Jan 26, 2021 Last Updated 3:51 PM, Jan 25, 2021

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.

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

Pacific Trade Invest says 78% of respondents to its latest survey of Pacific businesses are confident their businesses will survive the COVID-19 crisis.

However the impact of COVID-19 on businesses has slightly worsened according to the survey, with 60% reporting a very negative impact, and 89% a negative impact.

62% of the resondents report a negative impact on their mental health.

Businesses continue to identify the three main challenges affecting them as poor cashflow, uncertainty over how long the crisis will last, and the impact of closed borders.

They say the three most needed areas of assistance are financial support, review of their financial position, and improved online commercial capabilities.

PTI has been running fortnightly surveys for several months and says it will continue to monitor business health and perceptions into 2021. This particular survey had 113 respondents.

The full survey can be viewed here: https://pacifictradeinvest.com/covid-19-response/pti-pacific-business-monitor

 

Economic growth expectations for the Pacific have been downgraded to decline by 6.1% for 2020.

The Asian Development Bank had originally forecast a 4.3% decline in July of this year.

“Vaccine procurement and distribution, safe travel arrangements, and continuing to strengthen health and social protection systems will all be key to ensuring the region’s recovery is sustainable,” said ADB Director General for the Pacific Leah Gutierrez.

For now the ADB is projecting growth of 1.3% for the region next year, but its Pacific Economic Monitor released today states that depends on early lifting of trael and trade restrictions.

The ADB predicts Papua New Guinea’s economy will contract by 2.9% in Papua New Guinea, with low growth of 2.5% in 2021.

In Fiji, the economy is projected to contract by 19.8%, and recover by 1% next year, if the country opens up to tourists in the second half of 2021.

For the Cook Islands, the ADB expects GDP to contract by 15.4% next year, even with a resumption of tourism.

The ADB says fiscal pressures seem to be mounting in Vanuatu, and that expanding seasonal worker schemes would “substantially allevaiate economic pressures” for Samoa and Tonga.

It states targeted efforts are needed to improve fiscal buffers and collected revenue in Solomon Islands, and that the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have been more affected by the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic than initial estimates. “Measures to safeguard public health, provide training and education, and protect the vulnerable will help those countries avoid the spread of the disease and lay the foundations for a strong and sustainable economic recovery.”

For Kiribati and Tuvalu, the ADB says more information on vulnerable groups would help better targeting of social assistance measures.

The full report can be viewed at https://www.adb.org/publications/series/pacific-economic-monitor

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