Wednesday, December 1

Life without Covid: the nations that have dodged the pandemic so far | Pacific islands

Despite all its virulence, despite the impressive speed with which it seemingly spread all over the world, there are still places where Covid-19 has not reached, and perhaps never.

Places without masks or elbows, without QR codes or capacity limits, without confinements or social distancing. There are a handful of countries around the world, many of them islands, most of them remote, that have managed to escape the pandemic. But while the virus hasn’t hit, the global shockwaves it has triggered around the world certainly have.

The Pacific is home to the world’s largest group of Covid-free nations. In the distant archipelago of the Cook Islands, the coronavirus has been a specter that never emerged from the shadows.

In the first months of the outbreak, schools were closed on Rarotonga, the most populous island, and social distancing was encouraged in public places. Relaxed after a handful of weeks, the measures were the closest the Cooks would come to living with the virus.

But in a country of just 22 doctors and two ventilators for a population of 17,500, many have lived in fear of an uncontrolled outbreak.

“No matter how prepared we may think we are,” Glenda Tuaine said from Rarotonga, “we have been in a safe bubble here without the real impact and devastation that Covid-19 can and does have on communities.”

Tourism contributes more than two-thirds of the Cook Islands’ nominal gross domestic product. So when the government closed the borders to international travelers in mid-March, the impact was swift and pronounced.

“The moment we closed our borders, it hit our people in the pocket,” Prime Minister Mark Brown said.

Since then, the economy has been boosted by a government aid package that has kept workers in jobs and a fraction of business progressing in the absence of vital tourism dollars.

Despite or because of the difficulties, Brown argues that a stronger community spirit has emerged. “People who take care of each other, take care of their neighbors, their relatives, share the food they have grown: the creativity of our people has resurfaced strongly”.

Meanwhile, a business community struggling to stay afloat waits for a partial lifeline through a possible bubble of unquarantine travel with New Zealand, and residents lead lives without masks or restrictions.

On the other side of the Pacific, keeping the virus out has essentially required keeping the borders resolutely closed.

Tonga has stopped almost all movement in and out of the kingdom and prevented the virus, as have Kiribati, Niue, Nauru and Tuvalu.

Forced isolation helps. Two of the only places in the world not connected by aviation, the runway-less islands of Tokelau (a dependency of New Zealand) and Pitcairn Island (a British territory), are also Covid-free.

But the counter-narrative has been too obvious.

French Polynesia reopened its borders and came out of quarantine in July, in order to rekindle a stagnant economy dependent on tourism. At that stage, the French territory had only 62 confirmed cases: it now has more than 15,000 and 91 deaths.

But staying closed has had its own price. The Covid-19 shutdowns have devastated already fragile economies across the Pacific, especially those that depend on tourism.

Fiji’s economy sank more than 20% in 2020, and thousands of people have left their jobs in the tourism sector to return to farming on ancestral lands. In parts of Papua New Guinea, people have reverted to using play money and barter as land for the formal economy.

In PNG, more than half (52%) of families have withdrawn children from school because they could not afford to keep them enrolled and attending, according to a World Bank Survey.

And in the neighboring Solomon Islands, where there have only been 17 cases, 57% of all surveyed families are eating less due to reduced income.

In Koror, the largest city in the Palau archipelago in the western Pacific, staying covid-free after a year is seen as a lucky combination, strengthened by the early decision to close borders. The country has even received 2,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine, courtesy of the United States, and has the ambition to effectively vaccinate its entire population by mid-year.

“It has definitely made me appreciate the ‘normal’ activities that we have taken for granted, like family reunions or social events like graduations. Even the traffic I appreciate as it is an indication of normalcy, “Semdiu Decherong, a government employee, told The Guardian.

Decherong said he has close relatives living in the United States – some are healthcare workers on the front lines of American emergency rooms.

“I have been able to have a vivid picture of the situation they have faced for many months. There is always the fear here that we may have a case and everything is closed, ”he said.

But being isolated during the pandemic has made Decherong eager to “get off the rock” when he can.

“Living on a beautiful island has many advantages, but it is definitely nice to get away a little from time to time. But in any case, isolation has forced me to re-explore or revisit places that I had long forgotten or had no time to see on the island.

“Keeping a positive outlook will help me overcome isolation. I hope that family members who want to go home can do so sooner rather than later. “

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