Twelve Pacific Island countries are expected to receive vaccines for the coronavirus in the first half of this year through the COVAX initiative, with the region’s largest nation Papua New Guinea expected to receive by far the largest allocation.
PNG—which is still experiencing large-scale community transmission of COVID-19— is forecast to receive 684,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured at the Serum Institute of India in the first quarter of the year. Solomon Islands will receive 108,000 doses from the same source.
The other Pacific Islands nations listed by COVAX last week will also receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, but from a different manufacturing source.
While these forecasts are subject to change, COVAX partners say the release of this information should help governments and public health leaders put into place practical steps to roll out the vaccines in-country.
The Facility aims to see total doses cover at least 3% of the total population of all 145 participant countries in the first half of this year, enough to protect the most vulnerable groups such health care workers.
While 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be available to the COVAX facility in the first three months of this year, no Pacific Islands are listed to receive it as this is the ultra-cold chain vaccine, requiring temperatures of minus-70 degrees.
More vaccine doses are expected to be available later this year.
After last week's Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders' retreat, Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor said Australia and New Zealand have committed to ensuring vaccines will be shared across the region.
"They gave assurances to the leaders that supplies would come. However in terms of an exact date I would be misleading you if I said we had any clear indication of that."
In a speech in Fiji’s parliament today, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum said vaccine dispersal is so far “shaping up to be a rich countries’ race. Countries with just 16% of the world’s population have bought out 60% of the world’s vaccine supply.”
“Fiji must secure its place in the world’s economic comeback by securing vaccines as quickly as we can, not months after the rest of the world but alongside it otherwise our people will be more vulnerable than they have ever been, exposed to infection, economically disadvantaged and left behind as the rest of the world races ahead.”
“Patiently waiting our time in the COVAX queue will be economic suicide for the country,” he said, noting that Fiji is working with bilateral partners to secure financial resources to buy vaccines now and will also be looking at making direct purchases from vaccine manufacturers.
“So far Australia and India have stepped up with direct funding and shifted support,” Khaiyum said.
This story was updated at 5:11pm Fiji time to reflect events in Fiji's parliament today.
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.
A step up in engagement by the Australian and New Zealand governments, combined with regional and international economic support over the past year, has cushioned the initial blow of Covid-19.
Moving forward, labour mobility, a fast vaccine rollout and safe travel corridors in the region, combined with the faster release of infrastructure support will be critical to its ongoing recovery.
Closed borders have hit the Pacific island economies hard. The idyllic, Covid-free beaches of the Pacific islands are empty of visitors, and the countries that rely on tourism are experiencing a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on their economies, despite not having a health emergency.
While overseas economic conditions are set to improve this year, the Pacific will require international support to see an uplift in economic conditions. Unlike many of the developed Western countries, the relatively poor Pacific island countries were not able to put a floor under demand and shelter their economies from a more severe recession.
A more severe economic downturn, pressures on payments and elevated currency and country risks are probable in 2021.
Fortunately, the Pacific has long benefitted from support provided by some of its nearest neighbours. Australia and New Zealand have been the region’s key development partners, and more recently, their step up has been encouraging when combined with international donor assistance.
In the last year alone, the World Bank and IFC announced AU$1bn investment into Fiji and the AU$2bn Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) has become operational. Recent Australian and New Zealand government assistance to the islands in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Yasa has been welcomed.
In the wake of COVID-19, the Pacific will continue to require international support. The most beneficial types if support are likely to include:
Steps to ensure a:
Tourism key to a jobs recovery
Prior to the pandemic, the Pacific’s inbound tourism was strong, helped by solid economic conditions, particularly income growth in key source markets including Australia and New Zealand. Growth in overseas arrivals averaged about 5% a year. So much so, that that in the past decade tourism became the main driver of growth for many of the Pacific island economies including Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga.
Tourism revenue flowed directly into sectors such as accommodation and food services, retail and transport, but then also fed through to other supporting industries yielding secondary benefits to the economy.
Once you add the stimulus from employment and taxes collected, the tourism sector’s total contribution to GDP is several multiples of its direct contribution to GDP and equates to about 40 - to 60% of the region’s output. For the Cook Islands, the contribution to GDP is closer to 80%.
However, since the Covid-induced border shutdown, visitor arrivals have collapsed to virtually zero since April 2020.
Tourism-dependent businesses are experiencing negative cash flows and are struggling to meet commitments. This has resulted in the loss of many thousands of jobs. Fiji lost nearly 70,000 formal sector jobs in 2020 (21% of total employment) which saw the unemployment rate shoot up to 27% from 7% in 2019. Taking into account the informal sector of the economy, which comprise the majority of total employment in the Pacific islands, then the jobs impact is a lot higher.
The solution: A tourism-led jobs recovery.
Many Pacific island countries have not had any community transmission of the virus with some countries having gone several hundred days without a local case. In the absence of international tourism, the economic hardships will get worse.
Recreating the strong growth in inbound tourism seen in the period leading up to the pandemic will be a challenge but it is through the support of its international allies where we might see a turnaround.
GDP and jobs is not the only problem – national debt is mounting
Most Pacific island countries experienced solid growth before the pandemic. But the flipside of this is a rising trade deficit, fuelled by imports of both consumer and capital goods. Over-consumption and narrow growth raises the risk of a return to larger deficits if tourism does not recover.
The need to finance the current account deficit requires a continued inflow of funds, either debt or equity. With the latter requiring favourable economic conditions, debt is the only viable alternative for now.
However, debt has limited wriggle room given the substantial uplift in government borrowings to finance budget deficits in 2020. If the current account deficit comes to a head, then pressures on foreign reserves will emerge and currency risks could rise.
Yes, migrant remittances are holding but that is not enough because consumption does not provide for a jobs recovery.
More budget support can contain credit and country risks
Pacific island governments had to take out large loans and issue debt to offset the decline in revenues brought about by a collapse of the tourism industry. Larger budget deficits have pushed debt higher and has left limited room to borrow more.
Further, Pacific island countries are B-rated credit nations and this prevents them from accessing cheap funds from the international capital markets. The need to fund budget deficits with more expensive domestic debt will heighten credit and country risks. To contain these risks, other countries may consider providing cheaper budget support loans while the Pacific awaits a recovery in tourism and jobs.
Ramping up Pacific labour schemes can help
The Australian Government has restarted its Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) to help fill acute labour shortages in rural and regional Australia. New Zealand has also received seasonal workers. In the 2018-19 financial year, 12,200 Pacific people worked in Australia under the SWP and remitted an aggregate nearly AUD110m back to Pacific. There are further opportunities here due to the current pool of displaced Pacific workers.
Agriculture technical expertise can reduce imports and help in economic diversification
No doubt after the pandemic we will see a shift away from the Pacific islands being so heavily dependent on tourism as a source of growth. The Pacific has great potential in agriculture with kava exports coming in leaps in bounds in recent years.
Despite this potential, the Pacific remains a net importer of fruits and vegetables when it comes to meeting tourism demand. With abundant land, the Pacific should be looking to reduce these imports and become an exporter of fruit and vegetables. There is also great potential in other areas such as fisheries and niche products like coffee, cocoa and turmeric.
The region would benefit from help with training, technical support and equipment, which could see the Pacific islands, produce high-quality produce at a scale to feed themselves and for the export market.
Release infrastructure funding quickly and get work started
Inadequate infrastructure remains a key constraint to Pacific prosperity. Without question, the Pacific needs better roads and ports to get produce to market, electricity to drive rural development and industry and more reliable and sophisticated telecommunications. It also needs to safeguard against climate risks by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The Asia Development Bank estimates that over US$30bn needs to be invested in Pacific infrastructure by 2030.
But the Pacific islands alone lack the resources to meet the ADB’s targets. The narrow-based economies provide limited resources for governments who have to juggle competing priorities, and infrastructure investment is often the casualty. Donor funding is critical.
The AU$2bn Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) has built a project pipeline of about AU$300m for year ending 30 June 2021. This is exactly what the region needs, more urgently than ever. Fast roll out of this funding, along with the release of fast disbursing funds for infrastructure maintenance works, would mean projects can begin immediately, creating much-needed jobs.
Tessa Price is ANZ's Regional Executive Pacific. Kishti Sen is ANZ's Pacific Economist
A new human rights report released as Fiji's Nazhat Shameem Khan takes the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council has noted concern over some Pacific Island governments' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Human Rights Situational Analysis released by the UN Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner (UNHCR) and the Pacific Community (SPC) observed that 13 Pacific Island countries declared states of emergency in the early months of the pandemic, and notes concerns raised over harsh penalties for curfew infringements and restrictions on freedom of information and expression. It also notes allegations that major constitutional changes are being rushed through under the cover of a state of emergency without due process.
It says that measures taken by Pacific Island Countries in the ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery efforts should be aligned with international legal standards relating to special measures to avoid violating the rights of people i and to ensure the foundations essential for sustainable development are guaranteed.
At a domestic level, civil society organisations in countries such as Fiji have raised concerns over the ongoing impact of these restrictions, and their potential continuance beyond the pandemic.
Those organisations have reported increased calls to helplines and demand for domestic violence support services during the pandemic in Samoa and Fiji. The report states that further lockdowns, increased financial pressures and growing food insecurity could all increase this risk, and that this has been compounded by formal and informal support services becoming less reliable due to the reallocation of resources and reduced capacity of Civil Society Organisations.
The SPC/UNHCR report describes the mental health consequences of the pandemic for many marginalised groups as a “ticking time bomb,” citing the case of Guam, where it is estimated that there was a suicide every six days between June and August in 2020, around three times higher than the global average. The region “does not have the counselling competency and capacity to deal with widespread mental health issues” the report states.
This is a concern echoed by many working in national social services sectors, but which has not yet been comprehensively addressed by governments and development partners.
Meanwhile Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan's election to the Presidency as the first Pacific Islander to hold this position, has been welcomed by the NGO Coalition on Human Rights in Fiji as a "step in the right direction" .
"As the president of the UNHCR, Fiji now faces global scrutiny on our human rights obligations. This is a welcome opportunity for Fiji to reflect on our progress and the existing human rights concerns that need to be addressed," said the NGOCHR Chair Nalini Singh.
"With Fiji's new appointment, our government must act to ensure that human rights and the principles of equality and justice are upheld across all sectors," said Singh.
The NGOCHR has consistently raised concerns over alleged police brutality in Fiji, and says human rights shoud not be rolled back under the guise of COVID response measures.
Ambassador Khan presided over her first session of the Human Rights Council last week, with the commencement of the 37th Session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) with the review of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
The Reserve Bank of Fiji has released another series of sobering figures, and says the coronavirus pandemic shows little sign of abating going into 2021.
The Bank has recorded declines in jobs, government tax revenue, lending for investment and consumption, and in the construction, sugar, gold, tourism and electricity sectors. Continuing a trend seen much of this year, personal remittances are up.
The Bank says its Job Advertisement Survey registered a 65.7% decline in vacancies for the year to November.
Value Added Tax collections cumulative to November 2020 dropped by 38.6%.
New lending by commercial banks for consumption fell 27.8%, driven by lower lending to the commercial sector (a decline of 21%) and private individuals (which saw lending halve in value).
The story is similar for new lending for investment, with lending to building and construction down by 24% and for real estate down by 20.9%. Furthermore, banks have increased their provisioning for credit losses due to increased credit risks and a rise in non-performing loans.
Domestic cement sales declined by 13.9% cumulative to November.
For the year to November, cement production was down 15.8%, electricity 10.1%, and gold 7.1% due to delays in getting essential equipment into the country. Conversely, the timber sector grew, with pinewood supply up by 22.2% and woodchips 47.4%. However sawn timber and mahogany declined.
While 2.1% more cane was harvested at the end of the 2020 crushing season, its poorer quality meant sugar production declined by 5.1%.
The Reserve Bank says liquidity levels remain ample, despite a 5.8% dip in November. At December 31, total liquidity in the banking system stood at F$836.8 million. The trade deficit continues to narrow, due to “a notable increase in inward remittances and Government’s external borrowing” which has stabilised foreign reserves. Total remittances in the year to November sit at F$572.8million, while just $311.3 million has been earned through tourism cumulative to September.