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 leaders have appointed Henry Puna, former Prime Minister of Cook Islands, as the new Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum.
The decision came late at night at the Forum Special Leaders Retreat, after a lengthy and contentious online summit. As the night wore on, it was clear that leaders were unable to reach a consensus about a successor to current Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor. In an unprecedented situation, the leaders conducted a series of telephone votes to choose a candidate from amongst the five people running for the position. In a close decision, Puna defeated Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerald Zackios in the final round of voting.
The Special Leaders Retreat had been postponed numerous times in 2020, after the annual Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Vanuatu was postponed because of the global coronavirus pandemic. Forum leaders still need to meet to address the triple challenge now facing the Pacific: the ongoing climate crisis; the challenge to medical systems and community health from the pandemic; and the associated economic crisis caused by border closures, disruption of supply chains, the collapse of overseas tourism and associated job losses.
These challenges are exacerbating political, cultural and social fault lines across the region. In the last few days, the New Caledonia government has collapsed in a no-confidence motion and the Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP) has been detained and deported by Fiji authorities. The brawl over Forum leadership has exacerbated longstanding concerns from some Smaller Island States (SIS) that the Forum is not prioritising their concerns.
New Secretary General
Apart from the regional response to Covid-19, the key agenda item for the summit was the appointment of a successor to Dame Meg Taylor, the first woman to hold the position of Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat in Suva. After the summit, leaders thanked Taylor for her ‘stellar’ performance as she ends two terms of office.
Five candidates, from Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands, were nominated. Under former President of Palau Tommy Remengesau Jr and his newly elected successor Surangel Whipps, Palau has been at the forefront of a joint push to appoint RMI diplomat Gerald Zackios to the post (the last Micronesian as Secretary General was former Kiribati President Ieremia Tabai in 1992-8). Both Palauan leaders have threatened to walk away from the regional organisation if Zackios was not appointed.
Speaking to journalists after the summit, Forum Chair Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, stressed that the Forum was unified: “We have resolved everything and will continue to work together.”
This confidence is belied by the ongoing anger evident amongst some Micronesian leaders. Speaking to Palauan journalist Bernadette Carreon after the meeting, President Whipps expressed his disappointment, stating: “The South Pacific and larger countries stay together. Although we call this organisation the Pacific Islands Forum, its acting like the South Pacific Forum. Clearly there is no need really for Micronesia to be part of them, they don’t really consider us part of them.”
Prime Minister Natano said the Forum Secretariat had been tasked with preparing a study on the method of appointing the Secretary General and other senior regional positions. But in coming weeks, the unity of the wider Forum will be challenged as the Micronesian bloc determines their response.
The other key agenda item was the regional response to Covid-19 and the health and economic impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement after the meeting, leaders acknowledged “the region’s efforts to date to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Pacific region, including through the establishment and operationalisation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19.”
Islands nations have called for the equitable distribution of safe and effective vaccines across the region, at a time of production bottlenecks in Europe and the danger that a lengthy roll-out of vaccines will exacerbate economic impacts due to the loss of travel and tourism.
In a statement before the meeting, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Australia has committed A$200 million to help deliver the roll-out of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to protect our Pacific neighbours. This is in addition to A$80 million to the Gavi COVAX Facility’s Advance Market Commitment, to provide vaccines to the highest-risk groups in eligible countries, including in the Pacific.”
Island leaders welcomed support from Australia and New Zealand to secure vaccines for all Pacific people as well as “the multilateral and bilateral partnerships working to ensure one hundred percent coverage.”
Natano confirmed that “some countries will receive vaccines from China, Taiwan and other partners.” Already, France is providing vaccines to its Pacific dependencies and the United States is rolling out support in the US territories and three Freely Associated States. China has pledged support to developing country partners.
With the Astra-Zeneca vaccine to be produced by CSL laboratories in Australia, Dame Meg Taylor welcomed Morrison’s pledge of support, but confirmed there was no fixed timeline for the roll-out of vaccines across the regions. At the summit, leaders tasked Pacific health ministers to evaluate needs and logistics, and report back later this year.
Taylor told Islands Business: “All our countries have signed up to COVAX and a lot of the discussion was about how we’re going to access that, the costs etc.”
She added: “The Prime Minister of Australia did make commitments about finance, so that vaccinations will be available through the region and assured us about Astra-Zeneca production in Australia. That was received well by our leaders, to know that there would be vaccines not far away. There was a commitment that all the Pacific – in time – will get the vaccination. How all this rolls out will depend on supplies.”
As incoming Secretary General, Puna will face significant challenges in the regional agenda, including preparations for the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow; US-China tensions as the new Biden administration settles in; as well as regional debates over human rights and self-determination in West Papua, Bougainville and New Caledonia (The French dependency was the one Forum member not represented at the online summit, following the collapse of the government led by outgoing President Thierry Santa this week, in the midst of a tropical cyclone).
The incoming Secretary General will have to advance the Forum’s ‘Blue Pacific’ agenda, developing a 2050 strategy for the management and sustainable development of oceans, maritime resources and fisheries. With Puna as Prime Minister, Cook Islands has been a strong supporter of deep sea mining (DSM), which will raise concern amongst civil society groups that have been campaigning for a total ban on DSM within territorial waters and areas beyond national jurisdiction.
All these crises highlight the stresses on Pacific regionalism and the prospects for unified collective action to address the COVID and climate emergencies. Henry Puna will have a full in-tray when he assumes office.
For more analysis look out for the February issue of Islands Business magazine.
After an incredibly challenging 2020, what will this year bring? We take a look at the economic and political prognosis and a few key sectors.
Vaccinating for recovery
Timely vaccination campaigns will be key to the recovery of Pacific island economies. The Pacific Community says a handful of Pacific Islands have still recorded no cases of COVID-19 at all (at the time of going to print)—Cook Islands, Kiribati, American Samoa, Niue, Nauru, Tuvalu, Tonga, Tokelau and Palau. Others such as the Federated States of Micronesia, have only recorded cases at the border from returning citizens, while most other island nations have recorded no cases of community transmission for months. Those with more open borders—Guam, French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea—have ongoing community transmission.
The economic outlook
As a region, Pacific Island GDP growth was forecast to shrink to 0.5% in 2020, the lowest rate since 1967 according to the World Bank. While most are predicted to grow by small margins in 2021, the World Bank has outlined a number of risks to these projections. “The pandemic could last longer than expected, the long term damage from last year’s recessions could be deeper than anticipated, balance sheet stress could intensify, or the contraction in global trade could be sharper or longer lasting than envisioned. More countries in the region could experience difficulties with procurement and distribution of the vaccine than currently anticipated,” it writes in its Global Economic Prospects report for this year.
The continued reliance on tourism in many Pacific Island countries and uncertainty over the opening of borders and appetite for travel is one of key risks to economic recovery (see page 16).
For the island region’s largest economy, Papua New Guinea, growth will depend on a strong resources sector, including new investments. There’s some optimism around the construction boom being driven by additional investment into the resource sector and its potential to generate jobs.
“The implementation of new resource projects (Papua Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and Wafi-Golpu) combined with professional, administrative, and support services needed alongside these projects, could generate formal jobs. There are downside risks, however, such as ongoing disputes over the Porgera mine which could weaken investor confidence,” the World Bank has written.
Work in 2021
In its December 2020 report on COVID-19’s macroeconomic impacts and job prospects, the World Bank said that redeploying workers from hard-hit sectors like tourism to alternative occupations that draw on similar skillsets should be prioritised, and could be supported through re-training.
Globally there has been much hope placed in the digitalisation of work but how does this translate to the Pacific Islands? “Low numbers of ICT job vacancies indicate potential obstacles to the digitalisation of work seen in other regions. Mismatches between demand and supply of skilled labour, which have been exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19 on labour demand, point to the continued importance of investment in skills development,” the World Bank states.
For Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, critical negotiations over the Compacts of Free Associations with the United States will continue this year. Under each compact, the island nations receive development assistance and visa-free access for its citizens to the United States, and the US in return has a strategic monopoly on the Micronesian states. The compacts also allow the US to test missiles at Kwajalein atoll in Marshall Islands. Palau guarantees the United States the use of certain defence sites in the future under its compact agreement.
The geopolitical tussle for influence continues to play out in the region’s telecommunications sector.
Digicel has indicated it may sell its Pacific operations in Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Nauru and Tonga after a difficult 2020, and says it has been approached by a number of buyers. The company was carrying approximate US$6.7 billion in debt at the end of last year. Digicel won’t confirm if those buyers include Chinese telcos, but it is a prospect that has created concerns in Washington and Canberra. This follows nervousness around reports that Huawei Marine has bid for the Kiribati Connectivity Project, a submarine Internet cable that would connect Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru to the HANTRU-1 undersea cable which lands in Guam, home to important US military assets.
Many Pacific leaders spent 2020 working to push messages on climate change, even as the world’s attention was swallowed by the pandemic, Brexit and America’s political difficulties.
The damage wrought by Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu and TC Yasa in Fiji last year highlight the continued urgency of this message.
“This is not normal. This is a climate emergency,” Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said in the wake of TC Yasa.
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