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Pacific Islands’ zero-Covid strategies unsustainable, professor says


Face masks were worn by people at Suva’s supermarket, Fiji on April 23rd, 2021.

Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Covid-19 cases have increased in many countries around the world since the advent of highly transmissible variant omicron. soaring by 20% globally over the past week.

It’s been quite different in the Pacific Islands.

Many of the small island states nestled in the Pacific Ocean have had no new cases of the virus for months — and some of those countries have remained virtually Covid-free throughout the pandemic.

Tonga and Samoa had no confirmed cases as of Tuesday according to Our World in Data.

To maintain a state of zero Covid infection for the long term, the islands were closed to international travel. In addition to strict quarantine measures that control any possible imports of cases, they also had to be sealed off from the outside world.

While many islands still have their borders closed, some are starting to open again. The countries which remain isolated are now in an uncertain position, trying to find a balance between their tourist-dependent economies and public health.

Zero Covid is considered a “non-starter” as a policy that can be used long-term

Andrew Preston from the University of Bath (UK) told CNBC zero-Covid strategies weren’t sustainable partly because of the emergence of the microbe omicron.

He said that zero Covid’s scenario was one in which it had maximum credibility. This meant maintaining the vaccine, while extremely high immunity levels were achieved through vaccination. However, in most cases, the level of vaccination necessary to protect against an import case has proven difficult. And now, with the potential for omicrons to reinfect, or even to infect, those who have been vaccinated, that policy seems ineffective.

Zero-Covid strategy has also had a significant economic impact on many islands. Governments are being urged to boost vaccination so borders can be safely reopened.

According to an IMF report published in October, GDP across the Pacific Islands contracted by 3.7% in 2020, with tourism-dependent countries — Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu — expected to have seen a 6.5% decline in real GDP in 2021.

The virus is currently not being detected in Cook Islands due to its political connections with New Zealand. Covid is the Cook Islands’ response strategy to New Zealand. On Monday, 80 additional cases were confirmed.

Certain restrictions apply, such as the restriction of 100 participants at social events and enforcement of social distancing laws in bars and restaurants. Although face covers are recommended, it is not mandatory.

Last week, Cook Islands began to reopen their borders. New Zealand must be used by all visitors to the Cook Islands. There, they will need to stay for 10 days. Additionally, visitors must show proof that they have been vaccinated against Covid and also a positive PCR test.

On Dec. 16, Cook Islands Prime minister Mark Brown stated that the best weapons the country has had during the pandemic were “isolation, closed borders and mass vaccination.”

“We’ve worked hard for the past 2 years to preserve our Covid-free status. [travel]He said that regulations are a continual effort to ensure all eligible persons get vaccinated.

According to official data, 96% percent of the eligible population — those over the age of 12 — in the Cook Islands has been fully vaccinated against Covid. Around 70%A booster dose has been administered to a majority of people.

In reopening its doors to the rest of the world, Cook Islands’ government hopes to recuperate some of the economic damage it has sustained as a result of the pandemic. According to Asian Development Bank, Cook Islands GDP could suffer a 32% drop due to the current crisis.

Prospects of a ‘Dire Covid

As authorities try to match the Cook Islands’ successful vaccinations, other Pacific Island country borders will remain closed. Reopening too soon could be a huge public health risk, given that populations likely have little or no immunity acquired through infection — particularly to the omicron variant.

Our World in Data reports that Samoa and Tonga have vaccinated approximately 60% of their population. Only half the people in Wallis, Futuna and Samoa received two doses. In Kiribati however, only one-third are fully vaccinated.

Some Pacific Island countries have additional health risks. Covid, as an example, is a major risk in Samoa because of high levels of non-communicable disease rates that, according to the WHO, account for 68% of premature deaths.

Berlin Kafoa is the director of Pacific Community’s public health division. He told CNBC that there were “huge concerns” about the possibility for Covid epidemics after the Pacific Island nations reopen their borders.

Covid-19-related outbreaks could overwhelm fragile health systems, posing grave consequences. [these countries]”At this time, we are not able to assist them,” he stated in an email. He also said that WHO and the other U.N agencies had been working closely with Pacific Island governments to help each country prepare.

Each country and territory in the region is currently setting vaccination targets to ensure they are able to safely reopen borders. Kafoa stated that access to Covid vaccines is a problem for all Pacific Island nations. Hesitancy, misinformation, and vaccine hesitancy are also issues.  

Official data from Vanuatu — which has kept cases near or at zero throughout the pandemic — shows just 37% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Vanuatu relies heavily on tourism. Therefore, the economic recovery rate is dependent upon Vanuatu being able to reopen their borders. In 2018, tourism accounted for 31.7% national GDP. a 2020 report from the U.N. said. This industry was responsible to more than one third of all jobs in the country before the pandemic.

CNBC’s Olivier Ponti told CNBC the first quarter international bookings for Pacific Islands were at 12% as they were pre-pandemic.

Ponti noted that French Polynesia was experiencing the greatest recovery after it reopened last year. The country’s bookings currently stand at 75%, compared to 21% two years ago.

Fiji and New Caledonia flight prices were 51% to 38% higher than in January 2020. Ponti indicated that Vanuatu “isn’t expecting any international guests.”