Australia and Oceania, just as other regions of the planet, have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first novel Coronavirus case was recorded in Australia (Melbourne) on January 25, 2020, and then the disease began to spread rapidly throughout the region. At the end of February, New Zealand reported its first infection. Numerous island nations of Oceania rushed to close their borders because healthcare systems in many of them are not well-developed, and infectious diseases can play havoc on isolated peoples’ immune systems, a fact that has been known for many centuries.
Restrictions on travel across and within their borders were imposed by Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Independent State of Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia and also dependent territories of the United States, France and the UK in the region.
Perhaps owing to these measures, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 on Australia’s Norfolk Island, Britain’s Pitcairn Islands, France’s Wallis and Futuna Islands, USA’s American Samoa, as well as Niue and the Cook Islands in free association with New Zealand and in its territory of Tokelau.
Still, by the end of April, cases had been recorded in independent island nations of Oceania, such as Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Independent State of Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia. SARS-CoV-2 also reached the shores of dependent territories, such as Chile’s Easter Island, France’s New Caledonia and French Polynesia, as well as United States’ Guam and Northern Mariana Islands and the US state of Hawaii. At the beginning of June 2020, there were also confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Republic of Fiji.
Fortunately, Oceania has reported comparatively few infections and most people who tested positive for the virus have since recovered. However, island nations of Oceania are in no hurry to lift numerous restrictions introduced in order to contain the pandemic.
By June 2020, New Zealand restarted key sectors of its economy but kept measures, such as social distancing, in place. The government also decided to extend restrictions on entry of foreign nationals into New Zealand until at least 2021. In other aforementioned countries and territories, similar measures remain in place.
All of this has had a serious impact on the economy of Oceania, especially on regions with well developed tourism industries that generate considerable earnings for them. Places affected include the US state of Hawaii, as well as France’s New Caledonia and French Polynesia. It is probably due to tourist inflows from all over the world that these regions reported some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in Oceania. Hence, restrictions on entry of foreigners have had a substantial impact on their economies but have also proved to be very beneficial for keeping local populations safe.
Clearly, saving lives and protecting the health of individuals ought to be the key goal of any government. Hence, any measures taken to restrict travel are admittedly a reasonable step. Still, the negative economic impact has been substantial. For instance, world-famous resorts in Hawaii have sustained considerable losses. Travel to the state of Hawaii has not been banned completely, but due to reduction in flights and the suspension of cruise operations, the number of tourists arriving in the islands decreased by more than 50%. For instance, in March 2019, Hawaii’s tourism sector brought $1.5 billion in earnings, while in March 2020, the revenue amounted to only $720 million.
Still, dependent territories and states can expect to receive assistance from their mother countries – the United States, France, etc. Sovereign nations whose economies depend on tourist inflows are currently facing much more serious challenges than places like Hawaii. For example, earnings from the tourism sector account for approximately 40% of Fiji’s GDP. And the country has lost this revenue stream on account of the pandemic.
Still, the countries of Oceania introduced lockdowns and were prepared to keep the restrictions in place until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of April 2020, economic challenges faced by a number of island nations were further compounded by the havoc wreaked by powerful tropical cyclone Harold. Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji and the Solomon Islands experienced hurricane-force winds, storms and floods. As a result, approximately 30 people died, thousands were forced to leave their homes, there were road closures and communication channels were severed. Overall, the estimated cost of the damage exceeded $123 million. In addition, in countries impacted by the cyclone, crops were damaged and water stores affected. This has put their food and water security at risk. Hence, the island nations needed to resort to foreign aid. Australia put together an entire financial aid package to assist the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. New Zealand helped Vanuatu with its rescue operations. In addition, the United States, the PRC, France and a number of other countries decided to provide support to the nations impacted by the tropical cyclone.
However, problems then arose, after all, allowing foreign rescue workers in and accepting external humanitarian aid meant violating restrictions put in place to protect locals from becoming infected with the novel Coronavirus. This made helping the affected countries that much harder. For instance, humanitarian aid packages arriving in Vanuatu had to be quarantined for a week before being sent to their intended destinations.
Fortunately, nowadays, money can be transferred by electronic means. Hence, financial aid can be received without breaching any lockdowns. The International Committee of the Red Cross gave Vanuatu approximately $53,000 in aid and Australia – $60,000. The United Nations and the World Bank decided to provide the country with more than $12 million in financial assistance. New Zealand sent over $1.5 million in aid to the Solomon Islands and promised Fiji $350,000.
At the end of May 2020, Australia’s government announced that it was planning to provide countries affected by tropical cyclone Harold and island nations experiencing economic downturns on account of the COVID-19 pandemic with a $100 million emergency financial relief package. Papua New Guinea is slated to receive $20.5 of it; Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands – $13 million each; Fiji, the Independent State of Samoa and Tonga – $10.5 per island nation; Kiribati and Nauru – $4.5 million each; Tuvalu – $3 million, and East Timor – $10 million. In addition, Australia will extend visas for any citizens of the aforementioned island nations working within its borders for a year.
Despite all the support provided to Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga from all the corners of the globe, it will take these countries approximately a year to recover from the tropical cyclone. Fortunately, external donor nations and international organizations intend on continuing to assist the countries of Oceania.
It is well known that in the past decade, Oceania has been at the center of acute rivalry between Western countries (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) and China. And this time around, the financial aid provided by the PRC to island nations and dependent territories to assist them with problems they are facing as a result of the tropical cyclone and the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be far lower than that given by Western nations. Hence, at the current stage of the competition, the West has emerged victorious.
We can only hope that the biggest challenges of year 2020, which has proved to be exceptionally eventful, are already behind Oceania.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.