Professor says Pacific Islands zero-Covid strategies are not sustainable

People wearing face masks at a supermarket in Suva, Fiji, April 23, 2021.

Xinhua News Agency | beautiful pictures

Countries worldwide have seen a spike in Covid-19 cases since the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant, with new infections 20% increase globally in the past week.

In the Pacific Islands, however, it’s a different story.

Many small island nations nestled in the Pacific Ocean have gone months without a new case of the virus – and some of them have been virtually Covid-free throughout the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, Tonga, Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands have no cases of the virus, according to figures from Our World in Data.

Long-term maintenance of Covid-free status has largely been achieved by closing the islands to all non-essential international travel and implementing strict quarantine measures to control the spread of the virus. a small number of cases have been imported.

Although many of the islands’ borders remain closed, some have begun to reopen. Countries that remain isolated are now in a precarious position as they try to balance public health with the recovery of their tourism-based economies.

Zero Covid is a ‘don’t start’ policy as a long term policy

Andrew Preston, professor of microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath in the UK, told CNBC that the zero-Covid strategy is unsustainable, in part due to the emergence of omicrons.

“The scenario where Covid has no greatest credibility is to maintain it while a very high level of immunity is built by vaccination,” he said. “However, for most countries, it is very difficult to get vaccination levels high enough to stop any spread of an imported case, and now with the possibility of reinfection and infection of omicrons for people who get vaccinated, it doesn’t seem to be the beginning. As a long-term policy.”

Zero-Covid strategies have also caused massive economic damage to many islands, putting pressure on governments to ramp up vaccinations so borders can be safely reopened.

According to an IMF report released in October, GDP on the Pacific Islands will shrink by 3.7% in 2020, with countries dependent on tourism – Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – projecting is expected to decline by 6.5% in real GDP in 2021. .

The Cook Islands, which have political ties to New Zealand, currently have no cases of the virus. Its Covid response strategy is related to the situation in New Zealand, where 80 new cases were recorded on Monday.

Several restrictions are in place, including a 100-person limit at social gatherings and enforcement of social distancing in restaurants and bars. Face covering is recommended but not required.

Last week, the Cook Islands took steps to reopen its borders. All arrivals must pass through New Zealand, where they must spend 10 full days before departing for the Cook Islands. Visitors must also provide proof of Covid vaccination as well as a negative PCR test.

In a statement dated December 16, Prime Minister Mark Brown of the Cook Islands said the “best weapon” the country had during the pandemic was “isolated and closed borders, and now daily vaccinations”. series”.

“We’ve worked very, very hard over the past two years to stay Covid-free and the [travel] our regulations, and our ongoing efforts to get all of our eligible people vaccinated, is a continuation of that,” he added.

According to official data, 96% of the eligible population – those over the age of 12 – in the Cook Islands are fully vaccinated against Covid. About 70% of the population that received the booster dose.

By reopening to the world, the Cook Islands government hopes to offset some of the significant economic damage the country has suffered because of the pandemic. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the Cook Islands GDP loss after the crisis could be as high as 32%.

Outlook of ‘Dire’ Covid

As for other Pacific island nations, borders remain closed as authorities work to keep up with the Cook Islands’ vaccination success. Reopening too soon could be a major public health risk, as populations may have little or no immunity acquired through infection – especially to the omicron variant. .

Samoa and Tonga have fully vaccinated about 60 percent of their populations, according to Our World in Data, while just over half of people living in Wallis and Futuna have received two doses. Meanwhile, in Kiribati, about a third of the population is fully vaccinated.

In some Pacific island nations, broader health considerations also add to the risk. In Samoa, for example, Covid poses a significant risk to much of the population due to the high prevalence of non-communicable diseases that WHO says account for about 68% of the country’s premature deaths.

Berlin Kafoa, director of public health at Pacific Communities, told CNBC there is “great concern” about the potential for a severe Covid-19 outbreak as Pacific island nations reopen their borders.

“The consequences are dire, as the Covid-19 outbreak will overwhelm fragile health systems if [these countries] currently unsupported,” he said in an email, adding that WHO and other UN agencies are working with Pacific island governments to prepare for each country.

Individual countries and territories across the region are now working to set immunization targets at which they feel they can safely reopen their borders. However, Kafoa said that all Pacific island nations face challenges in accessing Covid vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

Official data from Vanuatu – which has kept cases close to or zero throughout the pandemic – shows that only 37% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Its heavy reliance on tourism means that the speed of Vanuatu’s economic recovery is determined by its ability to safely reopen its borders. Tourism accounted for 31.7% of the national GDP in 2018, a 2020 report from the UN speak. The industry was responsible for more than a third of jobs nationwide before the pandemic.

Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights for travel analytics firm ForwardKeys, told CNBC that as of January 8, international bookings for the first quarter to Pacific islands stood at 12 % compared to before the pandemic.

French Polynesia, which reopened in May last year, is seeing the strongest recovery, Ponti said, with bookings to the country now at 75 percent year-on-year, Ponti said. time two years ago.

Flights to Fiji and New Caledonia are up 51% and 38% respectively from levels seen in January 2020. Vanuatu, meanwhile, “doesn’t expect any international visitors,” Ponti said.

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