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Pacific Islands zero-Covid strategies not sustainable, says professor

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Pacific Islands zero-Covid strategies not sustainable, says professor

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

Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Countries around the world have seen Covid-19 cases rise since the emergence of the highly transmissible variant of omicron, with new infections up 20% globally in the past week.

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

Many small island states nestled in the Pacific Ocean have had no new cases of the virus for months – and some of those countries have remained virtually Covid-free throughout the pandemic.

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

Maintaining a long-term state of zero Covid infections 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 few cases that have been imported.

Although many island borders are still closed, some have tentatively started to reopen. Countries that remain isolated now find themselves in a precarious position as they try to balance public health with the recovery of their tourism-dependent economies.

Zero Covid a “non-starter” as a long-term policy

Andrew Preston, professor of microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath in the UK, told CNBC that zero-Covid strategies were not sustainable, in part because of the emergence of omicron.

“The scenario in which zero Covid had the greatest credibility was to maintain it while very high levels of immunity were built with vaccination,” he said. “However, for most countries, it has proven very difficult to achieve a high enough level of vaccination to prevent any spread of an imported case, and now, with omicron’s ability to re-infect and infect people vaccinated, it seems like a non-starter as a long-term policy.”

Zero-Covid strategies have also taken a heavy economic toll on many islands, pressuring governments to step up vaccinations so borders can be safely reopened.

According to an IMF report released in October, GDP in the Pacific Islands contracted by 3.7% in 2020, with countries dependent on tourism – Fiji, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – expected to have seen a decline of 6 .5% of real GDP in 2021. .

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

Some restrictions are in place, including limits of 100 people at social gatherings and enforcement of social distancing in restaurants and bars. Face coverings are encouraged but not required.

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

In a December 16 statement, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said the “best weapons” the country had throughout the pandemic had been “isolation and closing borders, and now the mass vaccination.

“We have worked very, very hard over the past two years to maintain our Covid-free status, and these [travel] regulations and our continued efforts to get all of our eligible people vaccinated, are 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 have been fully vaccinated against Covid. Around 70% of the population received a booster dose.

By reopening to the world, the Cook Islands government hopes to recoup some of the substantial economic losses the country has suffered from the pandemic. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the Cook Islands’ GDP loss during the crisis could be as high as 32%.

Covid “sayings” outlook

For other Pacific island countries, borders remain closed as authorities scramble to catch up with the Cook Islands’ vaccination success. Reopening too soon could pose a huge public health risk, given that populations likely have little or no infection-acquired immunity, especially against the omicron variant.

Samoa and Tonga have fully vaccinated about 60% of their population, 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 immunized.

In some Pacific island countries, broader health considerations also add to the risk. In Samoa, for example, Covid poses a significant risk to a large part of the population due to high rates of non-communicable diseases which, according to the WHO, account for around 68% of the country’s premature deaths.

Berlin Kafoa, director of the Pacific Community’s public health division, told CNBC there was “enormous concern” about the potential for serious Covid outbreaks as Pacific island countries reopen their borders. .

“The consequences are dire, as Covid-19 outbreaks will overwhelm fragile health systems if [these countries] are not being helped now,” he said in an email, adding that the WHO and other UN agencies were working with Pacific island governments to prepare each country.

The various countries and territories in the region are currently struggling to set vaccination targets at which they believe they can safely reopen their borders. However, Kafoa said all Pacific island countries face challenges in terms of access to Covid vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

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

Being heavily dependent on tourism, Vanuatu’s rate of economic recovery depends on its ability to reopen its borders safely. Tourism accounted for 31.7% of national GDP in 2018, according to a 2020 UN report. The industry was responsible for more than a third of jobs nationwide before the pandemic.

Olivier Ponti, vice president of information at travel analytics firm ForwardKeys, told CNBC that as of Jan. 8, first-quarter international bookings to the Pacific Islands were 12% of pre-levels. the pandemic.

French Polynesia, which reopened last May, is seeing the strongest recovery, Ponti said, with bookings in the country currently at 75% of levels seen at the same time two years ago.

Flights to Fiji and New Caledonia were 51% and 38% respectively of levels seen in January 2020. Vanuatu, meanwhile, “is not expecting any international visitors”, Ponti said.

Pacific Islands zero-Covid strategies not sustainable, says professor

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