After nearly three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pacific is beginning to reopen to the world.
In 2022, living with COVID-19 guided decision-making in much of the region. From managing Omicron outbreaks at the start of the year to lifting restrictions for overseas travellers, Pacific nations have re-opened to the rest of the world and the pandemic with it.
The virus has revealed the devastating consequences of the dual crises of pandemic and climate change, along with the difficulty of returning to normal as the economic impacts continue to devastate some communities. However, the pandemic response has continued to show the Pacific’s resilience, as nations have shown ingenuity and embraced regional cooperation to deal with the virus.
In Melanesia, low vaccination rates remained a source of concern as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands reported their first cases of community transmission early in the year. The outbreaks placed immense strain on local health systems, with COVID-19 patients reportedly dying on the hospital floor due to a bed shortage in Honiara. Papua New Guinea remains the Pacific nation with the lowest vaccination rate, with just 3.4 per cent of the population fully vaccinated as of 26 November 2022, according to the World Health Organization.
An important development for Papuans living close to the Torres Strait came in October, with the reinstatement of a free movement treaty with Australia. The treaty, which was suspended for two and a half years during the pandemic, enables coastal communities to cross the international border with permits to continue traditional trade relationships.
In Fiji, the first Pacific state to welcome back international travellers, the economy is slowly getting back on track. The country’s net revenue in June 2022 exceeded forecasts by 8.5 per cent, however pre-existing economic and unemployment issues – compounded by the pandemic – remain.
In Polynesia, the double impacts of natural disasters and the pandemic were stark. Tonga’s recovery following the January Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai eruption and resultant tsunami was complicated by the country going into lockdown, with non-government organisations such as Red Cross forced to limit services for weeks due to restrictions.
The adoption of a ‘contactless aid’ system – conducted mostly by community members – has highlighted the benefits of localising humanitarian assistance.
Tuvalu was the last Pacific state to lose its COVID-free status on 2 November this year. Despite a high vaccination rate of 97 per cent, cases exceeded 2,000 in less than three weeks. In response to a request from Tuvalu for support, members of the Fiji Emergency Medical Assistance Team went on their first international assistance mission to help with managing the outbreak.
Samoa experienced significant outbreaks early in the year, sparking a series of lockdowns. Schools closed, re-opened, then closed again, meaning children had to be taught via remote classes that were broadcast on national television stations. Then, after reaching a 98 per cent vaccination rate, the country reopened its borders in August.
Palau’s borders reopened to tourists in May, but visitor numbers remained low, with only one-twelfth of the number of annual pre-pandemic tourists arriving in 2022. Palau’s tourism industry had already suffered a hit after China banned tour groups in 2018. In response, Palau is looking to increase two-way travel with Taiwan.
Elsewhere in Micronesia – which was home to some of the last of COVID-free nations at the beginning of 2022 – a number of countries reported community transmission in the second half of the year. The Federated States of Micronesia reported its first case in July, followed by Marshall Islands in August. Kiribati was affected by the start of year surge, when more than half of the passengers arriving on a flight from Fiji tested positive.
Now that every Pacific Island country had COVID-19 in the community, some remnants of the pre-pandemic world are coming back, with regional meetings such as the Pacific Islands Forum being held in person this year for the first time since 2019. However, the economic devastation the pandemic has wrought on the Pacific, from the loss of tourism and national lockdowns, has left many Pacific states in debt stress and recession.
For most of 2021 and the first half 2022, the focus was on vaccinating the Pacific. Now, the attention has shifted to how the region manages ongoing domestic issues and reconnects with the world, with the economic crisis being just one of the myriad of security issues the Pacific will face in 2023.
As for COVID-19, with restrictions by-and-large removed, the pandemic is no longer at the top of the region’s long list of challenges.