COVID endangers fragile health systems in Pacific nations: Report

Palau and Fiji have reported high vaccination rates allowing it to contain the virus but countries like the Solomon Islands are seeing a surge in cases.

The Solomon Islands are experiencing their first community outbreak, with more than 780 reported cases and its first five COVID-19 related deaths, forcing a lockdown in the capital, Honiara [File: Charley Piringi/AFP]

A record surge in COVID-19 cases is threatening to overwhelm hospitals and fragile health systems in the Pacific, from the Solomon Islands to Palau, according to the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which is calling for immediate action to curb the spread of the virus. 

“Every effort must be made to prevent and contain the virus,” the IFRC’s Katie Greenwood, Pacific head of delegation, said in a statement on Tuesday, noting that vaccination, which is lagging in some countries, was “vital” to that effort.

For nearly two years, most Pacific countries have managed to keep the spread of the coronavirus at bay with quarantines and lockdown measures, helped by their geographic isolation. For some of the countries, it is the first time they are seeing a rise in cases.

“These new outbreaks in small Pacific countries threaten health systems that are fragile and struggling to cope with the needs of Pacific Islanders,” Greenwood said.

The Solomon Islands are experiencing their first-ever community outbreak, with more than 780 confirmed cases and its first five COVID-19 related deaths, forcing a lockdown in the capital, Honiara.

Reports say that due to the limited testing capacity, the actual number of cases in the nation of 700,000 people is likely to be higher than reported.

Australia has deployed a medical team to the Pacific nation following a request for reinforcement by the government. They also carried with them a shipment of more than 30,000 doses of vaccine, which arrived over the weekend.

Information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that as of late January, less than a third of the country’s population had received a vaccine, while only 10 percent were fully vaccinated.

In recent months, the Solomon Islands have been struggling with political unrest following the attempt to remove Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare from office. He survived a no-confidence motion in parliament in December but accused “agents of Taiwan” of orchestrating the bid to remove him because of his pro-China policies.

Further southeast in Fiji, the country is experiencing its third wave of COVID-19, fuelled by the Omicron variant.

On Monday, Fiji’s top health official, Dr James Fong, said the government was reviewing its containment policy to ensure it is able to cope with the highly transmissible new variant.

“We need to see whether we will need more heavy-handed suppression measures or just have to target the individual suppression measures,” Fong was quoted by Fijian Broadcasting Corporation’s news website.

Kiribati and Palau have also recorded community cases, after staying COVID-free countries since the start of the pandemic, while disaster-hit Tonga remains COVID-free, although there are concerns about transmission after the arrival of an aid ship, which had an outbreak while en route to the country.

‘Vaccination confidence vital’

The Red Cross’s Greenwood said that building “vaccine confidence” in the Pacific was crucial to ensuring a critical mass of people is vaccinated in all countries.

“While vaccination rates are remarkable in some Pacific countries, others are still far too low. It’s critical that vaccine doses reach the last mile to everyone across the Pacific, with trusted information about how vaccinations provide protection from severe illness and death,” she said.

Countries like Palau and Fiji have reported high vaccination rates. Palau has reported that 96 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated, while Fiji has about 68 percent of its population vaccinated.

But other countries, such as the Solomon Islands, are still lagging.

In Vanuatu, only 22 per cent are fully vaccinated, while Kiribati has just one in three people fully vaccinated.

The lack of resources and limited equipment and health infrastructure in many of the Pacific countries have also been compounded by logistics and communities spread across remote islands, making the provision of healthcare difficult, the IFRC said.

Pacific countries also face cyclones and floods in the coming weeks, while responding to other disasters such as the volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga.

“Many people around the Pacific are currently dealing with a bitter double whammy of severe disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Fiji, Cyclone Cody has affected tens of thousands of people as the latest COVID surge skyrockets in the country.”

Greenwood said these Pacific countries “must not swap one disaster for another”.

Source: Al Jazeera