For only the third time in the last 20 years, the Pacific Islands Forum has invoked the Biketawa Declaration to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. Forum member governments have agreed to establish a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway, to co-ordinate the regional medical response to the Covid-19 coronavirus.
Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health emergency of unprecedented scale. It poses a real and extreme danger to the health and security of Pacific peoples. Never before has the formal Forum membership simultaneously been in crisis.”
In a video hook-up on 7 April, Forum foreign ministers and officials responded to a call from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and agreed to establish a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19.” Regional agencies want donors to use the humanitarian pathway to assist island governments with medical supplies and equipment as they respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This co-ordinated response will be overseen by a Ministerial Action Group (MAG), involving Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nauru, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. The MAG will be supported by a regional task force to ensure that medical supplies, technical assistance and essential equipment can be moved seamlessly through the region. This is especially important for some smaller island states that must tranship goods through regional transport hubs like Guam, Nadi or Brisbane. The humanitarian pathway aims to expedite customs clearance of medical supplies and fast-track diplomatic approval for chartered flights and commercial shipping.
This new pathway will complement existing regional meetings, as finance and trade ministers prepare to address the economic woes looming on the horizon. These include the loss of remittances, tourism and export opportunities; increased debt burden; and the double whammy of loss and damage from climate change and Cyclone Harold, which hit Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in April.
It will be two long months before Fijian children are back at school; classrooms are scheduled to reopen on June 15
Like them, children in many other Pacific nations and territories are learning at home, or taking extended holidays, as a result of COVID-19 precautionary measures. Globally, the UN education and cultural agency, UNESCO says this is revealing a startling digital divide, as half of all students currently out of the classroom,or nearly 830 million learners globally, do not have access to a computer.
Writing from Queensland, academic Carol Farbotko and community leader Taukiei Kitara have suggested this period will give Tuvaluan students more time to join in fishing, farming, and production of handicrafts, thereby “strengthening customary knowledge systems.” However two Tuvalu government employees, Tala Simeti and Jess Marinaccio are concerned about the logistics of reopening schools, writing in DevPolicy: “if schools re-open too late and students are forced to repeat a year, this may have major ramifications for the entire education system.”
Alongside Kiribati and Vanuatu, Tuvalu offers its students the South Pacific Form Seven Certificate (SPFSC) course. How will they fare during the education lockdown?
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Pacific Islands Forum members have heard nationals stranded in other member countries will be ‘treated fairly’ during their virtual meeting on a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway for COVID-19 this week.
Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe chaired the meeting and says the fate of nationals stuck in other countries was a major concern: “there was an assurance from the members that any national from another country in their country at this point in time would be treated fairly and would have equal access to services. So that I think was very reassuring to us to hear that, coming from our members.”
“We hope that that’s the way we respond to this crisis,” Kofe continued. “That we do it the Pacific way. That we look after each other. Because I know there is a tendency that when we face crisis of this nature, that we tend to look inwardly and to drive our own national interest, but I think it's important to work tougher the Pacific way to resolve issues like this.”
As an example, Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor says Nauru is working to get home not only its own people, but some of its neighbours.
“The government of Nauru has made provision for aircraft to pick up citizens of Nauru and Marshall Islands and other northern Pacific member states, particularly from here in Fiji where we had students. And we’ve been able to assist where we can to get discussions to get clearances so this can happen.
Air Nauru has also flown home its athletes and other nationals, including a Tuvaluan, from New Caledonia.
Repatriation will be an ongoing effort as part of the work of the humanitarian pathway. Overnight PNG’s police minister said 306 Papua New Guineans had registered their interest in returning home. 116 of them are in Australia, four in Fiji, one in Solomon Islands, four in New Caledonia and one in Vanuatu, all Pacific Island Forum members.
The Pacific Humanitarian Pathway is prioritising the movement of medical supplies and expertise.
Pacific Island Forum Leaders will establish a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 which could see the expediting of medical assistance and customs clearance of medical supplies, and facilitating of diplomatic clearances for chartered flights and commercial shipping.
Forum Foreign Ministers met virtually yesterday and established a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 to allow for faster and easier assistance and cooperation between member countries in response to the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health emergency of unprecedented scale. It poses a real and extreme danger to the health and security of the Pacific peoples. Never before has the full Forum Membership simultaneously been in crisis,” said the Tuvalu Prime Minister and Pacific Islands Forum Chair, Kausea Natano.
The Chair of yesterday’s meeting, Simon Kofe of Tuvalu, said that responding to COVID-19 as a region reflected the Tuvaluan concept of te fale-pili, which literally means houses in close proximity to one another, and which implies a moral responsibility to protect neighbours.
Forum members to already report diagnosed cases of COVID-19 are: Australia, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in the Pacific Islands region, although Australia and New Zealand have reported cases, and in the case of Australia, one death.
However the Pacific region has responded with a series of travel advisories and requirements.
These are constantly being updated, but here is the most recent series of requirements, as of March 2.
Federated States of Micronesia
Nauru has announced entry restrictions for any travellers who have travelled from or through China in the 21 days prior to traveling to Nauru. The same restriction applies to travel from or through areas with a “publicly stated outbreak” or other areas of outbreak concern specified by the Nauru Ministry of Health and Medical Services.
Wallis and Futuna