Fresh outbreaks arise in Pacific nations – Expert Reaction

After successfully holding Covid-19 at bay, some Pacific Island countries now face new outbreaks – including Omicron spread.

This week Omicron was confirmed in Kiribati, which currently has more than 600 cases. Tonga reported five Covid cases, and moved into lockdown. The news comes as the island nation wrestles with the catastrophic effects of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunami. As the country lacks sequencing technology, the variant behind the cases is unknown. Meanwhile, Samoa has seen new border cases but as yet no community transmission. Vaccination coverage in some nations is lower than New Zealand – Kiribati sits at 50 per cent double vaccinated.

The SMC asked New Zealand-based experts to comment on the news.

Associate Professor Yvonne Underhill-Sem, Acting Co-Head of School, Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o Waipapa, and Associate Dean International, Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland, comments:

“The rising number of cases of COVID-19 in the Pacific, while worrying, is remarkable for the time it has taken to grow in most countries. Most leaders understand the fragility of their health systems, the close living arrangements of many citizens, and the time lags for external support.

“So, informed by advice from an active network of health practitioners, Pacific leaders acted quickly to tighten border entry requirements. Citizens and the tourist sector were dismayed, for different reasons, but the policies remained. In many cases, tightly managed borders led to innovations like local barter systems, enthusiastic local sports programmes, and a return to growing and eating local food. Governments now must support these initiatives as they pivot back towards meeting their longer term sustainable economic aspirations.

“This is a complex policy space for all Pacific governments – dealing with a global pandemic that affects your in-country citizens as well as those mobile citizens living around the world, sometimes in highly precarious situations such as seafarers or seasonal workers. Dealing with COVID-19 and the rising number of cases, does not halt the imperatives of other equally complex and dire environmental, social, economic, and political concerns. Slow onset climate change is transforming environments and in the process ways of harvesting food from land and water. Shifts in political economic power in the Pacific region are leading to internal tensions. Gender-based violence continues to harm women and girls in all their diversities and haunt our communities. We need to continue dealing with these systemic problems and not give everything away to COVID-19.

“The issues that occupy daily conversations across the Pacific connect past experiences with pressing immediate needs and hopeful trajectories for the future. The international development community needs to keep this in mind if they want their COVID-19 responses to build long-term resilience and not just self-serving protection. Dealing successfully with the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the Pacific begins with careful attention to country- and community-specific contexts – then it will be possible to consider other pressing concerns.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jalal Mohammed, Senior Lecturer, Department of Public Health, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“We only have to look at Pacific Island nations who have had a Delta variant outbreak to understand the impact of an Omicron outbreak. There will be economic impacts, and access and affordability to food items, medicines and other goods will be affected.

“Pacific Island nations also have fragile health care systems, affected by resource constraints. In Pacific Island nations affected by the Delta variant, resources and healthcare systems have been stretched. A faster-spreading Omicron variant has the potential to overwhelm the health care system, impacting not only the treatment of those with COVID-19 but the treatment and management of other diseases. To put this into perspective, the Pacific has some of the highest rates of non-communicable diseases in the world.

“There are also personal and social impacts. Pacific Islanders have larger social networks with more frequent contact. They also live in extended families, and this has the potential to compound the spread of Omicron.

“Vaccine coverage in Pacific nations facing Omicron outbreaks remains low. Double vaccination rates are below the 90 per cent threshold which would offer broad protection for the population. This means the population is more vulnerable to severe disease in the event of an Omicron outbreak. Vaccine hesitancy is also an issue. With a highly vaccinated population, Fiji offers lessons to these nations on how to incentivise and increase vaccination rates. Increasing vaccination rates will be key to managing the outbreak and its impact.

“New Zealand, a Moana nation with its shared history, should play a key role in supporting Pacific nations. Vaccination is key to minimising some of the impacts and human costs of an Omicron outbreak. New Zealand’s initial response should support increasing vaccination rates. Central to this will be increasing the supply of vaccines to these Pacific nations. If the health system were to be overwhelmed, New Zealand’s support could extend to supporting the system with health personnel, as was done in the case of Fiji. Ongoing management of COVID in Pacific nations will require collaborative health systems strengthening their activities, supported through technical expertise and aid.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, Co-Head of School, Te Wānanga o Waipapa School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies, University of Auckland, comments:

“Our Pacific nations have been vigilant in their COVID-19 responses and yet, here we are. Although the spread of the newer Omicron variant is on the rise, where does the responsibility lie?

“At least 57 countries to date have been impacted, as reported by the WHO, with the Pacific region not immune. Protecting the people and persisting with precautionary measures are paramount; how this may be achieved may vary across the Pacific.

“So there is no better time than now for resource-privileged countries to take stock of their movements, support, and responsibilities. Fear-mongering tactics are not only fruitless, but fuel further division. It’s vitally important, then, that unity and common human decency is brought to the fore, and that relevant, culturally appropriate and sound messaging is promoted.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“Pacific nations continue to deal with the overwhelming impact of climate change and natural disasters. The intense interest, focus, activities and positioning of other countries with respect to the Pacific region, highlights its strategic and geopolitical importance.

“Although large-scale natural disasters cause widespread devastation, Pacific peoples are resilient, with strong community and family structures and connections that support people to manage and unite, pulling together to rebuild and regroup, and moving forward together to protect families and communities.

“It is often overlooked that Aotearoa New Zealand is also a nation situated within the Pacific region. Since the start of the global pandemic, nations within the Pacific region have worked hard to try and keep the SARS-CoV-2 virus out for as long as possible and protect their vulnerable, with progress on COVID-19 vaccination efforts. High COVID-19 vaccination levels were achieved early in countries such as Niue, Cook Islands, Palau and others.

“The emergence of Omicron, and the need to roll out boosters and paediatric vaccines, will add to the vulnerability and challenges currently being faced by the Pacific region.

“Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 was successfully kept out, however upon entering the third year of the global pandemic, COVID-19 cases have been detected in many Pacific countries in the region. Omicron has now been confirmed in Kiribati with 50% of the population double vaccinated. Samoa has also had recently arrived border cases and is 63% double vaccinated. In Papua New Guinea, only 3% of the population are double vaccinated, 22% of Vanuatu’s population is double vaccinated, and just under 10% of those in the Solomon Islands are double dosed.

“A total of five COVID-19 cases have also been reported in the Kingdom of Tonga, still reeling from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai undersea volcano eruption and tsunami that occurred recently. The largest volcanic event in 30 years, this caused devastation in Tonga, also affecting other countries in the Pacific region – including Aotearoa New Zealand. As expected, the whole country was moved into lockdown restrictions on Wednesday 2nd February 2022. Tonga has more than 85% of its nation double vaccinated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic generally has added a significant burden to the Pacific’s resource-constrained settings, and now with Omicron’s arrival will impact upon health systems and supply chains.

“Aotearoa New Zealand has a very long history and close ties with its Pacific neighbours in the region, and we have a moral obligation to help and support our Pacific neighbours who remain vulnerable at this time.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Collin Tukuitonga, Associate Dean Pacific, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“Most of the Pacific Island nations have been successful keeping Covid-19 out with border closures and public health measures. Some nations have relaxed these restrictions in response to economic problems, loss of income, and social problems among local communities. Most officials and leaders also recognise that they cannot continue to keep borders closed indefinitely.

“The good news is that most island nations have had excellent uptake of the Covid-19 vaccination – although some are yet to have high booster rates given the threat of Omicron in the region. Kiribati has had the most cases of Omicron. Most of the island nations are yet to deliver vaccination for children between 5-12 years of age. These measures are critical because Omicron is highly likely to spread further in these communities where housing and social conditions provide the environment for rapid spread of Omicron. A large part of the spread relates to the high infectivity of the Omicron variant.

“While vaccination will dampen down the spread of Omicron in these nations, small and fragile health systems could be easily overwhelmed if the number of Omicron cases approach projected numbers seen in other nations. It is expected that half of the local population will be infected by Omicron.

“New Zealand and Australia have provided excellent support to the Pacific nations but there is urgency now to provide support for boosters, vaccination for children 5-12 years and additional masks that are better at limiting the spread of Omicron.”

No conflict of interest declared.