Economics and finance, Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, Social policy, Health | Australia, The Pacific

8 May 2020

Decision-makers will need to be well prepared to address the fall-out from the pandemic, Tim George writes.

Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) member countries deserve credit for largely keeping COVID-19 from their shores so far, although that situation could change quickly. But whatever level of success the current measures have, the crisis represents the gravest security challenge to the region in the post-independence era.

More on this: COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 6 May

The immediate focus is on crisis management, but dealing with the medium and longer term fall-out from the pandemic is already looming large. We don’t know yet what the region, and wider world, will look like, although the outlines of major health security, economic, social, and border management challenges are taking shape. As they navigate these troubled times, governments and regional organisations will need to be well prepared for the tough, finely-balanced, decisions ahead – and to maximise opportunities that a fresh look at priorities and resources may bring. Creative policy thinking, drawing on specialist advice, will pay dividends, as will transparency, strong governance, and consultation with those outside government.

An obvious task will be to strengthen and re-prioritise national public health systems, many of which are ill-equipped and understaffed. Even before the pandemic, island countries had identified health security as a top concern. The coronavirus crisis has underlined shortcomings in tackling major infectious disease outbreaks. At the same time the region faces a grave non-communicable disease crisis – among other things, this is largely responsible for the ever-growing burden of overseas referrals, which is greatly distorting a number of national health budgets.

Development partners seem likely to increase their future support for health security, building on their current assistance in tackling the pandemic. Australia is providing multi-faceted support. New Zealand, China and several other bilateral donors, as well as multilateral institutions, are also making valuable contributions. Boosting testing will continue to be a key priority. As the key technical agencies in the region, the Pacific Community and the World Health Organization (WHO) are playing key roles. Scrutiny of the WHO at the global level should not be allowed to detract from the valuable work done by the organisation on the ground in the Pacific.

A second task will be economic recovery. The needs are potentially massive and wide-ranging, going well beyond the relief and stimulus packages already in place in a number of countries. Even issues like food security will need to be examined. Protection of the vulnerable will be important. Securing the support of bilateral and multilateral development partners, in an environment of unprecedented competing demands, will be vital. Possible assistance includes budget support, debt forgiveness, and loans. Regional countries will need to plan carefully to ensure that the assistance they take on is aligned with their priorities, well-coordinated, and sustainable.

The pandemic has plunged the world into an unprecedented economic crisis. The implications of COVID-19 for the world order, as yet unclear, may be even more profound. Global solidarity has been absent, and the world’s multilateral pandemic response capability has been shown to be greatly under-resourced.

Whether the pandemic will have a silver lining by focusing minds on the importance of coordinated science-based international action on other global issues – such as climate change, and cyber security – remains to be seen.

Pacific Island countries have only limited scope to influence these global trends. However, the region has already shown that on some fundamental questions of human security – such as climate change, and the future of small island states – it can have a strong voice globally.

More on this: The perfect storm

The Pacific region will need internal cohesion and a strong collective voice as the pandemic plays out. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s message to G20 leaders that the Pacific needed to be a focus of international support was timely. The recent move by the PIF to expedite a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19, within the framework of the Biketawa Declaration, was useful, and should be built on to strengthen cooperation in managing the crisis and its aftermath. The processes and institutions of the PIF, such as the Sub-Committee on Regional Security, as well as the Council of Regional Organisations, will need to be highly effective. Coordination of external assistance will be a major issue.

Island countries have obvious resource and other constraints, but also significant strengths, in dealing with major national security issues. While each country is different, I’d make four observations.

Firstly, natural disaster relief mechanisms, involving declarations of states of emergency, are generally well-practised and effective, and enjoy wide public support. They are being put to good use in the current crisis.

Second, communities and traditional institutions, to an extent not widely appreciated outside the region, often play a strong role in maintaining social cohesion. The resilience shown by communities during cyclones and other major disasters is inspiring, as was the unity of purpose between the government and community during Samoa’s measles mass vaccination campaign. Chief Executive Officer of the Samoan Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Chair of Samoa’s National Security Committee, Agafili Shem Leo, notes “the key message we take from the measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, is to convene whole-of-government processes in a potential crisis early, and to act swiftly and decisively.”

Third, a widespread problem in the region is poor collaboration and information sharing between government agencies on national security issues – there is no deep-rooted ‘whole-of-government’ culture.

And finally, a number of countries lack their own independent assessment capability, essential for sound decision-making by governments on national and regional security issues. Now is the time to boost this capacity, drawing on the growing amount of information and analysis available from open sources, as well as from regional organisations and trusted bilateral partners.

Strengthening government decision-making makes good sense, both to address the COVID-19 crisis and future security challenges. A valuable step in this process is the development of national security strategies, as PIF leaders committed to do in the 2018 Boe Declaration, and as several member countries have done or are now doing.

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