Pacific leads the way in response to COVID-19 pandemic

19 June 2020

The response from Pacific countries to the global coronavirus pandemic has been some of the best in the world with large scale testing and very few cases, a specialist panel at ANU has heard. 

The panel, on the Pacific's and Australia's shared future, formed part of the 2020 ANU Crawford Leadership Forum's 'Big Picture Series'. 

Speaking on the panel were The Hon Alex Hawke, Minister for International Development and the Pacific for Australia; the Hon Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, Samoa; and The Hon Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Attorney-General and Minister for Economy, Civil Service and Communications Fiji. 

The speakers covered the region's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of creating a Pacific travel hub and how the pandemic has impacted climate change responses in the region. 

Fiji and Samoa both have zero active COVI-19 cases at the moment. Ms Mata'afa and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum told the forum that both their countries have taken a focus on their health care systems and getting communities supplies safely during the past few months. 

The economic fallout from COVID-19 restrictions is now the main focus for Australia and the Pacific as we begin to navigate a new normal. 

Ms Mata'afa and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum both expressed that while they were interested in a travel and trade hub between their countries, Australia and New Zealand, they were still cautious of new outbreaks. 

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum stressed the importance of tourism and trade for our economies, saying that "someone needs to take the first step to open up these corridors." 

Mr Hawke told the forum that Australia was focused on getting the Trans-Tasman bubble up and running with New Zealand, however they would look at adding Pacific countries into the bubble next. 

Mr Hawke also said that the government would be looking at continued flexibility with Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) during this time, meaning people already in Australia would likely be given the opportunity to work here for an extra year. 

On the issue of climate change, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said that COVID-19 has halted discussions while the pandemic continues. This week alone the Fijian Prime Minister had visited three towns that have put up sea walls to stop the effects of rising sea levels. Mr Sayed-Khaiyum raised his concerns that the world is letting its guard down. 

Ms Mata'afa said that from a regional perspective, the Pacific has been a strong advocate that climate change is a major factor in security and that it can impact health as well. She expressed her hope that "we should not lose momentum in terms of advocacy." 

The forum also heard about the ongoing governance issues at the University of the South Pacific. The panel agreed that the university is of great value to the region and that there is hope that the council will find a solution at its next meeting. 

Ms Mata'afa and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said that their main desire was for good governance and transparency. 

The panel agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic had meant Australia and the Pacific had needed to adapt to new technological changes and that this had pointed at some weaknesses in the region. 

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum pointed to the disadvantages that some countries in the region face in terms of technology. He said that this was an area we need to focus on in the future so we can tailor responses to work for countries that need more support. 

Ms Mata'afa told the forum that while the need to adapt had been a challenge, it was also an opportunity to reflect on how to keep internal economies turning and looking at what needs improving 

"It is very important that we make the investments to ensure these platforms can avail us the opportunity to keep connected," she said. 

The Panel was chaired by Dr Siobhan McDonnell and James Batley from The Australian National University and the forum can be watched here.