COVID-19 flares in Papua New Guinea

After weeks of extremely low numbers, the situation in Papua New Guinea has escalated recently. As of August 9, there are 214 confirmed cases with three deaths. Whilst the majority of the cases are in and around Port Moresby, others have been detected elsewhere in the country. They include cases in the second biggest city, Lae and in Bougainville.

Domestic travel has been restricted in an attempt to contain the virus, but authorities have advised that they are now dealing with community transmission. Testing has been increased. New isolation sites are being sourced as the Rita Flynn centre, with around 70 beds, is almost at capacity. With Port Moresby in lockdown until August 12, concerns have resurfaced as to how those who depend on the informal economy for their livelihoods will fare.

Seasonal Workers Scheme re-opens on a trial basis

The government of Vanuatu has confirmed that it is working with the Australian government and the agriculture industry of the Northern Territory to send 170 workers to assist with the mango harvest during September. Vanuatu’s participation in the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme has been suspended since March, meaning that no new deployments have been facilitated. Whilst there are Pacific seasonal workers currently in Australia whose visas have been extended, most of them have work or are awaiting repatriation to their home countries.

The Commissioner of Labour in Vanuatu, Murielle Meltenoven, has said that the opportunity for 170 people to work for nine months in Australia is welcomed. However, there are still issues to be worked out to ensure that the risk of workers contracting COVID-19 is kept to a minimum and around how additional costs will be met.

Forum Finance Ministers meet online

This week sees a virtual meeting of the Forum Finance and Economic Ministers. The meeting is one of two standing meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the other being that of the Foreign Ministers. These meetings take on an added significance given that there will be no meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders this year.

The impacts of COVID-19 will dominate the agenda. The economic effects of the global pandemic are being felt across the region, including in countries that are yet to see any infections. The Chair of the meeting, Hon. Seve Paeniu of Tuvalu, commented: “We are already witnessing the devastating economic impacts from the pandemic on our Pacific nations who depend on tourism, and I am sure there will be intense discussion around how our economies, already adapting in ways we could never have foreseen, can forge a sustainable path to recovery over the next few years.”

New Caledonia independence referendum

Preparations continue in New Caledonia for the referendum on independence that will be held in early October. It is the second of a possible three votes envisaged by the Noumea Accords which set the roadmap for the people of the territory to determine their future status.

A case of COVID-19 was detected in someone who had travelled to New Caledonia. It was the first such case recorded in three weeks and brings the total of infections in the territory to 23. The referendum requires an influx of officials from France and there are concerns that this brings a heightened risk of exposure to Coronavirus. However, at this stage there is every intention to proceed with the vote on October 6.

Concerns about security in the lead up to the referendum have been raised in the wake of a fire which destroyed a building at the customary Senate. A man has been arrested and faces court this week.

Travel bubble talks in flux

In several countries in the region, the talk of travel bubbles continues albeit very slowly. Countries such as Fiji and Cook Islands who are so heavily dependent on tourism are keen to progress options to get holidaymakers back as soon as possible.

Fiji has opened a ‘Blue Lane’ option which has seen around 20 yachts arrive. Whilst this is certainly better than nothing, it is not enough to sustain an entire tourism industry. Whilst Cook Islands politicians and business owners have been keeping up the pressure on the Ardern government to open an air bridge, this is unlikely to happen before the end of the year. Meanwhile in Vanuatu, the government has announced the formation of a taskforce to look at options for a ‘Tamtam bubble’. There have been mixed messages from leaders as to when Vanuatu’s borders will reopen but the reality is that it is very unlikely to happen before 2021 other than for repatriation purposes.

AUTHOR

Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and project lead of the Pacific Hub.