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Zooming out of digital diplomacy

A screenshot of the ASEAN Brazil Open Ended Trioka Dialogue in August (Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr)
A screenshot of the ASEAN Brazil Open Ended Trioka Dialogue in August (Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr)
Published 13 Oct 2021 10:00    0 Comments

We’re firmly entrenched in an era of hybrid diplomacy, floating between in-person and videoconference diplomacy. In speaking to those in the game, three facts have come to light: there’s no turning back; videoconferences are inadequate; and the only way out, is forward.

Foreign ministries have already invested in platforms to ensure secure interaction with partners, and brought in consultants to maintain, train, and upskill staff to perform on these platforms. They have also implemented plans to reform hiring and recruitment to better reflect the new environment. Multilateral agencies have similarly trimmed the numbers of in-person conferences, increased and facilitated access to online meeting platforms, and started addressing questions of online protocol, norms, and procedures. As post-pandemic foreign ministry budgets tighten, the videoconference will become further entrenched.

Stuck with an inadequate platform, diplomacy needs to innovate.

However, videoconference diplomacy was an emergency measure, allowing a propped-up version of the practice to stumble on. But the solution was hardly modern, instead based on technologies more than three decades old had anyone bothered to use them. According to most diplomats, it serves as an inadequate platform on which to rest the practice of diplomacy.

Videoconference diplomacy lacks nuance, subtlety, and the personal touch. There are no breaks, sideline chats, quiet drinks, or steps outside to calm tensions, build rapport, or explore new opportunities. It lacks the “essence” of diplomacy.

The essence of diplomacy can be understood as the norms facilitating estranged interaction that have remained by and large continuous since humanity’s earliest ancestors met their neighbours, and decided to remain separate, but at peace. Over time, these norms became features of diplomatic systems across culture and time. They include the primacy of communication in spoken, written and/or symbolic and ceremonial form; a mode of thought emphasising patience, precision and deliberation; the development of a professional corps of cosmopolitan mediators with appropriate status, skill, and distinction; the development between corps a shared sense of purpose, rapport and behaviour, from which a “stock market of reputation” could form.

In an in-person conference setting, there are distinct modes of interaction in which the essence of diplomacy plays a prominent role: the administrative, the symbolic and ceremonial, public oratory, group and personal liaison, and intermediary liaison. Videoconference diplomacy allows interaction in the administrative and public oratory modes, but severely limits interaction in the symbolic and ceremonial, group and personal liaison, and intermediary liaison modes. Videoconferences do not build trust. This means much of the essence of diplomacy is lost.

As one diplomat put it, a young diplomat starts working with partner country diplomats at the same level. They age together, develop professionally together, and throughout their career recognise each other as reliable or unreliable colleagues seeking to solve the same problems together – and that relationship starts in the quiet moments of idle conversation they share on their first posting, during breaks from serving senior diplomats. How can young diplomats build such relationships in videoconference?

The Seminar for Diplomats 2021 at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria, 7 September (Fiorda Llukmani/IAEA)

Videoconferences also reinforce long-term trends that weaken the essence of diplomacy. The most significant of these is the growing tendency of the executive to not just formulate and plan, but also implement policy. When the executive implements policy, personal and party supporters take roles previously assigned to diplomats. The executive no longer receives advice borne of institutional memory and professional knowledge embedded in foreign ministries but rather advice borne of ideology and/or political acumen. Most importantly, the wisdom of utilising intermediaries in interaction with partners is forgotten.

The result is policy implementation that becomes increasingly narrow in scope, more politicised, and sometimes erratic and emotional. Patience, precision and deliberation gives way to opportunity in the electoral cycle. Politicians are not diplomats.

The “second life” diplomats once led for three-year stints at post could in the future be replaced by three-hour stints in a simulated virtual environment.

Stuck with an inadequate platform, diplomacy needs to innovate. Videoconference diplomacy could be what the airship was to innovation in transport technology. Airships allowed travel over the Atlantic but specific drawbacks meant they never replaced the ocean liner. Yet, within three decades people were squeezed into economy class with peanuts and a Chardonnay, crossing the Atlantic in airplanes. Airships were a stepping-stone to the airplane. Videoconference diplomacy could be an inconvenient, awkward, difficult moment on the way to a more digitally enabled future for diplomacy.

There are hints as to where diplomacy could go. Simulation platforms adapted to use facial expression and body movement recognition, whole body avatars, proximity interaction, and augmented reality environments can already replicate the entire United Nations diplomatic experience, everything from “chance” meetings with an interlocutor on the Plaza before passing security, to turning your back and exiting the General Assembly chamber as a least favourite leader speaks.

Combine this with artificial intelligence hosting, facilitation, and mediation, instantaneous interpretation and translation, and big data inputs into foresight and decision-making, and the “second life” diplomats once led for three-year stints at post could in the future be replaced by three-hour stints in a simulated virtual environment.

The “essence” of diplomacy is not lost, it’s just frozen on a poor video connection. For diplomats, innovators, and students of diplomatic studies, it’s time to think beyond the videoconference.

Australia should donate surplus vaccine to Indonesia

Part of a shipment of 500,000 AstraZeneca delivered by Australia to Indonesia in September (Timothy Tobing/Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
Part of a shipment of 500,000 AstraZeneca delivered by Australia to Indonesia in September (Timothy Tobing/Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
Published 12 Oct 2021 10:00    0 Comments

In the middle of this pandemic, every vaccine is precious. Australia should give its spare locally-made AstraZeneca vaccines to friends in Indonesia.

Indonesia has a vacuum of need for vaccines that is predominantly being filled by China, and yet Australia happens to have millions of spare doses that could save thousands of Indonesian lives. In these circumstances, it is in Australia’s interest to be confident and generous in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia’s first priority with vaccination aid was to support the Pacific. Yet the Pacific’s supply is now guaranteed, and Australia still has surplus doses.

Besides, the challenges that face Pacific nations are not just supply, but also the logistics of distribution to very remote and, at times, hesitant populations. The largest Pacific population, Papua New Guinea, has been a major target of vaccine aid from Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, PNG has been unable to distribute their vaccines fast enough and has even been forced to transfer some to other countries to avoid wasting their supplies.

At home, Australia started its vaccine rollout far too late, but is now on a journey to reach some of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Despite having a shortage of supply during the crucial winter months that led to extended lockdowns for major cities, Australia now has the reverse dilemma – a growing stockpile of over six million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines sitting in fridges and an ongoing production of one million doses a week.

The more Indonesia and other neighbours are protected from the virus, the safer Australia will be from future incursions and potentially new variants.

Australia must not let what is a remarkably good and overwhelmingly safe vaccine expire. It would be negligent to hold onto the millions of spare AstraZeneca doses while friends are battling this pandemic without enough protection. From a purely self-interested perspective, Indonesia is a close neighbour, friend, strategic partner and the world’s third largest democracy.

Indonesia has only fully vaccinated a little under 20 per cent of its population, with around 35 per cent having received at least one dose. That leaves nearly two-thirds of its population without having had any vaccine.

Complicating Indonesia’s rollout further is the fact that it is an archipelago. Given Australia still faces significant challenges reaching some remote populations, it’s easy to imagine the logistical hurdles facing a nation with the world’s fourth largest population spread across so many islands.

Despite this, Indonesia is still administering approximately 1.2 million doses a day and at that rate would be able to use Australia’s surplus vaccines within a week.

At work in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the informal economy (ILO Asia Pacific/Flickr)

Thus far, Indonesia’s vaccination needs have been filled by the Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. Indonesia has supplemented these vaccines by prioritising its limited supply of Moderna to its most at-risk healthcare workers, but the overwhelming need for more vaccines remains.

Other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, are already supplementing their Chinese-made vaccines with other recognised options. Thailand already uses AstraZeneca as a booster to their Sinovac vaccines.

Despite early supply constraints, the AstraZeneca vaccines are more efficacious than the Chinese vaccines and make Australia an attractive partner for Indonesia and its largely unvaccinated population.

Indonesia has already suffered a deadly second Covid wave, peaking in July of this year, and the risk of a third one is on the horizon. Indonesia’s death rate grew to more than 2,000 cases a day in July, and its cumulative death rate of over 500 per million ranks it among the highest in the region.

At the time, the Morrison government did announce it would donate 2.5 million doses to Indonesia in July, delivering only around 500,000 by September.

Unfortunately, successive Coalition governments also dramatically cut Australian health programs in Indonesia prior to the pandemic. This diminished Australia’s capacity to help Indonesia combat communicable diseases prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But limiting Australia’s assistance in Indonesia not only limits the country’s influence, but it also increases the likelihood of local Indonesian outbreaks of various diseases arriving on Australian shores. This year has served as a reminder that until the virus is quashed everywhere, it’s always at risk of spreading. And as global experts have warned, a country cannot afford to only vaccinate itself – getting on top of this virus means a need to vaccinate the world.

So, for all the debate about when to ease restrictions at home, Australia is in the fortunate position to be able to help its neighbours. The more Indonesia and other neighbours are protected, the safer Australia will be from future incursions and potentially new variants.

The Morrison government has been, in my view, short-sighted about the potential benefits of Australian aid to generate influence overseas – but donating surplus vaccine supply is a perfect opportunity to change that.

Indonesia could use the help and it’s clearly in Australia's interest to support the region achieve high vaccination rates, especially when Australia has the luxury to offer help. More than that, it’s the right thing to do.

Indonesia: painted politics

A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 30 Sep 2021 10:30    0 Comments

Street art has been much discussed across Indonesia’s airwaves in the last couple of months. Three spray-painted murals expressing a critical perspective on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic were quickly covered over by officials, igniting heated debates about free expression and the role of street art in national politics harking back to the country’s independence struggle.

Although the graffiti controversy has dimmed slightly in recent weeks, the debate could soon surge again with the potential for a third wave of the pandemic in Indonesia – with the country already an epicentre for the virus and one of the biggest contributors of daily cases globally.

The murals appeared in the context of complaints about official responses to Covid-19, with many of the problems in the health sector still to be addressed. The most controversial street art was painted in a tunnel on the outskirts of Jakarta, depicting a figure that resembled President Joko Widodo with his eyes covered and captioned “404: Not found”. Evidently a reference to the internet standard “404” error when a hyperlink is broken, the image has become a symbol for many in Indonesia disenchanted with the government, while the phrase “404: Not found” has turned into a rallying cry for freedom of expression. The street art ruffled the feathers of authorities, who claimed it insulted the President as “a state symbol”, leading police to search for the unknown creators.

Two other murals fed the polemic. Graffiti with the words “Tuhan Aku Lapar” (God, I’m Hungry) and “Dipaksa Sehat di Negara Yang Sakit” (Forced to be Healthy in a Sick Country) were also later censored.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945.

The administration is seemingly sensitive to the shortcomings in its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which has been widely criticised as inadequate. But the crackdown has only drawn more attention to it. The chasing down of street artists has prompted the university students alliance Gejayan Memanggil in the city of Yogyakarta to call for mural contests, giving rise to aspiring Indonesian Banksys.

“This should be seen as policy feedback for government,” Adinda Tenriangke Muchtar, Executive Director for Jakarta-based think tank The Indonesian Institute, told me in an interview. “When we talk about democracy and abiding by the law, we need to question whether there is discrimination in society that incites this kind of expression – simply because people don’t have avenues to be heard or [responses to] their aspirations are tone deaf when submitted through formal political channels.”

The feedback reached the top. In his State of Union address in August, Jokowi, as the President is widely known, said he was aware that the government had received criticism for failing to resolve a number of problems. He thanked the people for their feedback and called them to continue to build a “democratic culture”.

Police subsequently announced that they would no longer pursue the creators of the “404: Not Found” mural, describing it as a “work of art”. Instead, they announced a mural contest with a Chief-of-Police Cup as a trophy. But observers saw this move as far too late. The threat of criminal charges had already been made and the desired “chilling effect” already achieved. Citizens will undoubtedly be much more hesitant about similar public expressions of criticism in the future. But then again, the writing has long been on the wall in Indonesian politics.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945. The most iconic example was the phrase “Freedom is the Glory of any Nation. Indonesia for Indonesians!” captured by Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys. Historian JJ Rizal explained that the mural became an outlet for people in the newly-born nation to despise colonialism. The kind of work that Oorthuys’ camera recorded has long been both a means of mass communication and a valuable propaganda tool.

Other murals in West Java shot by photographer J. C. Taillie in 1947, such as “Terus Berjuang oentoek Keselamatan Bersama” (Keep Fighting for Our Safety), depicted pro-independence spirit, whereas graffiti scrawled on the wall of a house in West Java that same year called for “Full Independence and International Brotherhood of All Freedomloving Peoples”.

Indonesia’s street arts became a distinct subculture in the New Order era under Suharto, where a group of artists in Yogyakarta called Taring Padi created several murals as avenues to give voice to public critics. After Reformasi in the late 1990s, street art flourished in the country, with Respecta Street Art Gallery (RSAG) establishing Indonesian Street Art Database, a network of independently managed, community-based efforts towards a more comprehensive historical archive of murals, accessible not only to passers-by, but also to the public at large.

There seems no doubt that murals will continue to play a crucial role in Indonesia’s political discussions.

Diagnosing Indonesia’s health challenges

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector: A Covid-19 patient at a general hospital in Bogor in January (Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images)
Long before the pandemic, Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector: A Covid-19 patient at a general hospital in Bogor in January (Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 14 Sep 2021 10:00    0 Comments

In July, Indonesia was dubbed one of the global epicentres for Covid-19. Media reports warned of a health system collapse and cemeteries overwhelmed with burial demands. But a little more than a month later, Indonesia’s situation seems to be improving. The second week of September marked seven consecutive weeks of falling case numbers.

Those headline figures can obscure local challenges. The latest figures from the World Health Organisation suggest that the situation has improved nationally but concerns remain about the possibility of a prolonged outbreak outside Java, where health infrastructure is poor. Gaps in vaccination rates between regions and continuing issues with testing mean that Indonesia still has challenges ahead.

Last month, presenting the 2022 budget to the parliament, Indonesia’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani emphasised that the proportion of money allocated to the health sector in the next year will comprise 9.4 per cent of total spending, much higher than the minimum of five per cent mandated by law. While a significant part of the health budget will be allocated to deal with Covid-19, the Minister highlighted that there will also be support for health system reform. A particular aim will be strengthening health promotion and preventive functions.

Covid-19 has amplified the specific vulnerabilities in Indonesia’s health systems in need of urgent attention.

But it would be misleading to suggest that the pandemic has unmasked the vulnerabilities in the health system. Many chronic problems in Indonesia’s health system, including gaps in health infrastructure, the availability and quality of health workers, inequities in access to health care, to name a few, have long been apparent. A major review of the Indonesian health system published in 2017 outlined a comprehensive list of necessary reforms.

Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector, spending only about three per cent of its GDP on health. Decentralisation in 2001 shifted much of the control of public expenditure on health and service delivery to local governments, leading to arguments about geographical disparity in health infrastructure and service delivery. Other indicators point out the persistent gender disparities in health.

Donning personal protective equipment in the pandemic (F. Latief/ILO Asia-Pacific/Flickr)

The years since 2001 have seen a series of reforms in the health sector, including efforts to improve the quality of health workers in 2013, and most importantly the adoption of universal health care in 2014. However, experts continued to argue that more reforms are needed to address the challenges posed by the country’s changing demographic and epidemiological landscape.

For example, despite a decline in infant and child mortality rates and a corresponding increase in life expectancy over the past five decades, stunting among children and anaemia among women continues to be a problem, indicating underinvestment in improving nutrition as well as challenges related to food security. Questions have also been raised about the sustainability of universal health care, particularly with high costs of treatment and economic loss due to non-communicable disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular illness.

A weak system for collecting vital statistics meant Covid case numbers and fatality rates went under-reported, also complicating the vaccination roll-out.

Covid-19 has amplified the specific vulnerabilities in Indonesia’s health systems in need of urgent attention. Disruptions to health services including essential services to children and mothers and services for people suffering non-communicable diseases in the early days of the pandemic have been widely documented.

The expanded public expenditure budget on health for 2022 reflects the increased priority, at least in the short term, on the health sector. Yet many difficult trade-offs remain. A large proportion of the health budget for the coming year will still be allocated to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The emphasis on strengthening and transforming primary care, aligned with a call by the World Health Organisation, may come at the expense of secondary and tertiary care. Beyond expenditure issues, health reforms will likely also require regulatory changes, including those governing the production and distribution of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and licensing of the health workforce.

More importantly, many regulations and policies that affect the health system are outside the sector. One example is trade policy. Only last month, the government threatened to impose new restrictions on the import of medical equipment and supplies that can be produced domestically. This approach is reminiscent of the government export ban on medical supplies in March 2020, which ended up backfiring.

A further challenge is the lack of high-quality data necessary to mount an effective response to the pandemic. A weak system for collecting vital statistics meant Covid case numbers and fatality rates went under-reported, and complicated the vaccination roll-out.

Such problems in Indonesia’s health system have been known for years. What has changed is that the pandemic has sounded a clarion call for urgent action.

This theme will be discussed at the Australian National University’s 2021 Indonesia Update, In Sickness and In Health: Diagnosing Indonesia, to be held online from 15–17 September. The Update will feature leading scholars and practitioners discussing the ways Indonesia and Indonesians have encountered, navigated, and overcome the challenges of achieving longer and better quality of life. Information and registration details can be found here.

Cruising into stormy weather

For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Published 4 Aug 2021 13:00    0 Comments

Cruise ships became an unhappy herald of global distress in the first weeks of the pandemic. The virus leapt from deck to deck in the close quarters of these huge floating palaces. Ship owners scrambled. Where once cheerful and cashed-up tourists had been welcomed by their thousands, vessels were abruptly barred from port. Only the challenge compounded. Stranded passengers had to be returned home.

For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation. First and hardest hit, much like the airline industry, its major “cargo” is people rather than goods. Ships that once made major contributions of local economies transiting the islands of the Pacific, bumping along the Mediterranean coastline, weaving through Asia or up and down Africa, North and South America – anywhere waters could carry them – were “warehoused” in great marooned fleets off the Philippines and elsewhere.

In 2019 cruising attracted nearly 30 million passengers. Yet estimates since the resumption of cruising in late 2020 report only 600,000 passengers have braved the decks.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), as business ground to a halt over the course of six months in early 2020, it was estimated that 2500 jobs were lost every day in a sector that previously would have generated US$50 billion in wages and supported 1.17 million employees in the same period.

Many vessel owners found themselves orphaned as the pandemic struck. With ships registered under flags of convenience and companies incorporated in countries such as Liberia or Panama, crewed by multinational labour, fearful governments only felt obliged to the fate of their own citizens. The companies, with their millions of dollars in capital investments, could fend for themselves, leaving a hazy horizon into which the cruise industry sails.

Cruise ships anchored at Manila Bay, Philippines, on 31 May 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

But the CLIA estimates that by September 2021, around 57 per cent of the industry will be back in operation, rising to 77 per cent by the end of December. With new rules in place on passenger numbers, social distancing and public health measures, as well as inevitable outbreaks, the numbers will take time to recover. Still, the optimism is nonetheless striking.

And massive investments already made are a powerful incentive to salvage the industry. Prior to the pandemic, cruise lines are said to have invested almost US$24 billion in new greener vessels. In 2020, the maritime industry was supposed to see the ramping up of clean shipping – which included a shift from the nearly three per cent of global carbon emissions that shipping currently produces, to a 40 per cent reduction on 2008 carbon intensity levels by 2030.

The ambition will be tempered. Most vessels would have been ordered well before any fears of a global health crisis emerged. They were designed for pre-pandemic conditions. With the Covid outbreak and subsequent decline in passenger numbers that would ordinarily absorb the heavy investments by cruise lines, the ship operators will inevitably have to carry the costs or increase ticket prices, reducing the industry from a mass market tourist attraction to more of a niche player.

To give a sense of the shuddering cost, in 2019 cruising attracted nearly 30 million passengers. Yet CLIA estimates that since the resumption of cruising in late 2020, only 600,000 passengers have braved the decks, mostly from the United States, Singapore, the Caribbean and Europe – regions that traditionally have had the most enthusiastic cruise customers.

And not everyone is happy to see the cruise liners haul into view. In Barcelona, for example, a city long troubled by concern over tourist traps, local protests greeted the lifting of a ban on cruisers in June that had been in place since coronavirus struck. Similar protests took place in Venice.

Protests at Barcelona’s harbour on 19 June 2021 after Spain’s transport ministry lifted a ban on international cruise ships (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

Adding to the extra costs will be the price of operating on greener fuels as the maritime industry as a whole makes the transition to zero carbon and carbon neutral energy by 2050.

In the United States, home to the world’s most lucrative cruise market, President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion Covid relief stimulus package may be the cruise lines’ major source of hope. US economic research indicates that Americans were spending up to 42 per cent of their stimulus cheques.

Nevertheless, even the flush US consumer may not be able to save the cruise industry from the aggressive new regulations that are expected to be implemented in Europe, which in turn will add pressure on the global maritime regulator, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), to follow suit.

A growing and vociferous environmental lobby has focused on the effects of cruising on the marine environment.

In the latest raft of regulations from the IMO, existing vessels will need to meet new rules on operational emissions, with the carbon intensity of international shipping to be reduced by 40 per cent in the next decade. These measures are due to be enforced from 2023. Effectively, tomorrow in shipping terms. However, the IMO has come under fire for its lack of ambition, not least from some of the early movers looking to shift to greener fuels, who fear they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Moreover, the European Union has included the maritime sector in its Emissions Trading Scheme for the first time and the expectation is that this will be enforced from 2023, adding yet more costs for operators.

A criticism aimed at both the IMO and EU regulators is that the new rules will allow the shipping industry to continue to pollute through a lack of controls over the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG). According to CLIA, some 51 per cent of cruise ships currently on order will be fuelled by LNG, which is considered less polluting than diesel as it produces fewer particulates and sulphur and nitrous oxide emissions

However, environmental organisations have expressed alarm that methane, which can be a residual element of the exhaust gases, as well as methane leakage in the mining and transportation processes, could see rising levels of methane deposited into the atmosphere. And methane is around 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although it remains in the atmosphere for less time.

Armed with this knowledge and the growing pressure on the maritime industry – and the cruise industry in particular – most observers expect further, more stringent, measures to be applied to the shipping industry in the next few years, with regulators targeting LNG as a fuel well before the end of this decade.

In addition, there is a growing and vociferous environmental lobby that has focused on the effects of cruising on the marine environment – from problems caused by invasive species carried in the ballast water tanks of larger ships, to the detrimental effects of large-diameter propellers on local ecosystems. A recent example includes the alleged damage to the coral reef around the Mexican island of Cozumel.

Cruise passengers on board before disembarking on 19 June 2021 in Cartagena, Spain (Alfonso Duran/Getty Images)

The cruise industry has altered dramatically since early 2020, and the changes so far are only the early moves in a protracted transition. Expectations of consolidation in an industry where there are few players are not far-fetched. Reduced demand and substantially inflated prices will play into this scenario. The question for cruise companies is how much of a burden the transition to climate-friendly fuels will be.

Meanwhile, those who were employed in the cruise industry prior to the Covid pandemic are finding jobs hard to come by, particularly those who worked in the vessels’ hotel sections.

If shipping is to make the transition to greener technology, that too may limit employment opportunities, with a decrease in demand for new vessels impacting cruise ship building, which is centred mainly in European yards, in Finland, Italy and France, with smaller vessels built in Norway.

It is the acute and urgent changes to the economic ecosystem of the cruise business that will mean, by 2030, cruising will be unrecognisable from the industry that set sail at the start of the decade.

Cruise liner Ruby Princess is moored in Port Kembla, near Wollongong, NSW, with more than 1000 quarantined crew on board in April 2020 (Department of Defence) 

Sun, surf and a sandbox escape from a pandemic

Locals and some of the first tourist to arrive in Phuket enjoy the beach in Nai Harn on 4 July (Thomas De Cian/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Locals and some of the first tourist to arrive in Phuket enjoy the beach in Nai Harn on 4 July (Thomas De Cian/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 14 Jul 2021 10:00    0 Comments

Before the pandemic, Thai island Phuket offered visitors the perfect blend of sun, beach and seedy-but-fun nightlife as one of the region’s best-known tourist destinations. Now, it offers visitors something much more novel: a quarantine free holiday.

As of the start of July, fully vaccinated visitors from select countries can fly directly into Phuket and go straight from the tarmac to the beach. Spend a full 14 days there and visitors (or savvy Thai nationals) are welcome to continue their trip around Thailand, effectively spending their quarantine term in a resort under a program that is being called the “Phuket sandbox”.

The program isn’t without controversy. Fears over the safety of Phuket communities, as well as cynical assumptions that few would take up the confusing and expensive offer, blighted the program in its first weeks. Still, if it goes well, expect to see other holiday favourites such as Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao accessible shortly afterward.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to record a case of Covid-19 which saw tourism grind to a halt in the first couple of months of 2020.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to record a case of Covid-19 which, paired with mass cancellations of trips from Chinese visitors, saw tourism grind to a halt in the first couple of months of 2020. The sharp, sudden decline in visitor numbers and then eventual rolling lockdowns smashed the country, where tourism accounts for around 12 per cent of GDP.

The delicate balance between economic imperative and public health has been revealing of governments around the world. In Thailand, that balance has looked desperate as the government moved to open something – anything, anywhere – to tourism.

Phuket is a natural choice. With a long-time reputation as one of Thailand’s best resort islands, Phuket has the infrastructure, particularly an international airport, to support the program. And as one of the most visitor-dependent provinces in a country already vulnerable to the whims of tourism, it is among the most desperate.

For the half a million residents of Phuket the “sandbox” is a double-edged sword. The tourism industry has been all but destroyed by a year of no visitors, but public health is also paramount. The government in Bangkok promised the plan would not go ahead until the community reached 70 per cent vaccination by the 1 July launch, which did in the end fall short – but only slightly. The province has been plagued by the same issues as the mainland in terms of securing vaccine stock and navigating complicated online systems. Still, the vaccination program will continue alongside the opening of the sandbox.

Long tail boats at low tide, Phuket, Thailand (Ryan Kartzke/Flickr)

Full vaccination can’t come soon enough. At least six tourists have tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving on the island under the sandbox program. One of the first to be identified was a visitor from United Arab Emirates who had taken the test as part of requirements upon arrival. Drivers and hotel staff who had come into contact with the man were placed into self-isolation. Health officials confirmed the tourist was vaccinated fully with the Sinopharm vaccine.

Worry more about domestic arrivals,” provincial chief doctor Kusak Kukiattikoon told local media. His blunt words refer to the growing disaster on the mainland, with new daily record deaths as the Delta variant surges through the country. Fresh restrictions are expected imminently including restrictions on interprovincial travel – essentially ending the quasi-quarantine of Phuket before heading elsewhere.

Ironically, the launch of the Phuket sandbox may have become a spreader event for the political elite in Bangkok who attended. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who proudly attended the launch on the island, went into self-isolation after an attendee tested positive. Spokespeople for the prime minister’s office reassure that he has so far tested negative and will continue his work as usual.

He may well use that time spruiking the sandbox idea to other leaders in the region. As planned travel bubbles, such as that between Singapore and Australia, collapse under the weight of new cases and unsteady vaccine programs, the sandbox could become an option for other tourist-friendly countries in Southeast Asia.

“The sandbox is much more than just for Phuket or Thailand. It sets a possible way forward for other Asian countries,” tourism magnate Ho Kwon Ping told Bloomberg. He pointed to other possible locales such as China’s Hainan province, islands in Vietnam or even Indonesia’s Bali. That may be overly ambitious for the time being, but it shows an industry pivoting towards creative ideas which acknowledge the pandemic is a long way from being over.

By the end of the year Phuket expects to have played host to 100,000 visitors. A long cry from the 10 million in years past but a respectable start for a devastated community fighting its way back.

Covid crisis deepens in junta-ruled Myanmar

People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 Jul 2021 10:30    0 Comments

A worsening third wave of Covid-19 is a cruel new blow in Myanmar, still reeling from the human costs of the coup on 1 February, and with a military junta more focused on combatting dissent than combatting the virus.

Thousands of new cases have arisen since late May, and the Delta, Alpha and Kappa variants have been detected. From 1 to 11 July, the junta-run health ministry reported almost 35,000 cases nationally and over 500 deaths. But low testing rates, and the regime’s haphazard pandemic response more broadly, mean these figures only provide a partial picture.

Cases have been reported among people detained in Yangon’s overcrowded Insein Prison; among border guard police in western Rakhine State; and in the town of Myawaddy on the border with Thailand. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, the six hospitals accepting Covid patients are reportedly at capacity.

In Kalay, a town in northwest Myanmar where locals have fiercely resisted army rule, aid workers and residents have estimated hundreds of Covid-related deaths and pictures on social media show people queuing to replenish scarce oxygen supplies. One local resident told Radio Free Asia that a local crematorium was overwhelmed and people were having to fend for themselves.



The outbreak has also breached Myanmar’s borders, with parts of Ruili, a city in China’s Yunnan Province bordering Myanmar, sent into lockdown after a string of cases were detected, including among several Myanmar nationals.

The Myanmar junta has progressively announced a patchwork of restrictions, including stay-at-home orders for a number of townships in the commercial center of Yangon, the capital Naypyidaw, and across at least six other states and regions. On 8 July, schools were ordered to close across the country for two weeks to stem infections.

But given the extent to which the military has terrorised the population to cement its rule in the months since 1 February, trust in the regime’s pandemic response is understandably low.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid.

After the coup, testing, surveillance and vaccination all fell away, according to UNICEF’s Myanmar office. As Covid spread silently, state media spent more time denouncing dissenters and extolling the regime’s imaginary achievements than on urgent public health messaging.

Under Myanmar’s civilian government, Dr Htar Htar Lin was in charge of the country’s vaccine rollout, which had begun only days before the military seized power. In mid-June, she was arrested in downtown Yangon (along with her husband and seven-year-old son) for her involvement in the nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The detention of a high-profile health professional, while the country grapples with its worst surge in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, gives a sense of the junta’s priorities.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid. The military crackdown itself has left almost 900 people dead, more than 5,000 detained, and some 200,000 people internally displaced. Parts of the country, in both urban and rural towns, have seen armed resistance; decades-old conflicts continue in ethnic nationality areas; and a collapsing economy is pushing more people into poverty.

Any country would struggle to contain the current Covid outbreak, but in post-coup Myanmar the challenges appear particularly acute. High among them is the junta’s relentless pursuit of its critics at all costs, including the continued targeting of medical workers – further damaging an already struggling health system.

Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of workers’ strikes in protest at army rule, placing them in a difficult bind as rising numbers of people seek medical treatment for Covid-19. Some medics have resorted to providing care in secret.

The junta’s response has been brutal. At least 240 attacks on healthcare facilities, personnel, ambulances and patients have been recorded since the coup. Twelve healthcare workers have been killed, hospitals taken over, and more than 150 medical personnel arrested, according to Insecurity Insight, an organisation specialising in risk assessments. As Physicians for Human Rights noted, “the human rights emergency of the coup is morphing into a public health disaster.”

Queues for Covid-19 tests in Mangshi in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, bordering Myanmar in China’s southwestern Yunnan province (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Like all countries that don’t produce vaccines, Myanmar will need to scramble to secure doses in the months ahead. But the junta’s plans are typically opaque.

Myanmar had secured an initial batch of vaccine from India prior to the coup, some of which were then reportedly appropriated by the military. But supplies from India dried up as that country focused on its own severe outbreak. China has since donated 500,000 doses and the junta recently revealed it is negotiating with Russia to purchase a supply of the Sputnik vaccine.

The country’s vaccine rollout is also complicated by the fact some people are rejecting vaccination in protest at the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted de facto leader, detained since February and only sighted in a few brief court appearances, has reportedly had her two doses.

As Myanmar’s Covid crisis deepens, its neighbours may not be in a position to offer much assistance, with countries across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, all experiencing their own worst outbreaks to date. As has invariably been the case under decades of military rule, Myanmar citizens are being left to draw on their own strength and resources.

Aiding the Pacific during Covid: An update

Oxygen concentrators are unloaded in April at Jacksons airport, Port Moresby, PNG (United Nations in PNG/Flickr)
Oxygen concentrators are unloaded in April at Jacksons airport, Port Moresby, PNG (United Nations in PNG/Flickr)
Published 5 Jul 2021 06:00    0 Comments

More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, how much outside financial support is the Pacific receiving and how far does this go in helping the region weather the crisis?

This time last year in The Interpreter we took stock of the provision of Covid-19 related external financial assistance to the Pacific. Back then, the pandemic was rapidly taking hold but the international community’s response was only just getting started. Announced support had reached US$570 million or 1.7% of the region’s GDP – far below what was needed given the scale of the pandemic shock to the Pacific’s small and vulnerable economies. Additional support was also available from the International Monetary Fund via its expanded rapid financing windows. But only Samoa and Solomon Islands had been able to access this at the time. 

After avoiding the worst for many months, Covid-19 outbreaks are now underway in a number of Pacific countries. So where do things stand in terms of the provision of international financial assistance?

The multilateral development banks have scaled up their support significantly over the past year, with over $1 billion in Covid-19 related support. Bilateral donors have also responded with about $700 million, mostly in the form of cheap loans from Japan and Australia. The G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) first announced in April last year has now been extended by a year to the end of 2021, allowing Pacific governments to in total defer $480 million (1.5% of regional GDP) otherwise due to bilateral creditors. Curiously, however, there has been limited uptake of the expanded IMF rapid financing windows despite their large potential scale. Only PNG and Tonga have also turned to the IMF since our last stocktake, with Tonga accessing half of its annual quota.

The big recent news is the expected allocation of $650 billion in new IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). SDRs come with no conditionality and can be readily exchanged for hard currency. Calls for a new SDR allocation have been made since the start of the pandemic but were blocked by the Trump administration, a position the Biden administration has now reversed.

The new SDR allocation is expected to be completed by late August. The Pacific should be among the biggest beneficiaries relative to economic size, receiving around $700 million in new SDRs – equal to about 2% of regional GDP. The Pacific might also benefit substantially further depending on what happens with plans for richer countries to channel their own new SDRs to poorer and more vulnerable countries that need them more.

Overall, the scale of external financial assistance to the Pacific now looks very sizeable, as shown on the chart below. Including the expected allocation of new SDRs, and only including IMF rapid financing amounts that have actually been accessed, the total scale of external financial support to the Pacific now amounts to $3.3 billion or around 10 per cent of the region’s annual GDP. And, unlike at the time of our previous stocktake, the majority of this constitutes new money in response to the pandemic, rather than reprioritised or frontloaded financing that the Pacific was going to get anyway before Covid-19 struck.

There is, however, a lot of important variation across countries. The scale of support is very large in many of the smaller Pacific economies but relatively low in PNG, the largest country in the Pacific by a wide margin.

How far does all this go towards meeting the Pacific’s financing needs?  

In December last year we published a Lowy Institute Policy Brief estimating that the Pacific required at least $3.5 billion in additional recovery financing over the next three years in order to avoid a lost decade due to the pandemic. Crucially, this additional financing needed to be above and beyond that which the Pacific had either already received or was otherwise expected to receive in our baseline scenario. Although total Covid-19 related external assistance has now reached $3.3 billion, most of this was already incorporated into our baseline at the time. That largely leaves only the expected $700 million allocation of new SDRs as true additional financing for the Pacific that should be counted towards our estimate of the required amount.

Nonetheless, the new SDR allocation will be significant – on its own taking the Pacific about a fifth of the way towards the $3.5 billion figure we estimated was needed over the next three years for the region’s recovery. There is also the potential that sizeable additional amounts might be made available if richer countries follow through on plans to channel their own new SDRs to poorer countries.

After having avoided the worst of the virus for so long, widespread vaccination is critical, but progress is mixed and most countries in the region are struggling.

How much the new SDRs do to lift the Pacific’s outlook will depend on whether and how effectively countries are able to capitalise on this to expand government spending on healthcare (including vaccine rollouts) and support to households, firms, and the economy in general – rather than mostly use the new SDRs to bolster central bank reserves (though in some cases this may be necessary).

Unfortunately, it is important to recognise that the outlook in the Pacific has also darkened considerably since we estimated the region’s recovery financing requirements late last year.

After having avoided the worst of the virus for so long, widespread vaccination is critical, but progress is mixed and most countries in the region are struggling. Vaccine supply and access now seem much more uncertain and difficult than what we assumed last year. And vaccine rollouts in Australia and New Zealand are also moving slower than expected – pushing back when the region’s vital tourism industry can hope to restart.

All of this bodes ill for the Pacific’s outlook and consequently how much external financial help it will need.

The bottom line? A lot of financial help is flowing to the Pacific and more is on its way. The scale up in international support to the region has so far been substantial. But there is no question vastly more is needed.

Main photo used with permission from United Nations in PNG via Flickr.

Thailand’s overcrowded prisons hit by Covid-19 surge

A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2021 12:00    0 Comments

Thailand emerged from the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the best performing countries in the world in terms of minimising cases and deaths. But 2021 has been a different story.

A surge in infections since the beginning of April has seen thousands of new cases each day and a spike in deaths. While authorities moved to close parks, gyms and cinemas (although shopping malls stayed open), mandated face masks in public and tightened quarantine requirements for travellers, the virus was already rampant in settings where social distancing wasn’t possible, including the country’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.

More than 17,000 people in prison have contracted Covid-19 in this third wave in Thailand, and the tally is rising daily. On 25 May, the Thai health ministry reported 882 new cases in prisons in the preceding 24 hours (alongside more than 2300 new cases among the general population). Prisons across greater Bangkok have been hit particularly hard, but cases have also been reported at prisons in Narathiwat in the south and Chiang Mai in the north.

As of 17 May, people in prison made up more than 70% of the 9635 new cases reported nationally that day. At one prison in Chiang Mai, some 61% of offenders tested positive.

It takes little imagination to comprehend the heightened health risks faced by people detained amid a global pandemic. Unsafe and unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, overcrowding and limited access to health services are issues in prisons around the world, and the physical and mental health of people in prisons is typically well below those living on the outside. Infections may be spread within and between prisons through new admissions, prisoner transfers, visits and staff deployments across multiple prisons, affecting people in prison, staff and the community.

Serious Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported in prisons in India, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom, to name a few. In the United States alone, as of 18 May, just under 398,000 people in prison had tested positive, with an estimated 2680 deaths, according to The Marshall Project, a not-for-profit group focused on reporting on the US criminal justice system. The figures are even higher when accounting for people across all detention settings, as tracked by the New York Times.

A protest sign at Bangkok Remand Prison in Bangkok in February calling for release of four activists being held on royal defamation charges (Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

In Thailand, which has consistently had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the risk of an outbreak was always high. With a total prison population currently estimated at over 307,000 – three times larger than the country’s official prison capacity – Thai prisons are chronically overcrowded. At one facility, the Thailand Institute of Justice recently reported that 35–45 people were forced to share a single cell, sleeping shoulder to shoulder. The country’s strict drug laws are a key factor fuelling imprisonment rates, with more than 80% of people estimated to be detained on drug-related offences.

The full scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons was only brought to light after several prominent student activists involved in anti-government protests last year, and detained on charges of insulting the king, revealed they had tested positive to the virus. Among those infected were Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who made headlines last year after publicly calling for reform of the monarchy, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, and several others who are now out on bail.

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

After being slow to act, Thai authorities are now scrambling to respond. Measures flagged to address the outbreak across multiple prisons include the ramping up of testing and vaccinations for people detained, an increase to the quarantine period for new prisoners to 21 days, a halt to prison transfers and consideration given to the early release of 50,000 people. Prison authorities were also instructed to establish field hospitals to treat patients.

However, few officials are sounding optimistic. “Prisons are overcrowded,” Aryut Sinthoppan, director-general of the corrections department, told reporters this month. “So there are limitations to hygiene and disease control efforts.”

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year (by 16%, according to one estimate) as a result of two mass releases in 2020, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

Prisons are not the only sites that have seen major outbreaks during this third wave. Factories and construction workers’ camps that include many migrant workers, as well as dense urban communities without adequate housing, have also been disproportionately affected. More than 2000 cases were detected at a single factory in Phetchaburi, south-west of Bangkok, more than half of whom are migrant workers from Myanmar.

Thailand’s vaccine roll-out is also attracting widespread criticism, with concerns over supply and distribution, and the urgent need to vaccinate people most at risk. An estimated 1.94 million people have received at least one Covid vaccine dose (either AstraZeneca or Sinovac) to date. Prime Minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is one of the lucky ones – earlier this week, he posed for the cameras with his vaccination certificate after receiving his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Fiji: Cannabis should be high on the government’s agenda

Cannabis leaves dry in a temperature controlled greenhouse in Thailand, which in 2018 became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise medical marijuana (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Cannabis leaves dry in a temperature controlled greenhouse in Thailand, which in 2018 became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise medical marijuana (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2021 05:00    0 Comments

Fiji’s capital Suva has been in and out of Covid lockdowns over recent weeks, and my Netflix got a workout. I watched a TV show called “Cooked with Cannabis”. Admittedly there were a few baked hippies, but the cooking was good. Jokes aside, the show revealed the sophisticated and lucrative global cannabis industry, projected to grow to an extraordinary US$90.4 billion internationally by 2026.

Watching the show also got me thinking about Fiji’s economy as the country fights through a second wave of the pandemic via containment measures and a vaccination drive. Fiji has taken an almighty hit. GDP was slashed to approximately $4.3 billion in 2020, with growth falling by 19%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Foreign tourists have vanished, all non-essential businesses have been forced to close, and the much mooted Pacific travel bubble is likely to be off the cards for the immediate future. With national debt levels soaring, a nasty storm is brewing.

Fiji needs to diversify its economy away from a reliance on tourism. Despite the government’s best efforts to provide relief through food ration deliveries and a $90 emergency payment to families affected by Covid, these well-intentioned initiatives have arguably fallen short. Many people complained that calls to the food-ration hotline went unanswered, or the deliveries never arrived, while the need for Fijians to provide tax details in order to claim the relief payments meant those in the informal sector were all but left behind.

That’s where cannabis presents an opportunity.

A cannabis industry in Fiji would not be limited to growing the crop. A whole value-add supply chain could be created.

Currently marijuana or saba (pronounced “samba”, yes, like the dance) is illegal in Fiji. But of course the leaf is grown. One of my favourite news pieces from 2020 was about villagers shooting down police drones with spear guns to hide their marijuana plantations on Kadavu, an island south of Suva. The police still managed to haul in crops said to have a street value of FJ$86 million (A$50 million) in a four-week operation and amount to the largest seizure ever in the country. 

But it seems ironic that at a time when some families can’t afford to put food on the table, millions of dollars worth of this currently illegal crop would be uprooted.

The over-reliance on tourism, comprising almost 40% of Fiji’s GDP before the pandemic has left economic void. Rebooting the agricultural sector is an area the Fijian government has identified as one which could be strengthened. Fiji has a solid history of agricultural exports. In the 1970s sugar exports accounted for 70% of the country’s export earnings. More recently, yaqona (kava) has been targeted as a growth opportunity in the sector, due to its widespread use in the region for relaxation and stress relief. Unfortunately, yaqona takes several years before it can be harvested. Like other agricultural products, it is also exposed to heightened risks of environmental damage, for example cyclones.

But “weed” is different. As the name suggests, cannabis is a resilient crop and capable of harvesting after three months. As the “spear gun incident” attests, it clearly grows well in Fiji.

With an ideal climate, remote islands capable of quarantining cannabis operations, a world renowned “brand Fiji” offers a special opportunity for economic diversification. Just look at Fiji Water.

The idea of a marijuana industry in Fiji is not new. The idea was debated most recently in March at a Nadi Chamber of Commerce roundtable. The government was adamant in response it has no plans to legalise marijuana.

But “legalisation” need not mean we all get “cooked with cannabis”. Fiji could do what other countries have done, legalising marijuana for medicinal and hemp fibre production, while banning recreational use. Such a move would follow similar regulation in countries including MalawiLesotho and Uganda, as well as Thailand in Southeast Asia, among others.

Security cameras show the marijuana greenhouses at the Rak Jang farm in Thailand on 25 March 2021 (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

A permit system could be created for growing marijuana on designated islands in Fiji. Alternatively, the government could create a stated owned company to manage production ­– afterall if there is a Fiji Sugar Corporation, why not a Fiji Cannabis Co.?

A cannabis industry in Fiji would not be limited to growing the crop. A whole value-add supply chain could be created, for example, through hemp fibre production (Fiji’s garment manufacturing industry has also felt the pinch under Covid), as well as labs to extract the valuable CBD oil, which is used for pain relief and various other ailments. This could all be carried out in Fiji and create jobs for Fijians.

There will be concern about any partial legalisation leading to greater recreational use of cannabis among the local population. It cannot be ruled out, but the same “slippery slope” argument can also apply to tobacco and alcohol as gateways to substance abuse. Those partial to the saba are still likely to partake, whether it is legal or not. These are the types of risks the government should be able to manage with responsible regulation and enforcement.

From a business perspective, there is a chance for Fiji to be the region’s “first mover” in the cannabis industry. Research and a feasibility study should be first undertaken to determine the viability and opportunity that a cannabis industry could present. From there, a better judgement can be made about what would be required to regulate it.

And just maybe the volatility of the pandemic could be the catalyst for Fiji to innovatively diversify the economy and generate a new export market to its advantage.