Governor Savenaca Narube has dubbed the budget “a road to nowhere” rather than a road to recovery.
“Those who have lost their incomes saw only more depletion of their retirement funds. The unemployed did not see any help for them. The self-employed who are not members of the FNPF now realise that they have to fend for themselves. This is tragic.”
Narube says the budget favours the rich.
“Are buying vehicles to clog our already congested roads, getting drunk to drown the social impact of the crisis, and living beyond our means through hire purchases of white goods, priorities for us? This is unbelievable.”
Narube also asked for protections on debt for 2021-22 and how fiscal stability will be restored in the medium term. He believes the allocation for health is insufficient to prepare in case of a second round of the coronavirus and that the budget hasn’t addressed the need for economic diversification.
The Fiji Labour Party takes issue with the “blanket reduction or removal of Customs duties on a host of imported goods and luxury items” in the budget.
“The cheaper imports do little to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of our workers who have lost their jobs or have been put on highly reduced pays or working hours due to the impact of COVID-19. Indeed, there is very little provision in the Budget to assist the thousands in the informal sector who are not members of the FNPF,” FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry said.
“It would have been a lot more helpful if the Minister had removed the 9% VAT from staple food items which he imposed in the 2016 Budget,” Chaudhry said.
Chaudhry is also General Secretary of the National Farmers Union and says the reduction in the government-guaranteed cane price, from $85 a tonne to $70 is a “gross breach of trust.”
He says at $15 a tonne less, “growers are being short-changed by as much as $28 million based on the forecast of 1.8 million tonnes of cane for the 2020 season.”
Fiji’s 2020-21 National Budget will see the Government attempt to spend its way out of the COVID-19 induced recession.
“Barring drastic intervention, our economy may never fully recover; not this year, not next year, not decades on from now. That’s what is at stake; not only our economy, but our children’s economy,” Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said in his Budget address on Friday night.
Sayed-Khaiyum said the budget has been guided by the need to: bring back jobs (especially in the tourism sector) by bringing down taxes, retain a safety net for the unemployed and workers who have had their hours and salaries cut, and to “get Fiji working again”.
The $3.67 billion budget will see Fiji’s deficit drop to 20.2%, pushing the debt-to-GDP ration to 83.4%.
Sayed-Khaiyum says borrowing at this point is an “investment in our future” not a debt-trap.
“Borrowing now to build for tomorrow means future generations can borrow less. And a growing economy with a skilled and educated workforce generates more than enough national wealth and tax revenue to repay debt and invest in the future,” he says.
Khaiyum says Fiji cannot rely solely on domestic consumption, and that economy's recovery hinges on holding its place in the global economy. The government is providing for a wide range of tax breaks, aimed at stimulating business and consumer spending.
The government has also tabled reforms to improve the ease of doing business.
Sayed-Khaiyum says budget will be funded through external financing from multilateral partners such as the Asian Development Bank (which has approved a US$200 million loan to boost private sector investment in Fiji), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, World Bank and bilateral partners.
A third phase of COVID-relief payments has also been funded to the tune of $20 million. The Fiji National Provident Fund will again distribute this payment “because it’s fast, familiar and accessible, and its database is amongst the most reliable.”
The Minister has told Fijians that the pandemic and its impact is a test of character, and:” the single most patriotic thing you can do in this defining moment is place your belief in our people’s potential. If you are running a cashed-up business, invest now and build for the future. If you see new business, support it. If you see a new Fijian-made product, buy it. If you know a hard-working person out of work, hire them. And do so knowing that this government shares that commitment: We won’t allow our people to fall into an abyss. We believe in the great power of positivity; a positive outlook fosters not only a friendlier Fiji, but a more active economy.”
Other key points from the 2020-21 Budget:
“In this year’s budget, sweeping tax reform is front and centre. To call it “reform” in itself is an understatement; this year represents an overhaul –– one that will be vital to driving new economic activity…we’re announcing Fiji’s biggest ever tax cut.”
To businesses who will benefit from custom duty cuts, the Minister said, “the nation needs your generosity not your greed.”
Government allocations (in descending order)
The Vanuatu Electoral Commission has hit its worst nightmare as the official results continue to be delayed due to the COVID-19 situation and sadly, the passing of its Electoral Chairman Martin Tete in the early hours today at the Vila Central hospital (VCH).
Tete was reportedly admitted to VCH over the weekend after feeling unwell.
He served the Vanuatu Electoral Office for over a decade. Tete is well-respected for his unimpeachable integrity and is being mourned as died before the official declaration of wining candidates could be made.
He has been an integral part of Vanuatu’s electoral process and his passing will leave a big gap and loss for the country.
The Electoral Office today announced that their office will close until Thursday following the passing of Tete.
Caretaker Minister of Internal Affairs Andrew Napuat said it is a very challenging time for the government and the Ministry he leads: “The global threat in COVID-19 is being managed by the task-force set up by the government.
“Our role regarding elections and the loss of our chairman is to consult the State Law Office to advise us on the legal provisions that we should follow in such situations to ensure we publish the results as required by law.”
Meanwhile, as Vanuatu remains alert over the COVID-19 situation the transportation of ballot boxes from outer islands coming into Port Vila were monitored strictly over COVID-19 fears.
A patrol boat from the Solomon Islands that was in Vanuatu to help with the election has reportedly been isolated with all its crews and force members quarantined after returning from Aneiytum island.
They were quarantined including ballot boxes after reports emerged that a tourist who visited the island tested positive on arrival in Australia after visiting the island on Voyager of the Seas cruise ship this month.
Caretaker Minister Napuat urged the people of Vanuatu to remain calm and assured them that his office is doing everything under the law to ensure the results are published as required.
With the unofficial results now up and the advice from the Ministry of Health and Task force team to avoid social gatherings and maintain social distancing, political lobbying might take a new form where political parties and candidates do away with the traditional way of camping to maintain numbers, and instead ‘camp’ electronically through the use of social media.
To date, caretaker PM Charlot Salwai and Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu appear to have held their seats. Regenvanu's Graon Mo Jastis Party has nine seats, the Reunification Movement for Change has eight, the Leaders Party of Vanuatu also has eight seats, and the Vanua'aku Party has six according to the unofficial count.
President of French Polynesia Edouard Fritch has announced the first case of Covid-19 in Tahiti - the first confirmed case of the coronavirus across the Pacific Islands.
President Fritch said that Maina Sage, French Polynesia’s representative in the French National Assembly, had been confirmed with the virus after returning from Paris on 7 March. Ms. Sage is resting at home in self-isolation in Papeete.
Maina Sage recently served on a National Assembly commission with France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester, who has also been confined in France after contracting Covid-19.
Announcing the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Tahiti, President Fritch reassured people about government plans for monitoring, testing and isolation. He stated, however: “I invite the population to avoid travel outside the country.”
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a long-scheduled visit to French Polynesia because of the international health crisis. Macron was due to visit between 16-18 April for a summit with Island leaders, but his trip has been delayed until later this year.
Regional organisations and Pacific governments are preparing for more cases of Covid-19 in the islands region, as the World Health Organisation declares a global pandemic. But many citizens in small island developing states are fearful of the potential stress on medical services. An epidemic of measles across the Pacific last year highlighted the potential for transmission of infectious diseases, adding to existing burdens on public health systems from non-communicable diseases.
The international spread of the virus is starting to affect tourism in the islands – a vital source of revenue and employment. Many island nations have restricted visits by cruise ships and changed air schedules for their national airlines: Air Calédonie International has announced it will reduce the number of scheduled flights to Melbourne and Osaka from May, while Air Tahiti Nui has reduced flights to Japan. In an unprecedented step, the Republic of the Marshall Islands restricted all airline travel into the country for two weeks, until 22 March.