Vanuatu has joined just a handful of Pacific countries with active COVID-19 cases.
- Vanuatu doesn’t have enough test kits and is prioritising people from medium- and high-risk areas
- Cases in Tahiti surged a month after it opened its borders to international tourists in July
- Pacific countries are juggling the need to recommence tourism with health measurers
Several other countries in the region are still considered COVID-free, having put in place tight border restrictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
They are Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, Micronesia, Palau, Samoa and Tuvalu.
But a growing economic crisis and the need to repatriate citizens stuck overseas have pushed some countries to relax their borders.
So can Pacific countries continue to avoid the pandemic?
Repatriated citizens pose unique challenges
Thanks to their geographic isolation, many Pacific countries have been able to swiftly close their borders and prevent the pandemic from reaching their shores.
But the need to bring home thousands of citizens stuck overseas has meant Pacific borders haven’t stayed shut for long.
Solomon Islands, Fiji and now Vanuatu have all recorded cases of COVID-19 in repatriated citizens while they have been in quarantine.
For Dr Len Tarivonda, Vanuatu’s Director of Public Health, the situation presents a unique challenge to the country’s under-resourced healthcare system.
He said a lack of testing kits has meant less than 10 per cent of the 2,193 recent arrivals have been tested for COVID-19.
“We are doing testing only on people coming from high-risk areas, categorised by the number of active cases,” Dr Tarivonda said.
“We don’t have enough test kits and also the testing capacity here [is not enough], so the decision was made to only test those who are coming from medium- to high-risk areas.”
Despite the low testing rates, Dr Tarivonda said the risk of an infection spreading outside of Vanuatu’s quarantine facilities remained low.
The Government has introduced further restrictions on international travel as a result of the first recorded COVID-19 case.
International travellers will now spend 28 days in quarantine, instead of the earlier 14, and will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before their departing flight.
Tahiti opened its borders to tourists. Then cases surge
That outlook prompted French Polynesia to open its borders to international tourists in July.
Within a month, it had recorded 70 new cases of COVID-19, with bars and restaurants visited by tourists identified as hotspots for transmission.
The Government soon faced public backlash for its decision; Tahiti resident Vehia Wheeler said in August “it feels like we are disposable as a population”.
But the French Territory continued to encourage people to visit, putting in place certain measures, like mandatory face masks and limits to public gatherings, as a means to limit the infection’s spread.
Cruise ships even resumed their travel through the archipelago.
French Polynesia’s Government has underscored the need to keep its economy afloat through the pandemic.
“The measures taken to open the territory were necessary to support the economic and social lives of the country,” French Ambassador for the territory, Dominique Sorain, said.
More than 4 per cent of its population has now been infected with COVID-19, and as recently as Wednesday, French Polynesia recorded 345 new COVID-19 cases.
French Polynesia’s President Édouard Fritch tested positive to the virus last month, two days after visiting French President Emmanuel Macron.
In contrast, the neighbouring French Pacific territory of New Caledonia has banned all incoming air travel, except for repatriation flights and freight, until March, 2021.
It has no active COVID-19 cases and has recorded no cases of community transmission.
Fears lack of testing could be hiding scale of outbreaks
Papua New Guinea recorded its first case of COVID-19 back in March, but its numbers have remained relatively low since then.
To date, the country has confirmed fewer than 600 cases and seven deaths.
Many believe that’s because of PNG’s low testing rates, and health authorities have urged more people to come forward if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.
The World Health Organization has said it was working with PNG’s health authorities to introduce a rapid test kit that would increase its testing capacity.
“Exactly when that rapid testing will be available and how it will be rolled out still need to be planned more at this point of time,” said Dr Tauhid Islam, WHO’s officer in charge.
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PNG scientists have been trying to determine whether Papua New Guineans could be less susceptible to the virus.
Tamara Koleala, a molecular scientist from PNG’s Institute of Medical Research (IMR), said COVID-19 might be behaving differently in PNG than elsewhere in the world.
“In PNG, in September, the National Control Centre reported that about 55 per cent of people who were infected were asymptomatic, so we’re trying to find out how a person is affected by [COVID-19] and one of those reasons could be genetic,” Dr Koleala said.
Dr Koleala has recently received funding from the Australian Government to carry out a range of COVID-19 related research.
International shipping a necessary risk to the Pacific
Despite border closures and bans on flights, many Pacific countries rely on international shipping for the flow of goods and supplies.
But three recent COVID-19 infections aboard a container ship in American Samoa have put a spotlight on the industry, and the risks it brings to the region’s ports.Coronavirus questions answeredBreaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.Read more
Bekiri Sitki Ustaoglu, head of the Asia Pacific Section at the International Maritime Organization, said the Pacific can’t shutdown its maritime routes.
“International shipping is the carrier of the world, if we do not take measures to let international shipping continue its services, then things will get from bad to worse,” Mr Ustaoglu said.
“As the Pacific Islands are composed of island states and archipelagos, they are very much dependent on shipping.”
Pacific port authorities were further concerned earlier this month when a cargo ship that anchored off Queensland was found to be infected with a mutated COVID-19 strain.
That ship, the Sofrana Surville, had passed through several Pacific countries before reaching Australia, including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
Paul Griffin, an Associate Professor at Queensland University who specialises in infectious diseases, said the source of the new strain could not be determined without a genomic match.
But he said Pacific ports could not be ruled out as a potential source of the mutated strain.
“I think certainly there would be areas in the Pacific where testing would be challenging, let alone genomic, so it’s possible it originated from there,” Dr Griffin said.