Economics and finance, Government and governance, Law, National security, Social policy | The Pacific

5 June 2020

Solomon Islands is facing an unprecedented State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, poor implementation and economic recession have tested people’s trust in their government, Anouk Ride and Gina Kekea write.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. Two weeks later, on 25 March, Solomon Islands declared a State of Emergency (SOE).

Governor-General Sir David Vunagi said the Government recognised that the importation of COVID-19 could be catastrophic. considering the limited health resources the country has.

“Solomon Islands will only be safe if COVID-19 does not enter Solomon Islands,” he said.

At the time, even though there were no cases in the country, the threat of COVID-19 seemed great. The population was already susceptible to transmissible diseases, which cause 22 per cent of deaths nationwide. Hepatitis B alone was responsible for 57 deaths in 2017, and there were 395 reported cases of tuberculosis in 2018.

Urban overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation and poor hygiene are contributing factors to disease spread, and lack of early detection and treatment limits control of disease.

On 27 March, the SOE was extended to four months. Measures imposed under the SOE focused on controlling people’s movement, closing borders, restricting movement of vessels and aircraft, allowing special funds to implement public safety measures, and to temporarily close public places.

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Some economic sectors, like informal food and betel nut markets in Honiara, were banned completely, whilst other sectors were subject to more limited restrictions. For example, nightclubs are currently banned but kava bars and casinos are open.

The largely Chinese-owned shops in Honiara were allowed to continue to operate with voluntary social distancing guidelines. Public transport such as buses – minivans which are often overcrowded – were allowed to operate without any restrictions. Meanwhile, with the closure of satellite markets, Honiara Central Market was more crowded than ever.

Schools and educational institutions closed for eight weeks from 30 March and many people, particularly youth, went back to their home villages. Members of Parliament were then given $250,000 to help their constituents in Honiara move back to the villages.

In relation to finance, the normal review of budgets by Parliament has been suspended with Parliament not sitting since 8 April. Additionally, two major financial decisions were made by the government – to cut 780 “non-essential” public service salaries by 50 per cent, and to repackage pre-existing and new donor funding as a stimulus package.

The initial stimulus package included funding for key ministries, notably agriculture, and state-owned enterprises. Currently, individuals and businesses are able to apply for certain types of assistance, to be reviewed on a case by case basis. Targeted assistance for tourism was included, but not for those affected by the closure of informal markets or temporary gaps in pay packets.

This SOE is one of only three State of Emergency declarations applied to Honiara and surrounds since Solomon Islands became independent in 1978. Other SOEs were imposed during the civil conflict in 1999, and for a month in Honiara just after the April 2014 floods which caused widespread damage, 12,000 people to be displaced, and 23 deaths.

This is the first time a State of Emergency has been imposed prior to an actual crisis, as there are no current cases of the virus. Examination of the use of this SOE is therefore important. While the intent of SOEs is for control and rapid response to emergency situations, there needs to be care they do not also cause conflict and confusion.

For instance, the closure of informal markets was handled well in some cases, with police talking calmly and advising market sellers to close up and go home. But in some cases, these closures were handled violently.

In White River, police seized goods and cash from roadside sellers, which led some disgruntled people to loot goods from a nearby Chinese-owned store. Betel nut sellers operating during the SOE period have described how they give goods or money to law enforcement officers in order to continue their trade. Such conduct adds to distrust of officers in high crime communities, which in turn fuels a lack of reporting of crimes.

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Secondly, accountable and transparent decisions are less likely to cause disagreement, flouting of rules or other forms of dissent such as protests or sabotage. Ruth Liloqula, CEO of Transparency Solomon Islands (TSI), said information provided by the Executive Government is not enough:

“The Executive Government, whilst providing messages, should be offering more targeted messages than what has been coming out. The role of oversight committees, internal controls and national audit function must continue and not be taken over by the pandemic oversight committee or threatened by them. Under the cover of SOE, as a result of the pandemic, there is very little transparency, and no accountability on the public funds paid to members of Parliament.”

Thirdly, clear and consistent information is needed. In the first lockdown from 10 April, 63 people were arrested for breaching curfews. However, their cases were thrown out because of incorrect procedures. Confusing statements were made about what time the lockdown started and stopped.

The recent communications about the second lockdown were clearer, and the number of people breaching it far fewer, with only 22 arrested. Good communication will limit people’s interaction with the justice system over conflicts with State of Emergency matters.

Finally, in this economic downturn, which the Central Bank of Solomon Islands has classified as a recession, it is desirable to keep disruptions to economic activities at a minimum and be attentive to the impact of the crisis on poverty. The informal sector has faced a significant shock with the closure of informal markets. For instance, the three largest informal markets – White River, Fishing Village and Henderson – alone have a combined gross value per annum of roughly SBD48 million (AU $8 million), and provide the only source of household income for more than 80 per cent of vendors.

With many losing formal jobs in industry, and pay from civil service positions, the importance of informal incomes is likely to be even greater. A survey of 100 businesses by the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry found 55 of them have laid off staff or are planning to lay off workers. 34 per cent of these businesses have to lay off more than 40 per cent of their workforce. In addition to this, businesses have faced at least 71 hours of disruption to normal business caused by trial lockdowns.

The State of Emergency is currently in place until 25 July 2020, but there are lessons to be learned from what has happened so far. These include the need for better coordination, consultation and expertise from ministries and stakeholders, attentiveness to conflict factors, and prioritised assistance to people most affected by the situation. Addressing these issues could help bring people together and improve the Solomon Islands’ response to COVID19.

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