COVID-19 Pandemic and the Pacific Islands

Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics and Executive Director, Australian National University

By Raghbendra Jha
CANBERRA, Australia, May 21 2020 – As of 11 AM (AEST) on 20th May 2020 the incidence of COVID-19 virus (henceforth virus) on the Pacific Islands was limited. Active cases (deaths) in some of the Pacific Islands were Australia 7,072 (100), New Zealand 1,503 (21), PNG 8(0), Guam 154 (5), Fiji 18 (0), Timor-Leste 24 (0), French Polynesia 60(0), and New Caledonia 18(0).1 Standards of comparison are not uniform across the region since testing capacities of the various countries differ widely. The low number of cases in the smaller Pacific Islands compared to their larger neighbours, i.e., Australia and New Zealand, reflect both variations in testing standards as well as their smaller population size. The smaller Pacific Islands were also not subject to some of the aberrations experienced by the larger countries, e.g., large number of arrivals from foreign countries in planes and cruise ships.

Raghbendra Jha

Hence, the immediate impact of the virus on the smaller Pacific Islands has been muted. Given strong quarantine regulations and travel bans the impact is likely to remain manageable unless, of course, there is a bad second wave of the virus The likelihood of this depends partly on whether social distancing norms are violated and on the date by which international flights resume.

The pandemic has led to concurrent health and economic crises, the latter because economic activity has come to a halt for long periods in many of these countries. The solution to the economic crisis is to restart economic activity which would necessarily involve the interaction of large numbers of people, which could then aggravate the health crisis. As the wait grows longer the capacity of the state even in large affluent countries to address the crises is reduced. Large budget deficits abound all around and many countries could experience a paucity of medical staff and equipment.

This dilemma is particularly acute for the smaller Pacific island nations. Given their small populations and widely dispersed island structures these countries require considerable economic assistance in the best of times. These take the form of international aid and humanitarian assistance at time of natural disasters like cyclones, not to speak of the existential threat that some of these countries are facing from rising sea levels. The capacity of Australia and New Zealand to deliver aid will be curtailed as a result of the steep rise in their budget deficits. Furthermore, many of the small Pacific islands are dependent on tourism dollars to supplement their resources. With international travel ruled out for the foreseeable future this paucity of resources will only get aggravated. So, the small Pacific islands face a severe and persistent resource crunch as a result of the systemic impact of the virus, even though the immediate impact on the health of their citizens is relatively mild.

The above analysis is cast in gender neutral terms, as if both males and females are equally affected by the health and economic crises. But this is far from the case. In an important article2 Sharon Lewin and Thomas Rasmussen show that although the incidence of the virus is the same across both genders. Although more men are dying from the virus as compared to women (because of inherent immunological differences) women are more vulnerable because they constitute a larger share of health workers who are more exposed to the virus.

Furthermore, the economic crisis that the virus has engendered a severe employment crunch for women. In most of the Pacific countries sectors like hospitality, tourism and transport have been decimated by the virus. Women constituted a large proportion of workers in these sectors. Many of them are now unemployed. Many casual workers (again mostly women) have also lost their jobs. It is too early to anticipate what shape or form these sectors will return to in a post COVID world. Hence, not only are women disproportionately unemployed as a result of the virus, but also their employment and income prospects are uncertain at best.

Moreover, during the virus inspired lockdown and unemployment many women are facing a sharp increase in household duties.3 There is also the fear of increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.4 One media report has characterised this rise in domestic violence as “shocking”.

In conclusion, the impact of the twin health and economic crises has been manifold all over the world and the Pacific Islands are no exceptions to this rule. However, there are some particular characteristics of the Pacific Islands that make these impacts even more challenging. These relate to the dependence of these islands on external resources and the logistical and infrastructural challenges of managing so many widely dispersed islands that are subject to a high incidence of natural disasters even in the best of times. The burdens of coping with the crises and the resultant adjustment are also likely to fall asymmetrically on women. At the same time, although macroeconomic stabilisation and debt control have vocal political advocates, the same is not true for the new issues that women are facing. Policy should take cognizance of this.

1 See (Accessed 20 May 2020)
2 See (Accessed 20 May 2020).
3 See (Accessed 20 May 2020)
4 See (Accessed 20 May 2020).

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