Tropical Cyclone Harold in the region
On top of dealing with the impacts of Covid-19, the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Harold has caused more disruption and destruction. There was considerable damage in Solomon Islands. Tragically, more than 20 people are feared lost after they were apparently swept from a boat that was travelling to Malaita from the capital, Honiara. The boat had been chartered to transport them back their home villages in line with government directives to prevent spread of the Covid-19 virus. The cyclone intensified and was a Category 5 by the time it affected Vanuatu. The north of the country appears to have been the most severely affected with significant damage, flooding, and loss of power and communications in and around Luganville. People in the most northern province of TORBA shared images of themselves taking shelter in caves that have been used as cyclone shelters for generations.
Meeting of Forum Foreign Ministers to address Covid-19
The Foreign Ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum will meet on April 7. The meeting will be held online and follows previous virtual meetings of Forum officials. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a regional response to the impacts of Covid-19 in the Pacific. Ministers will discuss how Forum members can work together under the Biketawa declaration to activate a regional response. This comes ahead of an expected announcement by the Pacific Islands Forum of a “humanitarian corridor” to provide assistance to countries in the region. Dame Meg Taylor has expressed the importance of the Forum members and their partners working together to meet the challenges ahead. However, a number of countries have already initiated national responses which may prove a hurdle to achieving regional cohesion.
Governments instigate economic stimulus measures
Even in countries with no reported cases of COVID-19, the economic impacts of the global shutdown have already been felt. A number of governments have announced or are working on economic stimulus packages. In Vanuatu a number of taxes and fees are to be waived for 2020 as are the payment of any school fees. In Fiji, MPs and ministers will take a 20% pay cut as announced in a supplementary budget handed down recently by the government. In Tonga, there has been criticism from the medical community that the government has placed too much emphasis on the economy and not enough on accessing essential healthcare equipment. In a number of countries, including PNG, those who have lost jobs in the formal sector have been told they can access part of their superannuation funds, either as a withdrawal or a loan.
Australia announces measures to support seasonal workers
The government of Australia has announced measures to support seasonal workers. A number of Pacific workers are effectively stuck in Australia given that there are no flights to their home countries after borders were closed. In most cases they were only scheduled to be working in Australia for a maximum of nine months. There was a lot of concern growing about what would happen when their visas expired. The Morrison government has now announced that Pacific workers can have their visas automatically extended for up to 12 months. Work is ongoing to look at how they can move from one location to another to continue working if their current employer does not require them at this time. Whilst in Australia they have access to medical care and are insured. Vanuatu is a major contributor to the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific labour Scheme but has suspended its participation as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
Official results of Vanuatu’s elections are released
In Vanuatu the official results of last month’s general elections have been released. There had been a. number of delays during the counting process. The results were published as the country was preparing to face the impact of Tropical Cyclone Harold. The largest number of seats was won by the Graon Mo Jastis party (GJP). The party’s leader is outgoing Foreign Minister, Ralph Regenvanu. Negotiations and lobbying have been ongoing for some time as to which parties and individuals will form part of the next governing coalition. This is expected to intensify in the lead up to Parliament sitting at which time a Prime Minister will be elected. There is a period of 21 days in which petitions to challenge the results can be lodged with the Supreme Court. Once again, no women were elected into the Parliament.
Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute.