Faith, family and a little agriculture.
The Pacific’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of self-reliance and resilience: turning to its communities and churches, its lands and seas.
The region has so far escaped the worst health ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. A handful of islands remain defiantly coronavirus-free, although that number is declining almost weekly now.
But even without high rates of virus infections, the impact of the pandemic has been widespread and profound.
Forced border closures have isolated communities, threatened food supplies, crippled businesses and devastated economies, particularly in a part of the world so dependent on tourism and exports.
And the global pandemic has joined other disasters hitting the Pacific. At one stage in April 2020, Vanuatu was simultaneously dealing with the triple Covid-19 crisis, a category five cyclone on its northern islands and an erupting volcano in the south.
A documentary from the Australian National University Australia Pacific Security College, told through the eyes of four Pacific video journalists, traces daily life on islands isolated by Covid-19.
Pacific Lockdown: Sea of Resilience shows the initial response to reports of the spread of the virus as a microcosm of fear that gripped the world in the early days of the pandemic.
“We have been concerned that the coronavirus will reach the border from Indonesia,” says Dorothy Tekwie from the coastal city of Vanimo, adjacent to PNG’s porous border with Indonesia’s Papua province. “Once we have a declared case in Vanimo, there will be panic, many people will simply flee to the mountains, many people will be hungry, they will go hungry, because they are not prepared.”
As the virus becomes better understood and its consequences apparent, Pacific correspondents realize that the world and its worlds will not return to normal for some time, perhaps never.
The pandemic has restructured families, with people returning from cities to their ancestral homes, and has revived traditional ways of life, including agriculture, with new gardens planted to grow food.
The impact of Covid-19 on mental health across the Pacific has been profound.
“I can’t wait for the world to get back to normal,” says Leo Pugram from the island of Yap, looking at the camera. “I can’t wait, because I know I’m not the only one who gets depressed, I’m not the only one who thinks about suicide. So the faster we can get back to normal, maybe more lives we can save as well. “
But there is also faith.
“We are going to do our part and pray for God to protect us from Covid-19 for as long as possible,” says university professor Brian Alofaituli from Apia.
There are setbacks and frustrations. Some trivial: a birthday celebrated only due to curfew, a favorite restaurant closed, some catastrophic, even fatal, a friend and mentor whose cancer treatment planned abroad had to be abandoned due to the border closure.
And there is also a historical parallel, a reminder of the acute vulnerability of the Pacific states.
In November 1918, the supply ship Talune, which had sailed from New Zealand, was inexplicably cleared to dock in the Samoan capital of Apia, despite the captain’s statement that there were sailors on board with the Spanish flu that was causing ravages all over the world. No quarantine requirements were applied.
In a month, up to 10,000 people died – a quarter of the island’s population. The infected corpses were dumped by the roadside, buried anonymously in a mass grave next to the port.
The documentary also highlights inconsistencies in the region’s response to the modern pandemic.
Dr. Henry Ivarature of the ANU notes that the Pacific countries with the highest rates of Covid-19 infections are colonies, incapable of exercising sovereign control over their own borders: French Polynesia, which went from 62 infections to more than 20,000 after the opening of its borders to tourists last August, and US territory Guam, where it planted the arrival from a US Navy aircraft carrier the virus on the island.
The disputed Indonesian province of Papua, which suffers the highest infection rate in Melanesia, has also been severely affected.
“The geopolitical consequences of the pandemic in the Pacific are yet to be seen,” says Ivarature, “but if you look at trends … Covid infections are very high in countries that do not have control over their own borders.”
And there are injustices and inconsistencies.
Countries in pact with the US have seen a rapid rollout of the Moderna vaccine under US Operation Warp Speed. Palau has fully vaccinated more than 20% of its population with two doses.
But in Papua New Guinea, where uncontrolled community transmission threatens to overwhelm the country’s fragile health system, not a single vaccine has been administered and the first doses will not reach the country until next month.
From Vanimo, Dorothy Tekwie argues that Covid-19 could be the catalyst for a profound change in the way people live, across the Pacific and beyond, a shift towards self-reliance and simplicity.
“Should we be… returning to earth? Is it a moment in our world history where we should recover our Melanesian culture, should we look at our heritage, our land? Right now is the turning point for every country in the world. Go back to … sit on your land. “
A return, perhaps, to faith, family, and a bit of agriculture.
Pacific Lockdown: Sea of Resilience, directed by Ben Bohane and produced by the Australia Pacific Security College, will air throughout the Pacific in the coming weeks.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism