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Thursday, Nov 26, 2020

'If it comes, it will be a disaster': life in one of the only countries without coronavirus

'If it comes, it will be a disaster': life in one of the only countries without coronavirus

The Pacific nation of Vanuatu is one of the few places that is coronavirus-free, but efforts to stop its arrival have been hampered by a category five cyclone

On Sunday morning, 62 guests prepared to check out of an idyllic resort, surrounded by palm trees and overlooking a lagoon, in Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila.

But instead of taxis waiting to take them to the airport, familiar faces were anxiously waiting to take their loved ones back home.

The 62 guests were mostly Port Vila residents who had been quarantined for 14 days under the surveillance of the ministry of health. They were the last people to have entered the country just before the south Pacific nation closed all of its borders as a precautionary measure against the threat of Covid-19.

Vanuatu – a nation of just under 300,000 people, whose 80 islands are strung across the ocean, 1,800km east of Australia – remains one of the few countries in the world without any confirmed cases of the coronavirus. There are a few countries in Africa that still have no cases, but the bulk of these Covid-free countries are in the Pacific. Nations such as Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Samoa have been protected by their remoteness, but their remoteness, low incomes and weak health infrastructure would make them incredibly vulnerable were the virus to reach them.

But even here, in this remote archipelago, which feels as far as possible from the lockdowns of Wuhan and dire scenes in Italy and New York, the shadow of the coronavirus hangs across the nation.

Ariitaimai Salmon’s two children were among those quarantined in the hotel after they returned from Sydney, where one is at school and one attends university.

“For my kids to have made it home was a relief even if [it meant] being in quarantine here for two weeks. They coped really well,” she said, keeping each other company and playing cards and board games. “They were just happy to be home in Vanuatu.”

Salmon is the operations and customer manager of Au Bon Marche, the country’s largestsupermarket chain. She has spent the past few weeks reassuring Vanuatu citizens that there is enough food to feed the population, even as borders close.

Au Bon Marche is one of the few companies that will survive the impacts of the response to the coronavirus.

For those in the hospitality and tourism sector, which accounts for over 40% of Vanuatu’s GDP, many of them wonder how they will recover without regular tourists.


Cruise ships have completely stopped and Air Vanuatu, the national carrier, has suspended all flights in and out of the country indefinitely. Many restaurants and hotels have voluntarily closed down while others are trying to operate within the government’s restrictions, closing at 7.30pm before a curfew kicks in, which forbids anyone from being outside their homes between 9pm and 4am.

Along the main street of Port Vila, handwashing stations have been set up outside shops, banks and restaurants, most of them consisting of large plastic containers and a portable tap. Under the state of emergency rules, all businesses have been required to set up handwashing facilities at their own cost to promote hygienic practices.

This includes kava bars, otherwise known as nakamals, which face drastic changes to their practices due to hygiene concerns. At kava bars, where the traditional psychoactive brew is served, people share the same kava bowl, dipped into the muddy brown liquid, as they drink through the night. They are also notorious for people spitting, to rid their mouths of the bitter taste after drinking.

In the wake of Covid-19, all kava bars are now only providing takeaway, and at the Blue Galaxy Nakamal, in Bladiniere Estate on the outskirts of Port Vila, Kelsie Java is pulling on disposable gloves to fill up plastic bottles full of the beloved drink to sell to customers.

“Usually I open until midnight. But now we open at 4.30pm and have to close at 7.30pm and we can only operate as a takeaway,” says Java. “Some of my customers have wanted me to stay open and want to drink kava here, but I have to explain it’s not possible. The police will check to make sure we follow the rules and our customers have come to respect that.”

Other businesses have had to shut down altogether. Christoph Tahumpir, a local businessman who exports sandalwood to China, had to close down operations when the ports closed and he is concerned about the rise of unemployment. But agrees the borders must be kept closed.

“If the virus comes here, I think about it affecting someone older in my family and not being able to visit them in hospital. It would be very sad.”

Kalfau Moli, a former member of parliament, managed to get the last flight from his home island of Malo to Port Vila before all inter-island travel operations were suspended.

“As a father and a citizen of this country, I am very worried. We don’t have the facilities to manage a virus,” Moli says. “We don’t even have water to wash our hands. Tell me where we can get water in the east of Malo? Or in Whitesands on Tanna?”

Russel Tamata, the lead spokesman for the government’s Covid-19 advisory team defends the aggressive action taken by the government.

“We know how the virus spreads and when we look at our culture and how we live, it’s in favour of this virus. If it comes, it would be a disaster. At this point, we have to be strict with our borders – our fear is that if enters Vanuatu, it would spread very quickly and we simply do not have the resources and facilities to manage it. The slightest mistake will impact us very badly.”

The Chinese government has committed to supply equipment and materials by the end of April for Vanuatu to build an intensive care unit (ICU) in Port Vila, including bringing in much-needed ventilators.

Currently the country’s main hospital, Vila Central Hospital, is converting its tuberculosis ward into an isolation ward but there are still only 20 beds available in the entire hospital.

“If a patient goes into a state of complication, we only have two ventilators available in the whole country”, says Tamata.

“Even then, it’s part of the service in the theatre, there are no more on standby. We have about 60 doctors, but most of them are newly graduated, and we’ve recently received our third batch of nurses from the Solomon Islands to serve across our six provinces due to a lack of human resources.”

Due to a shortage of local nurses, Vanuatu has been hiring them from Solomon Islands since mid-2019.

Tamata says that one of the biggest challenges is managing misinformation. When Vanuatu declared a two-week state of emergency on 26 March, one of the orders included all media outlets to not publish any article about Covid-19 unless it received authorisation from the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), something that commentators have warned raises concerns about press freedom.

There are a lot of scientific words that cannot be translated into Bislama and it can be easily misinterpreted. It’s important to manage people’s understanding during these times, as the fear can hold us back from doing our work,” says Tamata.

But while the nation is preparing for the arrival of Covid-19, its vulnerability was highlighted this week as Tropical Cyclone Harold bore down on the country. The category five storm made landfall on Monday morning, tearing into the northern islands of Vanuatu.

The total scale of the destruction is not yet clear, but pictures from Espiritu Santo and Malo Islands show villages reduced to ruins by the storm.

The strict measures put in place to respond to Covid-19 were suddenly undone by the disaster. Rules that prohibited more than five people gathering at a time had to be relaxed as as people gathered in large groups to shelter in mass evacuation centres.

Vanuatu is used to disasters – it is ranked the most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters – and in the past week alone, the NDMO has been dealing simultaneously with flooding and volcanic ash fall. But there are fears that the dual emergencies of Harold and the coronavirus may be too much for vulnerable island state.

Other Pacific leaders, including the prime minister of Fiji, which currently has 16 cases of coronavirus, and is due to have Cyclone Harold pass by its islands in the coming days, has warned that the Pacific will need international help to recover from the storm. “TC Harold … couldn’t come at a worse time. Flights are grounded, foreign aid workers have withdrawn, and medical supplies are limited. The world must be prepared to respond to this disaster at our doorsteps,” he tweeted on Monday.

But Tamata is more optimistic about Vanuatu’s chances of withstanding the coronavirus outbreak, despite the other challenges the country faces.

“We have seen Covid-19 as a threat, but it has also been a blessing,” says Tamata. “The basic hygiene practices we are trying to promote are old stories – this is what we have been telling people for years and now people are seeing the importance of it. We have realised the gaps in our laws, especially between the public health and immigration act, and we have matured in how we make decisions ... While Covid-19 remains in the Pacific, it will still be a threat to Vanuatu, but we are ready.”

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