COVID-19 in the Pacific and a Concert to Unite
Prepared by Andy E. Nystrom, PPP Archivist & Research Assistant
A universal truth in 2020 is that everyone has to deal with COVID-19 in some form or another, even if you live in one of the few locations left in the world with no cases. Although remote, many areas in the Pacific Islands have been hit with the virus. According to Worldometer on August 21, 2020, COVID-19 cases in the South Pacific include (Total Cases/Total Deaths/Total Active Cases; see the site for more stats): Indonesia (149,408/6,500/39,917), Australia (24,407/472/5,475), New Zealand (1,665/22/105), Papua New Guinea (361/4/159), French Polynesia (211/0/143), Fiji (28/1/7), Timor-Leste (25/0/0), New Caledonia (23/0/1). Worldometer tracks US states and territories separately; among those in the Pacific are: Hawaii (5,844/45/3,768), Guam (767/6/379), and Northern Mariana Islands (54/2/33).
While some regions of the Pacific have indeed avoided the direct impacts of the virus, the entire region is facing hardship due to the virus. According to Pacific Islands Forum secretary general Dame Meg Taylor in a recent Guardian article, “Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated systemic and structural imbalances in our systems and societies, underlining the urgency for decisive policy action… If I look at this from what’s happening within communities and different countries, I think some countries are getting harder hit than others, and I think where we’ve seen unemployment, we’ve seen people really struggle… We’re seeing in places like Nadi [Fiji] low employment and lots of young mothers and carers with children who do not have sufficient resources to be able to feed themselves.” As the article also notes, remittances, or overseas money sent between the islands, are predicted by World Bank to decline by 13%, “represent[ing] a huge downturn for Samoa, Tonga and the Marshall islands, where money sent back by overseas workers account for 40% of average household income.”
As of early September, Tonga has no confirmed COVID-19 cases, and entry restrictions prohibit most travellers from entering the country. Credit: Tonga Tourism Authority
Cook Islands, Fiji, and Vanuatu are particularly hard hit due to reliance on tourism. As the Guardian article explains, “Tourism makes up 40% of Fiji’s GDP. The International Monetary Fund recorded a 99% drop in tourist arrivals to the country in May 2020 compared with the same month last year.” This is likely to result in a decline of 21.7% in Fiji’s economy, more than any other Pacific nation. It is uncertain how tourism in the area can begin to recuperate, as plans for tourism “travel bubbles” remain stalled in Australia and New Zealand. At the time of the article (August 11), New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern predicted quarantine-free travel to the Cook Islands in 2020, but the newest outbreak in New Zealand puts that into question.
While virus mitigation efforts continue throughout the Pacific, one recent creative initiative came together to spread hope and connection. As part of the effort to unite the Pacific in this time of COVID-19, “UN in the Pacific brought together artists, UN leaders, Heads of State and international celebrities in the world’s first regional COVID-19 concert.” Titled Pacific Unite: Saving Lives Together, the concert was streamed on Saturday, August 15 (the entire concert can be found in the above link). This two-and-a-half-hour concert, hosted by Tofiga Fepulea’I as his character “Aunty Tala,” included “musical performances from Jahboy of the Solomon Islands, Mia Kami of Tonga, Juny B of Kiribati, Te Vaka of New Zealand and many more.” Fepulea’I called it “the first-ever virtual concert to comprise primarily of artists from across the region and be accessible to audiences not only in the Pacific but around the world.” Aside from being streamed worldwide, this closed-captioned concert was broadcast on radio and television in 12 Pacific Island nations, Australia, New Zealand, plus some countries farther afield.
While offering an experience to enjoy, the concert shone a light on the varied issues experienced across the region due to the pandemic, with growing issues with economic instability, food shortages, domestic violence, and mental health issues. Speakers stressed that rebuilding must include “creating a sustainable Pacific that is resilient to the impacts of climate change.” According to President of Palau Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. in his video message, “This new normal should not be the same old story, but with face mask.” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed stressed that the only way to overcome COVID-19 is to work together. She urged the global community to help the islands “by ensuring equitable access to vital medical equipment, supplies and – when they become available – vaccines“ as well as by debt-relief and stimulation support.
Demonstrating the resilience of the Pacific People, the concert closed with the song We Will Rise, “written about the coronavirus pandemic in the Pacific and performed by Pasifika Voices and the International School Suva.”
Sung primarily by children and youth, the hopeful closing lyrics were:
“Around the world, we’re closing borders, COVID-19 on the rise
A new world order behind closed doors, the storm will pass, we will survive
We will rise, we will rise again, our isles will rise again
We will rise, we will rise again, our world will rise again”