Opinion: From COVID-19 containment to suppression in the Western Pacific Region: 2020 Lessons for 2021
Compared to other parts of the world, the Western Pacific Region has been comparatively fortunate. Although the Region’s 37 countries and areas are home to more than a quarter of the world’s population, they have reported just 1% of globally confirmed cases to date. Most countries have avoided the so-called “red line”, or the point where critical care needs surpass health care capacity, large numbers of health care workers are infected, service quality declines, and deaths rapidly increase.
Of course, 2020 was a very difficult year – in particular, for healthcare workers, and for those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods. My thoughts are with the families of these people every day, and with the healthcare workers who have been working so hard over the past year. We all need to remain vigilant, in order to keep case numbers down, and health systems operating, and as far as possible, transmission of the virus in check.
As we embark on a new year, there are still many unknowns about COVID-19. However, it is still useful to reflect on some of the lessons that can be learned from our experiences and what we can take forward into 2021.
There are several reasons why the Western Pacific Region has fared relatively well, and important lessons that can be learned from countries in our Region's experience. Clearly, long term investment is critical. Countries in the Region have spent more than a decade preparing for events with pandemic potential, by strengthening their health systems in anticipation of an event like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies, or APSED, now in its third iteration, countries developed their response plans – and, crucially, the capacities and systems to implement them. Under this shared strategy, systems were set up – such as for contact tracing – which have proven to be critical in the COVID-19 response.
Countries that have successfully controlled COVID-19 had a very strong public health plan to manage positive cases. Most countries were able to scale up the right mix of public health interventions at the right time, to avoid health systems being totally overwhelmed.
China showed us early on that this virus could be suppressed, with strong public health interventions. Australia and New Zealand’s experience has reinforced this. We also saw in places such as the Republic of Korea, the importance of quickly scaling up testing – and linking this to the public health response.
In the Pacific, where there are some of the few remaining countries in the world yet to record a single case of COVID-19, countries and areas continue to prepare their health systems. Strong public health measures, proactive communications with their public, combined with border closures and stringent border quarantine measures, have slowed or stopped the spread of COVID-19. Fiji and New Caledonia, for example, which reported cases of COVID-19 in the community earlier in 2020, have now gone more than 240 days without reporting a case of COVID-19 outside of border quarantine.
From Japan, we learned the benefits of using a cluster-based approach. And of course, Japan also taught us about the renowned three C’s. I understand that now, even small children in Japan know about the three Cs: avoiding closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.
There are many other important factors: for instance, good systems for multi-source surveillance have been crucial – to enable countries to monitor trends, assess risks, and adapt response strategies accordingly.
Communication from trusted sources including governments, healthcare workers and scientists has also been so important – for establishing and sustaining social norms around protective behaviours, and building community support for public health measures. We have been observing very effective communication in many countries including Viet Nam, Singapore and New Zealand. I have been impressed so many times with the communication of those countries. I have also observed in many countries, a strong community commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.
I am also very proud of the spirit of solidarity that characterized interactions between countries of our Region in 2020 – from technical exchanges on issues such as laboratory testing and clinical management, to working together in joint incident management teams, and commitments to support equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Countries in the Region really have come together, borne out of a recognition that no country is safe until every country is safe.
Of course, none of the things I have described are unique to the Western Pacific Region. But they came together in 2020 in a unique way – sparing us from the scale of devastation that we are currently sadly seeing in other parts of the world. But this is obviously no time to be complacent: the pandemic is far from over, and how COVID-19 evolves in 2021 depends on all of us: our individual and collective actions will determine the course that the pandemic takes next.
As the holiday period draws to a close and we begin this new year, I encourage everyone in COVID- contained countries across our Region, those who are able to be together with their families and communities in-person, to discuss what they can do to be ready to apply the public health measures that we see working elsewhere in our Region, as and when they are needed.
Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific
Is development assistance for poor developing countries about altruism, or is it all about economic and strategic self-interest for the Pacific’s biggest donor, Australia?
How can aid truly reduce poverty, increase literacy and numeracy levels, gain gender parity where there is none, or change the patriarchal make-up of our societies and reduce violence against women?
Will decreased donor dependence ever be possible in the Pacific, given the high reliance on aid? Despite the depth of aid, our region is performing poorly, at least by Australian measurements, giving donors the technical high ground and moral ‘voice’ in program input, design and evaluation.
Do Pacific governments have an interest beyond the electoral cycle to use development assistance to actually advance beyond their current stages of economic growth and uplift standards of living for Pacific people?
These were the questions I had as a first timer to the 2020 Australasian Aid Conference hosted by the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University. I came away enriched, however a little bewildered at how poorly the region understood and did development, and with more questions than answers.
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For the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the disappointment of COP25 was that the conference attendees did not take its rallying cry for greater commitment: ‘climate change crisis’ - to heart. Recall the PIF Chair’s remark after the conference: “It is disheartening that our collective political commitment and resolve, as the Pacific Islands Forum, was not upheld by the parties to this declaration, where it mattered most – that is in the negotiating rooms in Madrid.”
In reviewing what was said and published post-COP25, however, it seems that the ‘climate change crisis’ message has obviously hit its targets in the wider audiences - those who do not necessarily have reserved seats in the global conference rooms. Writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari, for example, has written about the prospects of an ‘ecological collapse’, and he sternly warned global leaders about it recently at their World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland last January.
Another eminent writer and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, joined others in posing the question that in the light of the deteriorating climate change situation, whether humanity has started to breach some tipping points in climate change. Fred Pearce expands on this theme: “…the earth may be approaching key tipping points, including the runaway loss of ice sheets, that could fundamentally disrupt the global climate system. A growing concern is a change in ocean circulation which could alter climate patterns in a profound way.”
Furthermore, the Climate Emergency Movement has determined that: the “…world may have crossed tipping points - warning of ‘existential threat to civilisation’ as impacts lead to cascade of unstoppable events.” To underline the existentiality of the threat by way of analogy, the BBC News has pointed to its own nuclear Doomsday Clock which is now indicating how close our planet is to complete annihilation: “it is only 100 seconds away from midnight! This is the nearest we have been to apocalypse!”
Notwithstanding the disappointment of COP25, the reality of the climate change situation is that the solution - and there has to be a solution - has to be on a global level.
What therefore of the region? To grant globalism a modicum of success, regionalism has to step up its act. Greater global inter-dependence is called for. This implies a lot of things. As a start, for Pacific regionalism, for instance, it cannot be business as usual. Pacific regionalism has to be strengthened. New ideas, new solutions, new methodologies have to be found and put to use with unprecedented levels of energy and strength of commitment.
“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”, echoes the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s famous song. And the commentator’s take: “The answers are there in the wind. They move, they change, but the answers are there. It’s only a matter of trying to pick them up.”
I have been playing the commentator’s role as a contributor to this magazine since last September. My article for the September/October (2019) issue: ‘Death of Pacific Regionalism?’, was a proposition that we need to approach Pacific regionalism differently from what we have been doing since 1971. My December article: ‘2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent: A Sea Change?’ explored the likely approach to the formulation of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent in my attempt to build a regional architecture that is essential and conducive for a fresh approach to Pacific regionalism.
My January 2020 article: ‘PIF Identity May Need Re-focusing’ delves deeper into what we are – our regional persona. If we are to be different and to assert our persona and our agency, we have to correct one of the building blocks of what we are and what we project to the world. My February article: ‘PIF Needs to Strategise After COP25’, points to some options that our new approach can take, especially in the context of our existential threat of climate change, given the disappointment of COP25. I discussed the prospects of southsouth, north-south and triangular co-operations in addition to our multilateral approach.
Now, let us look for some other answers in the wind. The proposed 2050 Strategy is giving prominence to the interests of Pacific Island Countries (PICs), not only in terms of issues and policies but also in terms of their options as regards the regional architecture of Pacific regionalism. This makes a lot of sense when it comes to climate change. There is no unity in climate change among PIF members. But it is the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) amongst them that understand fully the existentiality of the threat that climate change presents.
In geopolitics as well, PICs are generally used as pawns of the bigger and developed powerful countries, especially the Pacific Rim countries. PICs know best their own situations and feel more passionately about being shunned and ignored when other powerful allies abuse their agency and speak on their behalf as if they don’t exist.
In mid-2019, an answer had blown in from the northern wind when former Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu suggested the ‘United States of the Pacific’ as a way of restructuring Pacific regionalism. This was a way of creating a forum for PICs only and he justified this as a means ‘to amplify(ing) their concerns about climate change on the global stage.’
A new answer blew in late last year in the form of a consultant report to PIFS on ‘Review of the Forum Processes’. I admit that I was one of the consultants that drafted the report. My partner in crime and a senior partner at that was Garry Wisemen, formerly of UNDP and PIFS. Strengthening the role of the PIF Troika (comprising at any time the former, current and in-coming Chairs) was recommended in the report. And what better way to start the work of the empowered Troika than on the climate change crisis! If managed and resourced well, there could be early dividends to reap.
The current composition of the Troika comprises Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The all-PIC composition is ideal for the Troika’s strengthened role in climate change crisis. Its role has to be formalised and protected. It should not be subjected to variation with changing membership.
The Troika is to be charged to spearhead all discussions/negotiations/advocacy on climate change crisis, starting with relevant PIF membership and extending beyond the region. These negotiations need to be intensive and focused. The Troika is to direct its first advocacy with PIF’s developed country members of Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). PIF will be more convincing globally if it starts its climate change crisis advocacy properly at home.
The Troika’s work, as far as ANZ are concerned, is unequivocal, given our climate change knowledge of the causes of greenhouse gas emissions of those countries. For Australia, the PIF Troika is to advocate for an effective programme for that country to wean itself from fossil fuels. For New Zealand, the Troika is to advocate for the production of ‘clean meat’ in the not-too-distant future.
‘Yes, and how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.’
The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.
For the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), COP25 in Spain was viewed with great optimism and hope. A number of issues and developments contributed to that frame of mind. However, the Conference proved a disappointment. In the light of that setback, PIF needs to pursue additional approaches that are more oriented toward progress through effective collective advocacy and tactical factional initiatives that can fuel and propel global actions.
Leading up to COP25, PIF Leaders released ‘The Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now’ at their annual summit in Tuvalu. It was enthusiastically promoted as “a signal of our strength.” Kainaki II, for instance, is a recapitulation of the climate change issues contained in the Boe Declaration adopted by PIF Leaders the year before in Nauru. The Boe Declaration, for the first time, had reaffirmed “that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”
The Kainaki II Declaration raised the aspirational bar a bith igher through its reference to “the climate change crisis” which even Australia was happy to endorse. As it turned out, Australia endorsed the critical phraseology not only once, but twice – in the same Declaration. Such endorsement would have been a source for self-congratulation for the Forum Leaders given that Australia is generally viewed in the region as a problematic climate change dissident. This hard-toget sign of unity obviously fuelled great enthusiasm in the region to the extent that Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor elevated the Declaration to ‘the strongest statement the Pacific islands Forum has ever issued collectively’.
The Forum’s pre-COP25 excitement was further heightened by the action of the COP25 Chilean Presidency. The Presidency is a strong advocate for the need to address the nexus between oceans and climate change. The Presidency thus coined COP25 as ‘the Blue COP’. This was enthusiastically taken up by Spain, who hosted the Conference under a partnership arrangement with Chile. Given the Forum’s position on the oceans and the Forum Secretariat’s role as the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, the added sobriquet to COP25 as ‘the Blue COP’ should have been manna from heaven. The ‘EU Ocean Day’, celebrated during The Blue COP in Madrid should have been the icing on the cake.
But it was not to be. The Blue COP was a disappointment. The Fiji Times of 23 December 2019 carried an article: ‘COP25 issue: PIF members express disappointment.’ PIF Chair and Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano said “the lack of ambition and urgency on climate action emanating from COP25 was very concerning, particularly for small island nations on the frontlines of the present climate crisis.”
It was evident that that the ‘climate change crisis’ that PIF Leaders took to Madrid as a rallying cry for greater commitment to the Paris Declaration fell on deaf ears. Prime Minister Natano articulated the frustration of PIF leaders: “It is disheartening that our collective political commitment and resolve, as the Pacific Islands Forum, was not upheld by the parties to this declaration, where it mattered most – that is in the negotiating rooms in Madrid.”
A useful takeaway from the situation above is that the PIF message is not being heard nor appreciated by the Parties to the Conference. Conference regulars are either not attuned to the PIF message or they suffer from selective hearing. In the context of global conferences – large and impersonal, it is easy to imagine that either of these prospects could be the case.
On the other hand, the PIF message may not be forcibly articulated sufficiently. There can be a number of reasons for this. It is interesting to note however that in looking forward to COP26, the PIF Chair is calling on his fellow leaders “to reaffirm and uphold the commitment that we have made through the Kainaki Declaration and strive for ambitious climate action that positively responds to the indisputable scientific evidence that has been presented (to) us through the special IPCC reports.”
Will COP26 and subsequent ones be any different? It is difficult to be optimistic. Instead of flogging a dead horse at this multilateral level, PIF is best to change tack. It should divert some of its energy to seeking strong and supportive advocacy of its ‘climate change crisis’ message to other forms of multilateralism and even plurilateralism that are lot more attuned to listening and appreciating this message and are more likely to orchestrate with ease the forces of their advocacy in support. This can then carry over to the global conferences.
Engagements in North-South, South-South and Triangular Co-operations present specific opportunities for PIF to step up its game and win some kudos for its laudable stance on climate change.
North-South Cooperation by way of the ACP-EU Cooperation beckons immediately given the current negotiations for a new agreement to replace the Cotonou Agreement. In this context, PACP States in PIF are negotiating directly with the EU for a Pacific-EU Protocol. The timing is perfect. ACP States at their Nairobi summit last December agreed to ‘A Transformed ACP Committed to Multilateralism.’ As can be imagined, PIF can advance its stance on climate change through eliciting the support of the ACP Group as a whole and also directly with the EU via the Pacific-EU Protocol under negotiations.
As regards South-South Co-operations, PIF, again, can elicit joint advocacy on its climate change stance either through the collective action of the ACP Group cooperating with other large South groups or through its own effort by cooperating on the basis of inter-regional south-south co-operations. The UN Office for South-South Co-operation (UNOSSC) is particularly active in facilitating this area of collaborative development. It is interesting to note that the Regional Coordinator of UNOSSC (Asia–Pacific), Mr. Denis Nkala paid a visit to the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) early in January this year. Mr Nkala also discussed the prospect of Triangular Cooperation.
Triangular Cooperation offers exciting prospects as well. The choice of partners can be specific to their respective commitment to climate change. The prospects and opportunities of a configuration comprising, say, of two youth groups cooperating triangularly with either a developed country partner or a multilateral organisation can be a source of great regional satisfaction.
For PIF, there is nothing to lose. It can only stand to gain if all through its multifaceted efforts as suggested above, there begins a concerted effort by the international community to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement. Only then can the Blue Pacific continent safely exist.
The author is a former Fijian ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.
MOTIVES FOR PROVIDING AID
Competition for diplomatic recognition has driven China’s and Taiwan’s aid programmes in the Pacific. Aid has been used as a tool for both sides to garner support. China insists its aid to recipients should be understood in terms of SouthSouth cooperation and is mutually beneficial. The Chinese government regards PICs as part of the greater periphery in its diplomacy and the southern extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The China–Oceania–South Pacific blue economic passage is seen as part of what is termed ‘the 21st century maritime silk road’ that will travel southward from the South China Sea into the Pacific.
Besides bolstering its diplomatic relations, Taiwan’s white paper on foreign aid emphasises that providing foreign aid is a means for Taiwan, which was once a beneficiary of foreign aid from the United States and Japan among others, to give back to the international community and also to share Taiwan’s developmental experience with partner countries. Given four of Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies are from the Pacific (Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu), the importance of the region to Taiwan is self-evident. Taiwan has been seeking to strengthen relations with PICs through its New Southbound Policy introduced by President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and to highlight the shared cultural and linguistic links between the two sides.
While most of China’s and Taiwan’s aid goes to their diplomatic allies, both also provide a limited amount of aid to countries with no diplomatic ties.
TYPES OF AID
Bilateral aid dominates aid from China and Taiwan to the Pacific region. The majority of Chinese aid goes into largescale infrastructure projects in the form of concessional loans such as the US$46 million for constructing the Goroka University dormitory (phases 2–4) in Papua New Guinea. This has sparked debate about the indebtedness of PICs. In comparison, Taiwan’s aid has focused on technical assistance in agriculture and health, government scholarships and small- to medium-sized infrastructure such as a solar power plant in Nauru. Taiwan also uses aid to promote people-to-people links. In August 2013, Taiwan’s Institute of Diplomatic and International Affairs and the East-West Center in Hawai‘i launched a five-year Pacific Islands Leadership Programme with Taiwan which was extended for another five years. By 2018, a total of 144 Pacific youth leaders had participated in the programme, including from all eight PICs that recognise China.
Until September 2019, Taiwan had delivered about 70 percent of its Solomon Islands aid budget through rural constituency development funds. The fact that Taiwan had paid scant attention to mega-infrastructure had apparently been resented; the parliamentary bipartisan task force complained that ‘Taiwan will not do anything substantial in infrastructure development to support the economic growth of Solomon Islands.’ China has promised to provide aid to Solomon Islands in sectors such as infrastructure, constituency development funds, scholarships and the 2023 Pacific Games.
Both China and Taiwan provide aid predominantly throughgovernment channels. For China, the only civil society organisation involved is the government-backed China Red Cross, which provides donations to PICs at times of natural disasters. In Taiwan, the Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID), an umbrella organisation for nearly 30 Taiwanese NGOs working overseas, assists aid delivery. Both circumvent sensitive areas such as democracy, human rights and governance in PICs. Some aid experts from Taiwan AID suggest Taiwan adopt a human rights-based approach and allow civil society organisations to play a greater role in aid delivery to differentiate Taiwan from China’s tight control of such organisations overseas. The diplomatic tug-of-war between China and Taiwan is expected to intensify in the Pacific in the foreseeable future. China seeks to have the upper hand and utilise its political and economic leverage, including through aid and the BRI, to win over Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. For Taiwan, it is likely to use aid to prevent a domino effect after Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched to China. Having a smaller number of diplomatic allies means Taiwan now has more aid resources at its disposal in the Pacific.
This version of the Department of Pacific Affairs In Brief
2019/20 appeared first on Devpolicy Blog, devpolicy.org, from
the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National
Denghua Zhang is a Research Fellow at the Department of
Pacific Affairs at ANU.