First wave: Covid crippling Pacific island countries
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
They were once the toast of the world, even envied for their Covid-free status while most countries were counting bodies on a daily basis. But international observers knew it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus hit this part of the world.
Two years later, it finally did, raising concerns among world health care providers. More than 1 million people in the Pacific nations struggle with their first wave of Covid-19 fueled by the omicron variant.
Tuvalu is the only Pacific nation that remains Covid-free as of this writing. But Isaia Taape, Tuvalu’s health minister, said his government couldn’t be complacent. Preparation is imperative, he said at a virtual press briefing in March.
In countries with low immunization rates, the rapid surge in Covid infections is causing increased deaths and illnesses, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. They noted the need to ramp up vaccinations in vulnerable communities.
Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Kiribati and Samoa have all experienced outbreaks in their capitals, and the virus is spreading to vulnerable outer island communities that lack basic treatment and vaccination facilities.
The virus is putting huge strains on fragile health care systems in population centers such as Honiara, Port Vila and Nuku’alofa. A rising number of health care workers are being struck down with Covid-19, further limiting health services and escalating the crisis, according to Red Cross volunteers.
“It is critical that we reach the last mile with vaccinations in the most remote Pacific island villages,” said Sainiana Rokovucago, acting head of the IFRC’s Pacific delegation. “Every effort must be made by authorities to reach these communities, despite the logistical challenges of getting vaccines to these remote tropical islands.”
She said Red Cross volunteers are working with communities to understand the importance of getting vaccinated and maintaining hygiene to contain the spread of the virus that has killed more than 6 million around the world.
The Solomon Islands has reported more than 12,000 infections and more than 100 deaths since January. Vanuatu has reported over 6,000 cases and 12 deaths in the past two months. After the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January, Tonga is battling a triple disaster with over 9,000 cases and 11 Covid-related deaths.
In the Solomon Islands, only 20 percent of the eligible population have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to Our World in Data. In Vanuatu, only 38 percent have received two doses, considered the minimum initial protocol to help protect people.
“There is strong evidence that vaccinations save lives. People in the Cook Islands are experiencing their first wave of the virus, yet due to the high vaccination rate of 100 percent, they have been able to avoid severe illness and many deaths," Rokovucago said.
“It is critical that we do even more to counter misinformation, knowledge gaps and rumors about Covid-19 and vaccinations by building trust and vaccine by understanding any concerns, answering questions and fostering dialogue through trusted channels,” she added.
At the 14th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting last month, health officials identified the major challenges brought about by the pandemic, but also noted that it was the perfect moment to make advances in health.
“Many of our countries have small health teams, so if there are opportunities to kill two, three, four birds with one stone, then we should do that,” said Taape, this year’s chair of the regional organization that comprises 19 island nations.
Taape noted that strengthening laboratory capacity, for example, will help countries during the current pandemic, but will also be helpful in responding to other diseases in the future, such as tuberculosis, dengue and measles.
“What is clear from the Covid-19 response is that nobody can predict the future, but action today can change the future,” said Dr. Takeshi Kasai, World Health Organization’s regional director for the Western Pacific.
“The pandemic has underscored that health is inextricably linked with people's lives and broader social wellbeing. When health is at risk, everything is at risk. We, therefore, need to ensure that we make the most of the political will and unprecedented momentum for health that currently exists.”
Dr. Paula Vivili, deputy director-general of the Pacific Community or SPC, pointed out that while the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the islands’ major challenges, it also shone a beam of light onto the major advancements in many critical areas of work over the past two years.
“Having said that we must not let gains in other areas including immunization, NCDs, SRH slip any further. This meeting has been an opportunity to look at our other areas of work,” Vivili said. (With reports from IFRC/SPC)