Apr 07, 2020 Last Updated 3:57 AM, Apr 6, 2020

The Lord Mayor of Luganville town in Vanuatu, Peter Patty says his biggest fear now is how they can rebuild as Cyclone Harold is already causing devastating damage in the northern town.

The Category 5 Tropical Cyclone couldn’t come at a worst time for Vanuatu, as it braces for the COVID-19 pandemic.

More people in the northern parts of Vanuatu and Santo in particular are moving to evacuation centres as TC Harold has increased in intensity,  with sustained winds close to its centre of 215km/h according to the Vanuatu Meteorology Service.

Speaking to Island Business this morning, Lord Mayor Patty says people living around the Pepsi area have lost their homes to flooding and two evacuation centres are already full, with plans to open more.

“My biggest fear now is how can we rebuild and revive businesses back to normal.

“This is one of the worst crises— to experience a cyclone in the middle of a pandemic that we have yet to recover from.”

While Vanuatu has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, precautionary measures have closed its ports and businesses.

Mayor Patty says all businesses in the town has been shut since Friday, after advice and warnings from the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department (VMGD).

While the national State of Emergency conditions due to COVID-19 pandemic remain in place, the unpredictable intensity of TC Harold has forced the Government to remove the limit on social gatherings to five or less people,  as many people will be expected to assemble together in evacuation centers.

Abraham Nasak director of the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) in Vanuatu announced yesterday that the rule on social gatherings has been removed and advised people to move to safer shelters, given that the rule of 5 in social gatherings has been lifted.

The Pacifica Weather & Tropical cyclone updates reported this morning that the eye of the Category 5 severe Tropical Cyclone Harold is just offshore to the West of Espiritu Santo.

Reports from a family at Nakere Village on South Santo revealed that the whole village has moved to an evacuation centre in a nearby school.

Kensly Micah from the NDMO on Santo says they all they can do is stay indoors and try to stay safe.

“We could not contact officers from different area councils around Sanma Province at this point of time.

“This is unpredicted and I must say there was less preparations as to how we can prepare for a tropical cyclone because much focus was on COVID-19,” Micah said.

The VMGD continues to release early warnings and red alert remains for Sanma Province, Penama, and Malampa.

Reflecting the growing concern over the Coronavirus pandemic, the Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum  and Tuvalu Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, invoked a few days ago the Biketawa Declaration, a security arrangement enabling members to meet on security matters.  An urgent virtual meeting of Forum Foreign Ministers will be held this coming Tuesday, April 7,  to discuss a regional response to the situation.  This is a welcome development, enabling a regional discussion of collective concerns, needs, and potential responses, including exploration of a coordinated way forward working with development partners.  It will be likely Ministers will be focused on a broad range of priority matters.  But one, if not already on the agenda, will certainly be worthy of some attention: the creation of a humanitarian corridor or pipeline for nations in the Pacific.

Discussion of this corridor is an important issue given the unique characteristics of Pacific nations and current conditions involving a major disruption of transportation networks and limited fallback options over a huge geographical expanse.  At the best of times, logistical air and sealift is a challenge in the Pacific.  In current trying circumstances, these challenges will loom ever larger.

Currently, the majority of nations in the Pacific are under some form of emergency lockdown and self-imposed isolation.  Enacted with little forewarning and preparation, there was often little opportunity to stockpile essential supplies, equipment and other requirements.  Now isolated from the rest of the world, these nations will have to rely on a limited stock of resources.  While mitigation measures now in place will hopefully avert a deterioration in conditions and facilitate a speedy return to normalcy, there is a need to be prepared for any eventuality.  In the event of a deterioration, we may expect a prolongation of the period in lockdown and isolation.  The limited resources available in many nations will need urgent replenishment, while desperate life-saving evacuations and the provision of critical medical supplies and equipment may be needed to address an escalating crisis.  Given the geographical distances involved in the Pacific, a timely response may not be forthcoming.

Compounding matters, there will be questions about how such lift may be generated, as nearly all commercial transportation networks will have been suspended.  In all likelihood, it will be the militaries of development partners that will be called upon to assist.  Coordination for this will be assisted by some prior discussion and agreement between nations and development partners.  An agreed outline of a pre-approved humanitarian corridor, for example, may help ease a smoother and more efficient deployment of lift capabilities delivering assistance.  These prior coordinating arrangements are all the more important in a context where extreme caution has to be maintained over the arrival and clearance of aircraft, ships and their cargoes.  Risks of any further transmission must be managed and minimized in any emergency assistance mission.

Beyond current emergency conditions, we should also keep in mind the medium and longer term needs of Pacific nations as they emerge out of the pandemic and embark upon recovery programs and a return to normalcy.  What might be the needs of these nations in that longer journey, and what lift requirements may be involved?  Considering that much of the rest of the world will be going through similar transitions, can we count on a speedy resumption of transportation connections in the Pacific to expeditiously facilitate such needs?  Or, as is more likely to be the case, will there remain significant gaps and deficiencies, requiring supplementary capabilities in the shape of development partner militaries?  Yet again, in this circumstance, some modality such as a pre-agreed humanitarian corridor may serve a helpful purpose in this medium term setting.

The present pandemic is unprecedented in many different ways.  In past disasters in the Pacific, affected nations could almost always count on the assistance of development partners.  Now, despite comforting reassurances, the prospect of an uncertain response, needs to be seriously contemplated.  These development partners themselves are gripped by the same pandemic, and grappling with its many serious consequences, and their own emergency lockdowns and isolation measures.  With capacities stretched just meeting national needs and priorities, it will be challenging balancing these against an enduring commitment to regionalism and regional assistance.  Successfully managing such a dilemma implies an ever greater need to be anticipatory in identifying needs and coordinating among diverse partners a sharing of roles and capabilities – in advance – that might be brought to bear at the right time and place.  In light the vast distances in the Pacific, and the limited reach of sea and airlift capabilities of traditional partners such as Australia, France and New Zealand combined, a proactive coordinated approach anchored around a humanitarian corridor construct, may be sensible.  Indeed, the expansion of the dialogue around this issue to include additional partners in geographical proximity with significant lift capabilities, such as the United States and Japan, should be a priority.

Dr. Alfred Oehlers is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii

*The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author and are not representative of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Fiji's loan request of US$200million (F$460m) from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) "will be considered by ADB’s Board of Directors in the coming months," according to a statement from the ADB this week.

As detailed in the Fiji government's revised 2019/2020 Budget last month, half of the requested loan is to go towards the refinancing of Fiji's global bond, due for settlement in October this year, while the other half is earmarked for our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the ADB's 14 member countries in the Pacific region, Fiji is expected to experience the "steepest decline" from the pandemic's economic fallout, according the ADB's Outlook 2020, released this week.

 ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa and Fiji's Attorney-General and Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum recently discussed how the Bank may be able to assist Fiji.

“Developing economies will be hardest hit by the coronavirus-driven collapse of the world economy. This crisis demands an unprecedented multilateral response–and we’re encouraged by ADB’s willingness to support Fiji in responding to and recovering from this pandemic,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

Fiji's economy, he said, was already feeling the shocks of the pandemic's impact on major international source markets for trade, manufacturing, tourism, and the aviation industry.

The ADB said Fiji's US$200m policy-based loan was part of subprogram 3 of the ongoing ADB-supported Sustained Private Sector-Led Growth Reform Program and that the request would be considered by its board over the coming months.

"ADB is committed to helping Fiji combat the impact of this damaging pandemic,” Asakawa said. “We will consider all options, including policy-based lending, that can be approved and disbursed in a timely manner.”

The Fiji government had revealed in last month's COVID-19 Response Budget how the money would be used.

"Government is refinancing the US$200 million global bond in October 2020 with policy based loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. Government has completed a series of sub-programmes as part of the entire policy-based reform programme and has secured US$65 million from ADB and US$35 million from World Bank.
Government is currently in the advanced stages of the final sub-programme which will result in an additional loan financing of US$200 million by ADB towards global bond refinancing (US$100 million) and budget support for COVID-19 (US$100 million). The implementation of reforms under the sub-programmes have been further supported by Australia and New Zealand in the form of grants and technical assistance," it said.

An update on COVID-19 related developments in the region today:

Guam

Guam has suffered its fourth COVID -19 related death.  

The Guam Daily Post reports that the a 67-year-old woman, who had recently traveled to the Philippines, died on Friday at Guam Memorial Hospital.The patient had underlying health issues that were compounded by the virus, officials said. 

To date, Guam has reported  84 confirmed cases. 14 patients have recovered.  The count does not include 114 sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt who tested positive.

Guam's number of COVID-19 cases rose to 84 on Friday with two additional cases. There have been four deaths, and 14 patients have recovered. Sixty-seven patients are in isolation. Three weeks ago, Guam had three cases.

Fiji

Fiji has reported five new cases of COVID-19 today, taking the nation’s total to 12. The five new cases – two from Labasa, and one each in Suva, Lautoka and Nadi, were confirmed Saturday. Just one of these cases, the one in Nadi, is unrelated to earlier reported cases.

A frustrated Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has warned citizens that  if they continue to disobey restrictions now in place, Government will be forced to impose a 24 hour nationwide curfew next week.

“This level of lawlessness is irresponsible, un-Fijian and just plain stupid. We are at war with the most devastating global pandemic in 100 years and any disobedience in our ranks will cost us lives. 

Meanwhile police arrested another 123 individuals for violating curfew –– up from 60 the day before.

French Polynesia

French Polynesia has registered two more Covid-19 cases, raising the total to 39. One positive test result showed no connection to the other known cases, all of which were linked to overseas travel.

In French Polynesia a nightly curfew is in place and the sale of alcohol has been banned.

New Caledonia

New Caledonia’s President Thierry Santa has moved into self-isolation after a member of his crisis management team tested positive for Covid-19.

Santa says other team members have also moved into self-isolation as they had close contact with the diagnosed member.

17 people have tested positive so far in New Caledonia.

 Regional action

Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers will meet on Tuesday to discuss a coordinated regional response to COVID-19 in partnership with the World Health Organisation and the Pacific Community.

 “If ever there was a time where the region and its partners needed to work together in strong solidarity to overcome a direct and immediate threat to the lives of our people across our Blue Pacific region – it is now,” said Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) said it has enough cash to pay out to members who lose their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the Fijian economy.

Amid growing concerns that the Fund is being used to compensate for government's lack of direct assistance to out-of-work Fijians when it unveiled its COVID-19 response budget last week, FNPF CEO Jaoji Koroi said the superannuation fund's liquidity and solvency were healthy and robust that there was no need for alarm.

"For your comfort, we have about F$400million (US$175million)  cash in the banking system and that's not including the deposit we hold with them," he said in a media conference yesterday.

"We have projections for the next 12 months and we're adequately covered in terms of our cash flow so as far as we're concerned, there's sufficient funds for us to meet our obligations," Koroi said, adding that FNPF recorded a net reserves of F$1.3 billion last financial year and solvency was also currently being reviewed.

The Fijian government in its COVID-19 response budget, had announced that FNPF members employed in the country's tourism sector - the first to buckle under COVID-19 - may withdraw up to F$1000 (US$437) to assist them as the country waits for normalcy to return.

As well, members in the currently-quarantined Lautoka city were eligible for F$500 (US$218) each.

Some 43,000 workers are immediately eligible under the two assistance measures but as money would be deducted from their own accounts, Koroi said not all may want to withdraw.

However, in case they do, around F$40m  (US$17.5m) was ready to meet that obligation.

"It's doable," he said. "We did Cyclone Winston [FNPF's relief package to eligible members after Cyclone Winston ravaged the country in 2016] and that was around F$276 million, so cash is sufficient to meet all these things."

The Fund already offers unemployment benefit for its members but this has been reduced from F$2,000 per member to F$1,000 to streamline processing.

It is expected that members outside the tourism sector who lose their jobs during these harsh times may apply for that.

As Fiji's largest financial institution with over F$7billion (US$3billion) worth of assets in 2019 and half the population as its members, FNPF is a major force in the stability of the country's economy, with around 42 percent of that $7b invested in Fiji government securities in Fiji and in the international financial markets.

It has not ruled out buying more in the upcoming government issuance to finance the F$1billion COVID-19 response budget.

"We're no different from any other superannuation funds as everywhere else, they're all going for treasury bills. The stock markets have fallen by 20-30 percent so this [government securities] is a safe investment that is giving us the returns," Koroi said.

The Fund is also a significant investor in the tourism sector, being owner or part owner of some of Fiji's top hotels, which have either closed or are in the process of closing as the global tourism industry is brought to its knees by COVID-19.

Koroi said the FNPF will use the current slowdown to refurbish some of these hotels.

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