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 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).
Covid-19 has only catalysed the growing geopolitical interest in the Pacific Islands. Donors have been tripping over each other to prepare for an outbreak of the virus. But, at the same time, this has only exacerbated fundamental cleavages in the delivery of aid to the region.
The Pacific has always had a messy web of donor footprints. Australia and New Zealand have been a constant presence. Alongside this, there is a split between the islands that recognise China versus those that recognise Taiwan.
On top of this, colonial relationships and ongoing Compacts of Free Association agreements mean that the support of some big powers looms large in parts of the region, while being entirely absent in others. And more recently, new players such as the European Union have also stepped into the ring.
The fact that the Pacific’s development indicators continue to rank well behind those of Sub-Saharan Africa has helped it avoid the intense politicisation of aid we have seen elsewhere.
But if current trends continue, the Pacific is on track for a collision between its fundamental development needs and the rapidly evolving state of its geopolitical relationships. In just the past few years alone, China has overtaken the United States to become the third-largest donor in the region.
The great risk in all this is that whatever the Pacific needs, it is unlikely to actually receive. Purely donor-driven approaches rarely deliver what a recipient needs, especially when it is geopolitics – not development – driving the agenda.
This new-found interest in the region has also created a myriad of different bilateral aid processes for recipient countries to navigate. As a result, public servants are forced to spend their days writing proposal after proposal, rather than actually getting on with delivering them.
Take Tuvalu, where the support of 58 different donor countries makes up more than half of its gross domestic product, but where there are only eight people responsible for managing this aid.
With the fight against climate change now touching every development project in the Pacific, the greatest setback in the push to harmonise this development aid in recent years has arguably been Australia’s decision to withdraw from the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
The GCF was designed to precisely address this problem by streamlining climate finance. No amount of additional bilateral funding from Australia will make up for this reckless decision.
However, China’s approach is equally problematic – not least its proclivity for bilateral support and large concessional loans, over multilateral channels or even cooperative development projects with other donors. It is hard to underestimate the geopolitical kudos that would probably come Beijing’s way from developing countries if it were to channel some of its own funding through the GCF, for example.
Australia, which remains the largest donor to the region by far, has a particular interest in helping forge a more coordinated approach among the Pacific’s donor community. Analyst Allan Behm’s recent suggestion for Australia to convene a donor conference is a good one.
Australia should realise that its own Pacific “step up” will continue to be hamstrung by its lack of a genuine climate policy, its ability to play this kind of role will remain limited.
Most importantly, such an approach should also be driven by the Pacific itself. The Pacific Islands Forum’s existing “Dialogue Partners” group could provide the basis for this, especially if it can find a way to involve Taiwan.
The 2009 Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Coordination in the Pacific tried to improve things. And the recent establishment of the “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway” at the height of the Covid-19 crisis could provide a renewed opportunity to get this done.
Covid-19 has confirmed that the new-found geopolitical interest in the Pacific shows no signs of abating. But a better way must be found to coordinate the delivery of aid to the region that comes with this. This crisis is an opportunity to do just that.
Dr Hilda Heine is a former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Thom Woodroofe is senior adviser on multilateral affairs to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. This article is published in a content partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Covid New (Ab) Normal initiative
From the zenith of Pacific regionalism (the Forum) from the early 1970s, Fiji’s standing in the group and amongst its regional neighbours stooped to unprecedented ignominy in 2009. Fiji was the first member country ever to be suspended from the Forum. It remained in the doldrums until 2014 when its membership was reinstated after the country’s 2014 general elections. After tentative steps to regain its rightful status, Fiji appears to be firmly on the way to recapturing its lost good name. Its task is a foregone conclusion. It has to be the mainspring of transformative changes under the proposed 2050 Strategy. Fiji’s first step is to ensure that the strategy is expertly and adequately framed to effectively deliver on all the changes that will transform the economies of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to sustainability, secure inter-dependencies and heightened levels of self-sufficiency.
Fiji’s good name in the Forum had a pre-Forum lead-up. In 1965, independent Western Samoa was a member of the then South Pacific Commission (SPC). Fiji and other non-independent PICs attended SPC meetings only on invitation. But they were unhappy about their treatment by the metropolitan countries. At the meeting in Lae that year, Fiji’s Ratu Kamisese Mara masterminded what was to be later referred to as the Lae Rebellion.
Ratu Mara articulated the PICs’ concern: “The powers seemed incapable of realising that the winds of change had at last reached the South Pacific and that we peoples of the territories were no longer going to tolerate the domination of the Commission by the metropolitan powers. We were sick of having little to say and no authority. Regardless of what we said or did the final decision was always in the hands of the metropolitan powers.”
The Lae Rebellion resulted in the breakaway of five PICs—the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and Western Samoa—with the idea to establish their own forum between 1970 - 1971. Ratu Mara, Fiji’s first Prime Minster, was the principal interlocutor for the group and he negotiated the terms of the inclusion in the group of New Zealand first and Australia later. The South Pacific Forum was thus formalised in Wellington in 1971. Ratu Mara later justified the inclusion of the two developed countries: “We were happy to be joined by Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) in the Forum…..Indeed, we wanted them for a special reason for part of the ambitious plan of the Forum..…was no less than to alter the whole balance of the terms of trade.”
Fiji’s good record persisted over the years when the Forum needed to negotiate and resolve intractable global issues like The Law of the Sea and nuclear testing. Fast forward to 2000, under the Biketawa Declaration, specifically under RAMSI, where Fiji’s contribution of security personnel, along with those from Australia, New Zealand and other PICs assisted Solomon Islands in its hour of need, is to be commended.
But the period starting in December 2006 marked Fiji’s decline in favour in terms of Pacific regionalism. The same Biketawa Declaration was invoked to suspend Fiji in 2009 following the coup of 2006 and failure to conduct general elections as first indicated. Fiji’s suspension was lifted in October 2014 after the general elections. But the controversies surrounding Fiji persisted. This was due to Prime Minister Bainimarama’s intention to find ways to exclude Australia and New Zealand from the Forum’s membership.
This intention, however, waned somewhat with the execution of the provisions of Australia’s ‘Step-Up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Re-set’ that strengthened regional aid packages for the PICs. PM Bainimarama’s mood was upbeat on the way to the Tuvalu Forum Leaders’ meeting last year. When asked about his relationship with Australia and New Zealand, he said that the Forum was reaching a new stage in its development with both. His mood, however, reverted to being critical of the two developed country members after the divisive shenanigans of Funafuti instigated by Australia as perceived by the PICs Leaders.
However, all that seems to be water under the bridge. PM Bainimarama opened Fiji’s national consultation on the 2050 Strategy last August. He was upbeat. He was inspirational. He spoke of Forum Leaders as the captains - the ones who must make the day-to-day decisions that lead us to our destination. Our destination “is to achieve the future we know is right and know is possible.”
The future of course, and the path to get there, will be encapsulated in the 2050 Strategy. In Fiji’s eyes, “the Strategy will be at the heart of our ambition.” Referring to Australia’s effort to ensure equitable access to a vaccine to the coronavirus in the Pacific, PM Bainimarama said: “If we harness that spirit of regional collective action, we have good reason to hold faith in our progress for the next 30 years.”
As host to next year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting, Fiji now plays a critical role in determining and advancing Pacific regionalism to the unprecedented heights to which we all aspire. At the officials’ level, Fiji provides managerial and critical inputs in the formulation of the 2050 Strategy. At the Leaders’ level, Fiji starts a three-year stint as a member of the Troika. During one third of that period, Fiji will assume the chair.
The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, to guide Fiji forward, is likely to be innovative and far-reaching, judging from the evocative elements of the Tuvalu Communique, and from the assessment and outcomes of planning to date. The Communique speaks of course of the new 2050 vision, the particularisation rendered to the ‘vision of PICs only that recognized the Blue Pacific Continent’, the link to the SAMOA Pathway and the Boe Declaration.
In the context of the experiences, fortunes and the unfolding of events of Pacific regionalism since 1971, there are likely to be critical lessons that could be incorporated into the strategy. A number of lessons stand out prominently and they, in my book, will need to be formulated with hindsight to enable curative measures to be transformative. But transformative in a positive and realistic sense. PICs need to make a quantum leap to make a difference. Pacific regionalism needs to be more meaningful through the effective delivery of the expectations of its members, especially those of the PICs.
For 49 years, PICs have remained vulnerable. Their inter-dependencies remain weak. Their economies’ dependence on aid still remains as one of the highest in the world, on a per capita basis. This needs to be turned around.
On top of that, their trade is weak. Industrialisation in regional hubs or in clusters remains a dream. Transformative ideas like value adding products for specific high-value niche markets have yet to take the world markets by storm. In short, regional economic integration, after 49 years, is still rudimentary. Essentially, re-doing the basics of regionalism properly is a lesson that can be drawn from our 49 years of collective efforts.
Climate change is an added threat. Post-COVID-19 measures will complicate matters and will require greater resilience, commitment and grit.
The above tasks await Fiji. Fiji has the wherewithal to excel. Regional solidarity is the key.
The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.
By NETANI RIKA in Port Moresby
THE Pacific must act now to stop Oceanic White Tip Shark from extinction.
With White Tip stocks standing at five per cent of the original stock, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has called for an immediate recovery plan for the species.
John Tanzer of WWF International said urgent action was required to start rebuilding the oceanic whitetip population and to ensure that no other open ocean shark or ray ended up near extinction.
“It is unbelievable that a species that could be counted in the millions in the past is now facing extinction in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, an area covering almost per cent of the Earth’s surface,” Tanzer said.
“The fact that overfishing for the oceanic whitetip is ongoing, in spite of the official catch and retention ban (a prohibition to intentionally catch and, if accidentally caught, to keep on board) that has been in place since 2011, points to the Western and Central Pacific Fishing Commission’s inability to manage fishing impacts on this species.’’
The WWF statement preceded the 16th WCPFC Regular Session in Port Moresby.
In the late 1990s, Oceanic Whitetip Sharks were the most common shark in the tropical oceans.
Scientists have described the situation for the species as catastrophic, especially in the Western and Central Pacific.
“Whether targeted for their highly prized fins for the international shark fin trade or caught accidentally (as “bycatch”) when fishing for tuna in the high seas, their population has plummeted drastically due to overfishing,” a WWF report said.
“(The) WWF urges members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to prevent extinction of the oceanic whitetip shark by supporting the development of a recovery plan.”
The WWF wants WCPFC member states to adopt science-based solutions to prevent the potential extinction of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark and improve the plight of other sharks and rays harvested in the Pacific
During the Port Moresby talks, leaders will be asked to finalise and adopt a comprehensive conservation and management plan and catch quotas for all sharks and rays.
“With important decisions made by WCPFC only once a year and their consent-based decision-making process, it is of utmost importance that all member states take action and agree to adopt the recommended, science-based measures,’’ said D Andy Cornish, the WWF’s of shark and ray conservation programme.
“Only this way WCPFC will be able to conserve sharks – including the oceanic whitetip – and move fisheries towards a sustainable future.”
Sharks and rays, including the Oceanic Whitetip Shark, continue to make up a large percentage of annual bycatch – mostly by long-line fishing fleets - in the Western and Central Pacific.
Conservationists believe overfishing is the major threat to the 1200 species of sharks and rays known to science, with 25 per cent threatened with extinction back in 2014