May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

There was no social distancing evident as tens of thousands of Vanuatu citizens marched through the capital to celebrate the nation’s 40th Independence Anniversary at the end of last month. Vanuatu is one of just eleven countries (at the time of writing) to record no coronavirus cases, so joyful celebrations were unfettered by crowd limits or stringent sanitation protocols.

Vanuatu gained its independence from Britain and France on July 30, 1980. Reflecting on that time, independence figure Pastor Sethy Regenvanu said 40 years ago there were many factors that separated them,  but that the people of Vanuatu had always been independent as “before white people came to Vanuatu” we were…relying on our subsidence agriculture and our way of life, culture and customs.”

The 40th birthday celebrations began with the solemn handing of the Vanuatu flag from the family of first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini, to successive Prime Ministers or their families, in chronological order, ending with the recently-elected PM Bob Loughman.

Loughman received the baton as the country meets the twin challenges of COVID-19 and Cyclone Harold-induced economic trouble.

Vanuatu is due to ‘graduate’ from Least Developed Country (LDC) status at the end of this year. Loughman is determined to pursue the process (which has been delayed three times already) despite the stresses of COVID and cyclones. LDC status is designed to support countries facing deep obstacles to economic advancement. Graduation means that while they may still receive aid, they should no longer need maximum concessionary treatment from development partners.

An ESCAP paper last year suggested Vanuatu’s successful graduation is a significant achievement which would require a well-informed transition strategy, and “marks the start of what will be a potentially more challenging phase of the nation’s development journey.” The paper says attaining funding assistance will be based on maximising impact and leveraging private sector investment.

Pre-COVID and cyclone, Vanuatu’s economy  was projected to grow by 3.4% but the forecast now is a contraction to 0.6%. In an update just released, the Ministry of Finance says growth is expected to remain positive because of Government’s TC Harold recovery efforts, the Economic Stimulus Package and donor support, plus implementation of  infrastructure projects and the 11th European Development Fund. Medium term projections are also robust, driven by agriculture and industry.

Vanuatu’s strong fiscal position and successive years of budget surpluses means it should be able to fund its US$37 million stimulus measures from its own reserves. While tax revenue for the first half of the year is down 1.8% on the same period in 2019, revenue from the honorary citizenship program was up 32.3% over the first six months of last year, netting Vt 7,094.2 million (US$62,000). This means the 2020 target has already been exceeded.

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The Fiji National Provident Fund says its has paid out F$49.1 million (US$22m) to 77,507 members under the COVID-19 withdrawal scheme, with most applications now processed.

The FNPF says 86,854 applications in total were lodged, and close to 4,600 members will be paid out this week.  

Government subsidies accounted for more than $6.67 million, the remainder came from members’ own funds.

Chief Executive Officer Jaoji Koroi says withdrawals related to Tropical Cyclone Harold continue as well. The FNPF has received around 722 applications for that withdrawal scheme and paid out $797,194 to 606 members. “Our teams have completed inspection for the maritime zones – specifically for Kadavu, Vatulele and a few islands in the Lau Group,” says Mr Koroi. “Majority of members contacting the Fund do not live in the affected area but their homes were damaged. These members have been advised to apply for the housing assistance scheme to repair their homes provided they meet the qualifying requirements”, Mr Koroi adds.

The TC Harold withdrawal scheme only targeted members whose homes were damaged and also reside in areas that were declared a natural disaster area by the National Disaster Management Office.

The Lord Mayor of Luganville town in Vanuatu, Peter Patty says his biggest fear now is how they can rebuild as Cyclone Harold is already causing devastating damage in the northern town.

The Category 5 Tropical Cyclone couldn’t come at a worst time for Vanuatu, as it braces for the COVID-19 pandemic.

More people in the northern parts of Vanuatu and Santo in particular are moving to evacuation centres as TC Harold has increased in intensity,  with sustained winds close to its centre of 215km/h according to the Vanuatu Meteorology Service.

Speaking to Island Business this morning, Lord Mayor Patty says people living around the Pepsi area have lost their homes to flooding and two evacuation centres are already full, with plans to open more.

“My biggest fear now is how can we rebuild and revive businesses back to normal.

“This is one of the worst crises— to experience a cyclone in the middle of a pandemic that we have yet to recover from.”

While Vanuatu has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, precautionary measures have closed its ports and businesses.

Mayor Patty says all businesses in the town has been shut since Friday, after advice and warnings from the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department (VMGD).

While the national State of Emergency conditions due to COVID-19 pandemic remain in place, the unpredictable intensity of TC Harold has forced the Government to remove the limit on social gatherings to five or less people,  as many people will be expected to assemble together in evacuation centers.

Abraham Nasak director of the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) in Vanuatu announced yesterday that the rule on social gatherings has been removed and advised people to move to safer shelters, given that the rule of 5 in social gatherings has been lifted.

The Pacifica Weather & Tropical cyclone updates reported this morning that the eye of the Category 5 severe Tropical Cyclone Harold is just offshore to the West of Espiritu Santo.

Reports from a family at Nakere Village on South Santo revealed that the whole village has moved to an evacuation centre in a nearby school.

Kensly Micah from the NDMO on Santo says they all they can do is stay indoors and try to stay safe.

“We could not contact officers from different area councils around Sanma Province at this point of time.

“This is unpredicted and I must say there was less preparations as to how we can prepare for a tropical cyclone because much focus was on COVID-19,” Micah said.

The VMGD continues to release early warnings and red alert remains for Sanma Province, Penama, and Malampa.

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