Covid-19

Holding pattern: the Pacific locks down

Pacific nations have rolled out strict responses to Covid-19, with several remaining Covid-19-free, Teuila Fuatai reports

With no confirmed Covid-19 cases, Sāmoa is among several Pacific nations attempting to balance strict public health measures and regular activity.

A two-week state of emergency, which reduced trading hours and public gatherings, is due to be reviewed on Saturday. However, Prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has already indicated it is likely to be extended as more nationals return from overseas. 

Residents are already forgoing Sunday church services and observing a night-time curfew between 4pm and 6am. Street vendors have also been told to vacate Apia, with stalls selling fresh produce only permitted outside the town centre. They must also adhere to rules prohibiting public gatherings of more than five.

One resident, who did not want to be named, outlined the precarious state of affairs: “Some people are already acting like we have cases, and even deaths. But then there’s a few who also don’t seem to take it seriously too. Things will probably change when the first case is confirmed.”

Mulivai Cathedral closed down on Sunday Photo: Aufai Areta Areta/Samoan Observer

Last year’s measles outbreak, which killed more than 80 people and resulted in a nationwide lockdown and mass vaccination drive, serves as a stark reminder of the potential devastation Covid-19 could bring. More than 5700 cases were diagnosed, with New Zealand identified as the likely source. 

While no arrests for breaches of emergency orders have been reported, police continued to remind people to stick to the rules. Police Commissioner Fuiavailili Egon Keil said warnings and charges were possible. 

“The spirit of these things is that we do not want to lock anyone up because we want everyone to be compliant. But there are some people that are still resisting,” he told the Sāmoa Observer.

“Police officers talk to the people and issue them warnings. But the last resort is putting handcuffs on them. People, and the whole world, are uneasy right now and the last thing we want is to make things worse,” Fuiavailili said. 

So far, more than 20 people have been tested and no one has returned a positive result. The testing kits are being sent to New Zealand and Australia for analysis. 

In Tonga, authorities have taken a tougher approach. Eighty-one people were arrested in the first three days of its nationwide lockdown, which began on Sunday. Police said the arrests related to curfew breaches, obstruction of officers, public drunkenness and property damage. 

“We will not hesitate to take enforcement action on those who continue to ignore the restrictions,” acting deputy police commissioner ‘Atunaisa Taumoepeau said. “People need to stay home especially during the curfew hours.”

Other Pacific nations yet to confirm cases include the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu. All have imposed restrictions on business and travel, and are testing and isolating suspected cases. 

Fish sellers at Matautu being told by police they are forbidden to sell their catch on the side of the road. Photo: Areta Areta/Samoan Observer

In Fiji, locals continue to adjust to life with Covid-19. Five cases on the main island of Viti Levu have been identified. Heavy restrictions remain in place for the Lautoka region where the first case was identified. 

A nationwide curfew was imposed on Monday, and nearly 120 people were arrested for breaches in its first two days. About 100 checkpoints have also been set, with police and armed forces enforcing public health measures and travel restrictions. 

The approach has been criticised as “heavy handed” by local human rights advocates. "This is not the time for the military to be displaying arms,” the Coalition for Human Rights in Fiji said. “And having arms in public places at this time is a show of heavy-handedness and really unnecessary. This just fuels public fear and intimidation.” 

Meanwhile, residents on Fiji’s Coral Coast are doing their best to keep spirits high. Staff and owners of Ecotrax, a tour company that utilises Fiji’s old sugar railway lines, have delivered food parcels to nearby villages.

“[We’re] packing up a whole lot of food for Malomalo and Naidiri village to encourage people to stay at home and not go out,” owner Mandy De Vries said.

The worst-hit Pacific nations continue to be Guam and French Polynesia. 

On Monday 31 March, Guam’s second virus-related death was confirmed on March 31. The 79-year-old man had underlying health conditions, and was believed to have contracted Covid-19 from community contact, authorities said. Overall, 69 cases have been identified and seven people have recovered. 

In Tahiti and Moorea, 37 cases have been identified.

Both Unicef (UN Children’s Fund) and the World Health Organisation have also pitched into the Covid-19 response in the Pacific. The NGOs this week said more than 170,000 essential medical and laboratory items had been supplied to governments in the region, including tents for fever clinics and community outreach centres, with public health campaigns and hand washing facilities also being rolled out. 

*Made with the support of NZ On Air*

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