• By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

The irony of it all: Lessons from small Pacific islands

From Wuhan, Covid-19 has embarked on its atrocious journey around the world, reaching as far as it could get, swirling like a tornado and leaving carnage along its paths. Major cities around the world have become apparent ghost towns as the governments’ social distancing mandates had citizens locked behind their doors.

At this point, the question is not how many countries have been infected; rather, how many countries have been spared. As the Center for Diseases Control’s coronavirus map is widely marked bloody red, the virgin spots stand out— most of them are in the Pacific islands region.

Before the Covid-19 contagion became a pandemic, world health experts were worried most about the small Pacific island countries, which are typically regarded as most susceptible to any disease contagion. Negating the idyllic charm of these tiny tropical islands is the abysmal inadequacy of their health care infrastructures. Seeking treatments from medical specialists is almost a luxury that only those who can afford to travel can get. Combine that liability with their geographical isolation, which makes it difficult for island communities to access medical supply and equipment. Typhoons and other natural disasters have repeatedly highlighted the islands’ fragility.

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When Covid-19 was just in its nascent stage, many island communities were still reeling from the outbreaks of otherwise preventable measles and dengue fever, a situation that amplified the world health experts’ apprehension about the Pacific islands’ ability to deal with yet another plague. Covid-19 could place them under enormous strain.

But the Covid-19 pandemic exposed a curious irony. While most rich countries in the West, such as the United States and Italy, have been worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, Pacific island countries have continued to enjoy a coronavirus-free existence.

Guam, however, is an exemption. It relatively shared the United States’ sense of security and delusion of immunity. With more than 140 positive cases as of the last week of April— not counting the nearly 1,000 cases on the USS Theodore Roosevelt which is docked in Apra Harbor— Guam is the region’s hot spot. The CNMI, Guam’s closest neighbor, has been hit as well.

According to Lowy Institute, 15 countries have dodged the Covid-19. Ten of them are in this part of the world. These include Palau, Marshalls Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Solomon Islands Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. If the White House coronavirus task force’s theory is to be believed— sunlight, heat and humidity weaken the coronavirus— perhaps, the sun shielded the islands from the pandemic.

Or most likely, it is the awareness of their own weaknesses that compelled the island communities to be more proactive. Their early aggressive responses and preparedness stood in contrast to the complacency of the West.

Some islands had early drills with dengue fever and measles outbreaks from mid-part of 2019 through January. Samoa was the epicenter of the disease, with 83 measles-related deaths and 5,600 cases. Before lockdown became the global norm and “social distancing” became part of the universal vocabulary, bans on social gathering were in place in FSM, American Samoa and Samoa.

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By the time Covid-19 got out of China, Pacific island governments already knew what to do. As early as February, most of these jurisdictions began imposing restrictions on immigration and travel from China and from high risk countries. FSM, Marshall Island and Palau governments prohibited their citizens from travelling to China and other infected countries before closing their borders altogether.

Most Pacific island nations are tourism-based economies and shutting their airports is a slayer of the industry. But when the pandemic dies down and the world returns to normal, these small islands will reemerge from the global plague scathed the least, leaving a lesson for the world to learn: urgent action is key to addressing a disaster.

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