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Developing resistance: Emergent nations and Covid-19


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.


India’s Covid-19 wave is spreading south

Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2021 11:00   0 Comments

Images of the pandemic in Delhi that currently saturate the international media depict ailing patients struggling to find beds, oxygen and medical attention. Amid a highly privatised healthcare terrain with underfunded public hospitals, access to Delhi’s hospitals has long depended on one’s own jugaad (capacity to develop “workarounds”), personal networks and ties to “big men” who lean on hospital officials to provide beds – characteristics that have played into Delhi’s pandemic scenario in a disastrous way.

As the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps south, there is hope that the different nature of South India’s health system will prevent the pandemic from taking hold in the same way.

Tamil Nadu, the state in which I live, has long had a clear commitment to providing quality health services at affordable cost, which stems from its history of democratic action and inclusive social policies. Access to hospital care is more equitable and transparent than in the North, and the state’s public health insurance is higher than in most other states (at approximately A$2500 per year).

Tamil Nadu has a streamlined model of centralised purchasing and distribution of essential medicines. This reduces the black market for medicines, as illustrated currently by the long queues to buy antiviral drug Remdesivir at regulated prices at government pharmacies in the state’s cities. Rural health infrastructure is more developed than in the northern states, which removes pressure from city hospitals. The neighbouring state of communist-led Kerala shares many of these characteristics.   

“We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe.”

While the 2020 Covid wave was fairly well controlled in Tamil Nadu, with cases peaking at 600 per day, the second wave poses more of a challenge. This wave appears to be largely driven by a virus variant found in India determined by the World Health Organisation as of “global concern”, and the rising caseload in Tamil Nadu currently sits at 29,000 per day.

Since Tamil Nadu’s recent change of government – a coalition led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party was sworn in on 7 May, following April elections – the existing Covid measures have been expanded. The state has implemented a Covid command centre modelled on Mumbai’s “war room” initiative, which manages an online system of triage to track hospital bed availability and funnel patients to them. Oxygen buses have been established outside hospitals in the state’s capital city Chennai, and a full lockdown began this week throughout the state. In rural areas, health officials have been posted in each district to implement Covid measures and oversee village health workers. Hospitals are full, yet there is an absence of stories of people being unable to access beds or oxygen.

While these characteristics may make the Tamil Nadu healthcare environment appear more resilient and able to manage a predicted further upswing in Covid cases, local beliefs and practices pose a significant challenge to the course of the pandemic here.

In the villages near me outside Pondicherry, there is a diversity of beliefs, largely divided along generational lines. Middle-aged and elderly people ­– who are generally illiterate or semi-literate in this area – tend to believe that Covid is not a serious illness, given that the first wave in 2020 did not amount to much in this area. Election rallies held in March and April this year were strongly attended throughout Tamil Nadu, with few people wearing masks. Distancing is generally not practised in daily life, and community transmission is now widespread. Older people largely distrust vaccines and feel that vital information about side effects is hidden from them. Some believe coronavirus has been created or leveraged by authorities in order to reduce the population. Covid-positive deaths that occur in vaccinated people – whether in the village or among Tamil celebrities – reinforce the belief that vaccines are dangerous.

A volunteer inside a bus converted to provide oxygen to Covid-19 patients waiting to be admitted at a government hospital in Chennai, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

Younger people feel torn between different belief systems. They are mostly high-school and university-educated, and their access to technology exposes them to an array of ideologies. Government messaging interrupts mobile phone calls with upbeat audio messages encouraging people to wear masks and get vaccinated. Information circulated on WhatsApp mostly promotes traditional immune-boosting supplements that are popular in the South (turmeric, neem, ginger). Less benign memes shared on social media promote anti-masking, anti-vaccine messages and big-pharma conspiracies.

As one university-educated youth told me, “We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe. We were born at home with the help of traditional midwives and ‘grandmother’s medicine’ [local remedies]. We’re wary this is a medical scam of big companies, to get people to buy medicines.”

Public-health measures in rural areas reinforce the fear of stigmatisation of being identified as Covid positive. For example, health workers in a nearby village place wide circles of sanitising white power around the homes of people identified as Covid-positive, which visibly marks a family and home as a site of contagion. It’s therefore understandable that villagers decline testing, and pass off their coughs and fevers as just a cold. Now that community transmission is widespread, contact tracing becomes mostly a matter of encouraging close contacts to self-isolate.

Tamil Nadu’s health system holds the promise of greater resilience than North India’s health sector, yet it remains to be seen in the weeks ahead how it will withstand the anticipated upswing in demand. Australians of Indian background have been vocal on social media recently, expressing their deep distress about loved ones unable to access healthcare in North India. Hopefully, South India’s health system will withstand this Covid wave better, and Australians of South Indian background will not experience the same sense of helplessness and frustration for their relatives.


Philippines community pantries give help – and send a message

Locals wait in line to receive goods at a community pantry in Antipolo City, Philippines (Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Locals wait in line to receive goods at a community pantry in Antipolo City, Philippines (Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2021 10:00   0 Comments

A handwritten slogan can be spotted on cardboard posters at stalls across the Philippines: “Give according to your means, take according to your need.” These are makeshift community pantries, ad hoc efforts that provide free items such as rice, vegetables, canned goods and even facemasks that benefit millions of Filipinos. And while there are food banks in countries across the world, the community pantry in the Philippines has come to represent so much more. It is not only an expression of compassion for the poor, but a political statement against the state – a symbol of national solidarity in a country struggling to survive the pandemic.

Fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

The double economic burden of job losses and rising prices of commodities has afflicted the Philippines, which has yet to recover from one of the world’s longest and strictest Covid-19 lockdowns. Goods from community pantries can therefore mean the difference between life and death for many Filipinos. Most contributions flow from the rich and the middle class. But people who are struggling financially are also donating what little cash or groceries they can share. Some even come from rural areas to give – fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

Community pantries not only exhibit generosity, they also demonstrate respect and consideration for others. Most of those who line up for hours take just enough for themselves and their families, mindful that others behind them are also in need. There is no sign of the type of hoarding that was evident in supermarkets across the world at the onset of the pandemic. Instead, the system is built on what Filipino sociologist Randy David describes as “faceless giving and discreet receiving”. The community pantry, David says, “offers no space for the self-promotion and obligatory acknowledgments that usually accompany the mass distribution of emergency assistance”.

“Sharing is caring” (Marian Ticzon)

But this is more than a noble instrument to help others. The community pantry also sends a political message of public frustration about government ineptitude in providing for the nation. The Philippine government provided only up to PHP 8,000 (A$215) in 2020 and a maximum of PHP 4,000 ($107) this year for each of the country’s 18 million low-income families, not enough to buy their daily essentials. Ana Patricia Non, the 26-year old lady who first started a pantry in her neighborhood that inspired replicas nationwide, explained the reason behind her initiative: “I’m tired of complaining. I’m tired of inaction,” she said. “The fact that this has gone viral, it means this is a gut issue.” As it inadvertently exposed institutional shortcomings, the boom in community pantries should therefore serve as a wake-up call for the government to do more for its people.

The community pantries in the Philippines can also be seen as a political statement repudiating government malice towards charity and volunteerism. A few days after Non’s community pantry spread far and wide, the national police openly linked it to the communist movement and accused it of being a vehicle to recruit members. In keeping with President Rodrigo Duterte’s resolve to quell the long-running communist insurgency in the country, those “red tagged” as communists by the police often end up dead. Fearing for her life and the lives of other volunteers, Non was forced to close her community pantry after police officers visited her and started asking questions. It took assurances from the city mayor and the head of the country’s Department of the Interior and Local Government for her to reopen.

The temporary closure of Non’s pantry prompted public outrage, which unexpectedly resulted in more food and cash donations, which she used to support other community pantries. Its growing support tacitly indicates the Filipino public’s pushback against the Duterte administration’s unwarranted intimidation.

Batasan Hills, Quezon City (Eyriche Cortez)

Because of limited government assistance, community pantries symbolise national unity born out of necessity – of weary folks finding solace in helping others. From just one community pantry in Metro Manila, by the end of April there were 358 community pantries scattered across the Philippines. Such initiatives are essentially a stopgap measure to help more people survive the socio-economic crisis plaguing the country. The community pantries essentially target these Filipino families who have gotten used to not knowing when their next meal will be. As Non puts it: “If the items in the community pantry ran out, that is a good problem. The goal is for the food to be consumed, not to be displayed.”

But as with other charities, these community pantries may eventually suffer from fatigue and slowly fizzle out, as their sustainability and longevity are not guaranteed. Yet community pantries in the Philippines demonstrate a revolutionary expression of human compassion, political activism and national solidarity that will continue to bring out the best of Filipinos during the worst of times. Philippine Senator Francis Pangilinan regards such initiative as a form of people power against hunger: “It warms the heart. It fills the tummy. I believe that there's no greater power than a united, empathetic action altogether toward one goal.”


India’s power illusion

A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
Published 4 May 2021 13:30   0 Comments

India was proud to boast about being the “world’s pharmacy” as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, particularly after other members in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue asked India to mass-produce Covid-19 vaccines for export across the world. Indeed, high-minded government decrees about India’s exceptionalism have become familiar to close observers in recent times, whether about India becoming the vishwaguru (world teacher) or India transforming into a global economic power. But the bragging has suddenly quietened now.

Less than two months after the Quad leaders gathered, a desperate India, devastated by a mix of arrogant misgovernance and an official aversion to scientific advice, resembles something more like an empty drugstore, run-down and ramshackle as the government pleads internationally for life-saving anti-Covid medicines and regular supplies of oxygen.

New Delhi’s mishandling of the second wave of the pandemic has resulted in a humanitarian disaster. The virus has proved relentless and levelling, poor and privileged alike struggling to find doctors, hospital beds and oxygen, or even the wood and space in crematoriums to burn the dead.

India’s ambassador to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu oversees a shipment of medical aid supplies to India (USAID/Flickr)

The health crisis has reinforced a sceptical view that despite the bold claims, India is not on the rails to becoming a world economic power. India spends a paltry 1.5% of its GDP on healthcare – some estimates put the figure as low as 0.34%. Either way, the spending falls far short of any of India’s partners in the BRICS grouping and nowhere near the 17.7% spent by the United States. Even before the pandemic, figures indicated the rate of poverty and unemployment in the country was at its highest in 45 years.

Covid has crushed all pretence. In March 2020, the sledgehammer lockdown wasted the country’s much-vaunted demographic dividend by precipitating the largest exodus of internal migrants in India since the 1947 partition. Rather than a government caring for its citizens to showcase strength, the image presented to the world was one of administrative incompetence, shambolic health facilities and economic weakness.

The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power.

The crisis has exposed a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government bedevilled by skewed priorities. Massive rallies, for example, were allowed with barely a face mask in sight in the vain hope of snaring power in state elections. In another instance, more than 9 million pilgrims were permitted to attend a Hindu religious gathering. As recently as 22 April, when Delhi’s lockdown was already one week old, the government was touting a US$3 billion project to build a new central vista as a seat of government, including a new parliament and prime ministerial residence, describing the construction as an essential service.

India’s pressures are mounting. Despite border clashes with China last year, money requested to modernise military equipment was cut by 38% in this year’s budget. The decision to remain aloof from economic groupings such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership now look even more foolhardy and together with the Covid crisis could stunt the government’s Indo-Pacific ambitions. China’s latest defence budget is forecast to be US$209 billion, while India’s is $65.9 billion. A long-standing economic advantage has given China a military one.

But the government does not relish such facts. Regrettably, the suppression of the truth, which was a characteristic of Beijing’s tactics to cover up the outbreak of coronavirus in late 2019, is now a method used by New Delhi to hide its own negligence. It recently ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of the government. And people complaining about oxygen shortages have been threatened with seizure of property. But those who failed to build sanctioned oxygen plants seem have got off scot-free.  

New Delhi has also passed the buck to its counterparts at the state level. The central government initially fast-tracked emergency approval for anti-Covid vaccines used in Western countries and Japan, but only a fortnight later, as the number of dead rose, it decided not to import vaccines, saying the states could. But many states do not have the cash to pay for vaccines, having already been entangled in a dispute with the central government over the share and distribution of revenue from the general services tax. Meanwhile, the self-styled global pharmacy has struggled to ramp up vaccine production to meet the urgent demand in India alone.

India’s humanitarian catastrophe is simultaneously a big foreign policy blunder. The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power. A crisis compounded by ineptitude has cruelly increased India’s dependence on foreign assistance and swept away all illusion.


Lockdown déjà vu in the Philippines

A policeman guards the entrance to a Manila neighbourhood under strict quarantine, 16 March (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
A policeman guards the entrance to a Manila neighbourhood under strict quarantine, 16 March (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 Mar 2021 15:00   0 Comments

It’s hard to tell whether the Philippine government intentionally sought to mark exactly one year since 15 March 2020 Metro Manila Covid lockdown by tightening quarantine restrictions once again, first on 15 March and then further on 22 March. New Covid cases have been piling up at an alarming rate recently, with the capital as the epicentre, home to roughly a tenth of the national population. City mayors, with the backing of the administration, resolved to impose stricter checkpoints, a 10pm curfew, and a limit to general public mobility and economic operations. What little difference a year makes as an end to one of the longest lockdown periods in the world becomes that much more unimaginable.

The latest move has been prompted by the abrupt increase in daily average cases (more than 4600), the second-highest in Southeast Asia. The numbers are comparable to the height of transmission last year and show a 113% hike from the end of February to the present. On 18 March, the Philippines recorded its highest-ever number of confirmed infections in a day, at 7103, breaching the 70,000-mark of active cases, the highest since August last year. Two days later, the record was broken once more, as cases in a single day reached 7999. More than 12,000 deaths have been reported. Whereas Indonesia, the country with the most Covid cases in the region, has steadily curbed infections, the Philippines is on the uptick.

Earlier this month, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque exclaimed the “excellent” response of the Philippine government to the public health crisis, compared to developed nations with more modern medical facilities. He also likened the shared experience of the past year to a “vacation”. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte attempted to downplay the return of stricter quarantine impositions, saying it is only a “small matter”.

After a year, you might think a lockdown would be a last resort, an act of desperation – not something done because nothing else had been worked out.

The reality of having spent a year supposedly controlling the disease yet having to resort to the same hastily imposed restrictions speaks volumes. How can the response be “excellent” if the capital is seemingly going back to square one?

Testing for Covid remains an inaccessible privilege for the majority of Filipinos. The vast majority of dedicated vaccination facilities remain run by private enterprises. Duterte himself publicly stated only in November that he had just realised that affordable and accessible testing was important. Civil society groups have been calling for free mass testing since the beginning.

Despite the president’s epiphany and the collective groans of a nation, public services only offer Covid tests for those with symptoms. In private establishments, the cheapest reliable tests are priced at about $52, equivalent to a fifth of a minimum wage earner’s salary in the capital. 

Public officials have also only just begun developing a national system for contact tracing this month. Throughout the past year, local governments have been left to their own devices and resources to address this challenge, resulting in various discrepancies in methods and outcomes.

Vaccine rollout remains snail-paced. Nearly three weeks after acquiring vaccines, 90% of them have been distributed, according to the Department of Health (DOH), but less than half of the entire medical workforce has been inoculated. The DOH assures that the numbers will soar once more of the donated supplies arrive, but there is little more than a scramble for supplies, rather than a definitive plan.

Military officials secure quarantine checkpoints during lockdown in Muntinlupa City, Philippines, May 2020 (Minette Rimando/ILO/Flickr)

It’s no wonder that the capital and possibly the country are facing another lockdown, eerily marking the constraints put in place last year. Chronic mismanagement has left the fundamentals of the public health crisis sorely unaddressed. After a year, you might think a lockdown would be a last resort, an act of desperation – not something done because nothing else had been worked out.

Worse, the return of restrictions looks to carry the same pitfalls it did the first time around. Throughout last year, more than 100,000 individuals were arrested for low-level quarantine violations. Police averaged around a thousand arrests per day nationwide. Just two days after curfew was reinstated, however, the police had arrested 6498 people in Metro Manila alone.

The Duterte administration is doing the same thing as last time, while leaving out what it should be doing, but somehow it expects a different result. The timing is also suspect. Tensions are high, as is the demand for political accountability – reintroducing quarantine policies immobilises the opposition, elevates police power above all and presents the appearance that something is being done.

It seems Duterte is unfazed by the international pressures of seeing neighboring countries far surpass his regime’s efforts in addressing the pandemic. The virus cannot be put in handcuffs, and it will outsmart indolent officials at every turn. As long as these practices remain the standard, the Philippines will have to grapple with its own government’s failures before it can truly make strides for public health.


The Quad gives a boost to India’s vaccine diplomacy

Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2021 13:00   0 Comments

The most notable takeaway from the first-ever “Quad” leaders meeting involving the US, India, Japan and Australia at the weekend was the agreement on expanding the global vaccine supply. The vaccination capacity of India will be increased to produce 1 billion doses by 2022, the leaders announced in a joint statement, as US and Japan plan to fund Indian production of Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which Australia will then distribute across Southeast Asia.

This will undoubtedly boost India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts where it has been providing vaccines to the developing countries, both in its neighbourhood as well as globally. So far 71 countries have received vaccines manufactured in India, fast garnering it the title of “the world’s pharmacy”. Largely, these are developing countries which did not have adequate access to the vaccine.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has won attention for its efforts to make vaccine availability more equitable. There has been criticism that India is working outside the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative in supplying vaccines – although India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rejected the “hypocrisy” of such claims, asking “Which one of these countries have said that while I vaccinate my own people, I will inoculate other people who need it as much as we do?”

The strategic significance of India’s vaccine diplomacy also cannot be overlooked. India is now competing with China in the vaccine diplomacy sphere, as both countries vie for strategic influence in the region. After the troops of both countries disengaged from their borders after a dangerous stand-off last year, their rivalry has now shifted to vaccine diplomacy.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, India has not missed a chance to seek political influence in its region through displays of strategic altruism. The focus on Southeast Asia as a priority region has important geostrategic implications. China has sent more than 60% of its global vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, Beijing has attempted to employ a soft-power strategy in this region to soften the stand of these countries on territorial disputes such as that over the South China Sea.

The Quad leaders meeting held on 12 March (Washington time) was historic, not just because it was the first of its kind, but also because it highlighted how the four countries can realistically cooperate in creating a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. Creating an equitable access to an effective vaccine distribution has now become a central goal of the Quad as outlined by the leaders’ joint statement entitled “The Spirit of the Quad”.

Expanding the global vaccine supply is an important chapter for the Quad because it is an early example of international cooperation in efforts to roll out vaccines to the low- and middle-income countries. Supporting India’s expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity has given the Quad a shot in the arm in its cooperation mechanisms in the region.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region. It is doing so as to not appear too antagonistic, which arguably was one of the reasons that eventually led to the demise of the first iteration of the Quad after early meetings between officials in 2007. The reconstituted Quad is now more in tune with the regional realities in that it is seeking to link its security objectives with prosperity and development objectives.

Yet the focus on vaccine collaboration is not purely to act as a counterbalance to China. Another notable element from the Quad leaders’ meeting was to highlight the willingness for the countries to cooperate in areas of climate change. This recognises that the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific involves a linkage of the security and development needs of the countries in the region and is not solely reliant on one dimension or the other. The Quad leaders’ meeting has promoted a framework that fosters multilevel cooperation.

It is also important to note the historic origins of the Quad as a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when the four countries came together to coordinate disaster relief. The Quad’s initial rationale for multilateral cooperation was essentially for delivering humanitarian assistance, which later evolved into more security-oriented cooperation. In that sense, by focusing on delivering vaccines in the region, the Quad is playing to its strength of cooperating to provide regional assistance.

There has been cautious optimism for the future of Quad since its rebirth in 2017, as it now looking at wide ranging areas of “practical cooperation” that is mutually beneficial to all the countries in the grouping – as well as the wider region.


Vaccine hesitancy and the risks in rural Papua New Guinea

A crowd gathered at Wawoi Falls, Western Province, PNG (Mikaela Seymour)
A crowd gathered at Wawoi Falls, Western Province, PNG (Mikaela Seymour)
Published 5 Mar 2021 06:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact globally, with more than 114 million cases and 2.5 million deaths. With 1365 cases and 14 deaths, Papua New Guinea has fared better than most, even though experts believe the infection rate is much higher than reported. The recent rise in reported cases is prompting additional concern.

PNG’s Health Secretary Osborne Liko has said widespread vaccination is the most effective intervention to fight the virus. In a recent World Health Organisation survey included in the PNG national deployment and vaccination plan for Covid-19, of 1332 Papua New Guineans, 85% were happy to receive a Covid vaccine. However, this data does not distinguish between urban and rural populations who have had different pandemic experiences.

Considering the pandemic’s limited impact in non-urban areas, motivating residents to accept the Covid-19 vaccine may be challenging. For example, in rural Western Province, not much has changed since the pandemic began. Markets are still occurring, gardens are being cultivated, and sago is still being made – life continues much as it did before Covid-19 arrived.

I began work as a doctor in rural outreach patrols in Western Province in January 2020 and returned to Australia in March when the government ordered citizens home. At that time, amid warnings of “bodies in the streets”, the outlook for Covid in PNG was grim. Luckily these predictions have not eventuated.

High vaccine uptake in rural PNG is essential to prevent more aggressive disease and protect its neighbours such as Australia.

In January 2021, I was granted a special exemption to return to Western Province one year after leaving. While Australia has seen multiple lockdowns, border closures and behavioural change, not much evidence of that can be seen here.

In Balimo Hospital, Middle Fly, the Covid-19 ward remains empty. Although some nasopharyngeal swabs are available, as yet no tests have been performed.

In rural aid posts, the health workers wear masks to attend to patients, but they did this before Covid-19 due to the high rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB). Patients are seen in well-ventilated rooms with ripped fly screens and broken windows, or the traditional wood panels held open by sticks, ensuring good ventilation and keeping healthcare workers safe from MDRTB, and likely Covid-19.

The Covid-19 education we deliver focuses on cough etiquette, social distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing. The messages are received calmly, despite almost certain widespread community transmission. At the end of the session, the same question is always asked: “What do we do if we have no soap?” The majority of these villages find it challenging to access shops and do not have a consistent supply. Sustainable Development Project and OkTedi Development Fund have been providing soap since the beginning of the pandemic. Anecdotally, mothers have found diarrhoea, skin disease and “simple cough” have decreased in their children since soap was introduced (diseases that contribute 10.96% and 4.55% of all disability-adjusted life years in PNG).

The health clinic at Wawoi Falls (Mikaela Seymour)

From a front-line worker’s perspective, it is unclear exactly how 80% of the population that lives rurally will be vaccinated. Polio and measles “surge” patrols saw some villages receiving excess doses of vaccines, with incorrect timing of injections and poor record keeping, while many other villages missed out. Avoiding the same mistakes with the Covid-19 vaccination will be essential.

The lack of electricity and refrigeration in most aid posts and the use of cold-chain portable cooler boxes will limit the vaccines’ geographical reach. In 2012, only 41% of PNG clinics physically had a refrigerator, and as few as 40% had any electricity.

Covid-19 vaccine patrols may also generate resentment. Many communities already feel neglected by only seeing maternal and children’s health clinics (MCH) with nothing being done for the MDRTB, leprosy and other chronic disease sufferers. Arriving with another vaccine clinic for a virus that seems inconsequential in day-to-day life will not be received well.

Many mothers already avoid vaccination patrols due to fears around their children having too many injections, and feel they do not require medicine as “they are not sick”. This is despite long term education and promotion of PNG’s extended program for immunisation. These same beliefs will likely translate into adult vaccine hesitancy. Only 49% of children in Western Province receive any vaccination, it is unlikely we’d achieve better results for the adult Covid-19 vaccination.

Without widespread, efficient vaccination there will be ongoing transmission of the virus leading to new variants, as has already been seen in the United Kingdom and South Africa. This may cause an increase in the severity of illness in PNG and may render vaccination campaigns in other Pacific nations less effective, as a new PNG strain could act as a site of re-infection. High vaccine uptake in rural PNG is essential to prevent more aggressive disease and protect its neighbours such as Australia.

Despite the omnipresence of the virus, life in rural Western Province has remained unchanged. Considering the many other health threats rural communities face, it may be hard to convince rural communities to prioritise Covid-19 vaccination. A lack of uptake of vaccines could jeopardise PNG’s ability to reach herd immunity, preventing open international travel and remaining a re-infection risk. Any vaccination campaign must complement existing efforts to strengthen healthcare systems, or it will likely lose the support of the community it is meant to serve.


Vaccine nationalism: Rich nations must also care for the poor

Only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Published 10 Feb 2021 06:00   0 Comments

While the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be the perilous equaliser of humankind, regardless of race and nationality, the vaccine for it however revealed the disturbing inequality between the advanced and developing economies.

In a speech last month, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of the unequal access to vaccines:

More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one low-income country. Not 25 million. Not 25,000. Just 25.

The lone country referred to was Guinea, which inoculated a handful of its senior officials last December. However, nobody was vaccinated after them, which was the reason Our World in Data stopped tracking Guinea’s vaccination efforts since it does not represent “the start of a real national rollout.”

Since January, the majority of the more than 80 million Covid-19 vaccines available worldwide have gone to only a few high and middle-income countries like US, China, Israel, UK and the United Arab Emirates. India is the exception, with its domestic vaccine manufacturing capcity. With their vaccination campaigns underway, wealthy nations have also pre-purchased access to supplies that can cover more than their populations. As a result, high-income countries with only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses.

Such hoarding has left the rest of the world scrambling for supplies, while the low-income economies have no choice but to wait potentially for years to be able to inoculate much of their populations. This is reflective of the unfortunate cycle that repeats itself during a global pandemic: “Rich countries benefit from new health technology first, while poor countries have to wait years or decades for it to trickle to them.” It is estimated that about 85 countries will not have widespread access to the vaccines until 2023, while mass immunisation might not happen until 2024.

Wealthy nations have pre-purchased access to vaccine supplies that can cover more than their populations (U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr)

This is especially true for countries in Southeast Asia. As a high-income economy with a small population, Singapore will likely achieve widespread vaccination by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia are expected to follow suit in 2022, then Indonesia and the Philippines in 2023. However, poorer countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar may not be able to achieve widespread vaccination within the next five years.

To address this concern, a global effort to support the equitable distribution of vaccines was launched called Covax, which carries the largest and most diverse portfolio of Covid-19 shots. More than 190 rich and poor nations signed on to gain access to vaccines to cover 20% of their population. However, this facility is being undermined by many wealthy countries that have also struck “side deals” with pharmaceutical companies to guarantee their supply. Most of these bilateral deals were arranged in advance of the vaccines’ approval, whereas Covax has been hesitant to order stocks prior to approval. This consequently increases vaccine price and reduces the global supply of doses meant for Covax.

Without the vaccines to protect their health, the poor in the developing world will continue to be out of work and have less money to spend, causing a reduction in sales for exporters in North America and Europe.

Such hoarding is reflective of the apparent vaccine nationalism among rich countries, as state leaders prioritise their country over the planet. While understandable, it is nonetheless irresponsible to turn a blind eye on the rest of the world. In fact, vaccine nationalism not only prolongs the global pandemic, but it also delays the world’s economic recovery.

Failure to fully vaccinate developing countries (which comprise more than half of the global population) may cause mutation and new strains of the virus that current vaccines do not protect against. This may lead into future outbreaks that risk reinfecting those wealthy countries that have hoarded vaccine supplies. Vaccine nationalism is also economically counterproductive if poor countries miss out on mass immunisation. Global supply chains, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing industries, will continue to suffer as developing countries struggle to produce raw materials and electronic parts or components needed by multinational companies in advanced economies.

And without the vaccines to protect their health, the poor in the developing world will continue to be out of work and have less money to spend, causing a reduction in sales for exporters in North America and Europe. Such a grim outlook proves that the world’s economy is interconnected and its recovery is dependent on a healthy global economy – and not just of individual rich countries. 

Generally, most of the discussions among advanced economies on how much vaccine they can spare to the developing world (if any at all) are framed as a moral dilemma – balancing their responsibility to their citizens, while considering the global common good. However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research challenges that notion and concludes that the equitable distribution of vaccines is in every country’s public health and economic interest.

International Chamber of Commerce Secretary General John Denton has said “purchasing vaccines for the developing world isn’t an act of generosity. It’s an essential investment for governments to make if they want to revive their domestic economies.” Thus, in their race to vaccinate their people, rich nations should likewise be compelled not to leave their poor neighbors behind.


Helping Indonesia’s children in a time of pandemic

Bogor, West Java. It is reported the Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States (Aditya Aji/AFP via Getty Images)
Bogor, West Java. It is reported the Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States (Aditya Aji/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 2 Feb 2021 13:00   0 Comments

While the Indonesian government is taking important steps to improve pandemic management – appointing a new Health Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and preparing to provide a free vaccine for all – its attention is mostly focused on adults, people with underlying health conditions and the elderly as vulnerable population. As the country grapples with the economic, social and political impacts of Covid-19, there is one group of society that is often missing from discussions: children.

It is reported that Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States. School closures also take a toll on children’s emotional well-being because many in Indonesia cannot access online courses, leading them to miss a grade or even to quit school. This situation worsens when children, at an age where they are supposed to interact with their peers and play at school, stay at home for a long time, coupled with the potential for increased rates of domestic violence in households where parents may have lost jobs.

The unpredictable disruption for many children in Indonesia from Covid-19 extends further. More than 1.2 million workers in both informal and formal sectors have been laid off, resulting in children being lured into labour to help their parents earn an additional income stream. Family circumstances can change quite quickly, and nobody knows what will happen tomorrow to the breadwinner. Middle class families may fall into poverty due to ripple effects of travel bans, a lack of savings and the absence of health insurance.

Now is the time to roll out a universal child benefit by providing a fraction of financial support on a regular basis to buffer relative child poverty.

Before the pandemic, there had been progress for children. Indonesia successfully reduced poverty in 2019 by more than 9% through targeted social protection, such as Bantuan Pangan Non-Tunai (BPNT, or non-cash food assistance) and Program Keluarga Harapan (PKH, or the Family Welfare Program). Under PKH, poor families receive cash transfers on the condition that they have sent their children to school, pregnant mothers have regularly checked in for local health services posts (posyandu), or the family has elderly or disabled family members. Some studies showed that PKH improved students’ attendance at elementary level, and BPNT reached some 96% of female beneficiaries.

However, implementing targeted social protection only benefits families listed as beneficiaries in the national database, which is subject to exclusion or inclusion error fuelled by migration, death, illness or unemployment. There are also incomplete data related to marginalised children, especially disabled children, due to fear of shame in the family. An estimated 49% of Indonesian children under the age of five do not have a birth certificate, putting them in danger of being excluded from registered social assistance.

Moreover, the fact that Indonesia is prone to disaster should justify a program of blanket coverage, because children from any socioeconomic level might lose their parents and legal documents at any time. While the ravages of Covid-19 continue, the world is also being threatened by a hunger pandemic, which could further increase the stunting prevalence among children under five years old.

Resuming posyandu, a government service for monitoring babies and kids’ growth and health, after lockdown (Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr)

There is an answer to these challenges. Now is the time to roll out a universal child benefit (UCB) by providing a fraction of financial support on a regular basis to buffer relative child poverty. UCB is a cash transfer paid regularly to the whole population of children, depending on some eligibility requirements, made by subnational governments. For example, Sabang City in Aceh is piloting the GEUNASEH program to improve nutritional intake of children under six years old through monthly bank transfers of IDR150000 (US$11). In Papua province, UCB is also being piloted by targeting children up to four years old born to indigenous Papuan parents.

A study by UNICEF indicated that UCB can be designed to fulfil both monetary and non-monetary needs of children. In addition to reducing child labour, this large-scale grant is effective in tackling shame associated with being recipients of social assistance. This will result in more confidence among children from disadvantaged families, along with strengthened social cohesion. A previous evaluation of a similar bulk payment scheme has shown providing inclusive pension benefits to all elderly in Aceh special province since 2012 had a significant impact in improving consumption and mental wellbeing.

Levying a one-off wealth tax from the top 1% could compensate for the loss of public revenue. 

UCB has been implemented in 15 OECD countries. But only a handful of middle-income and lower-income countries are in favour of UCB, due to fiscal constraints. Although economic growth in Indonesia across 2020 has stabilised, the government has said it will prioritise its national budget allocation to economic recovery programs. In light of this, there are three strategies that could be pursued to expand the fiscal space for implementing a UCB in Indonesia.

First, levying a one-off wealth tax from the top 1% could compensate for the loss of public revenue. Argentina has passed a so-called “millionaire’s tax” to fund medical supplies and relief measures. The UK government has started to discuss how a net-worth tax could work, based on the report from the independent Wealth Tax Commission’s proposal that this initiative could raise up to £260 billion. A wealth tax can also narrow the inequality gap, because there are income-poor but asset-rich groups in the society, such as the wealthy who have retired elderly.

Second, Indonesia can seek to optimise the role of subnational government in spending Dana Desa (village fund transfer) for child-sensitive budgets. The Indonesian government, through Law no. 6 of 2014, aims to empower villages by allocating some state budget to be managed directly by these villages. This Dana Desa is projected to increase every year. The subnational governments should pass a bill concerning child-sensitive budgets as political buy-in, followed by a UCB rollout and monitoring by village heads, government officials, faith-based leaders and civil society groups to ensure its transparency. 

A third approach is leveraging public-private partnership, such as through corporate social responsibility programs. In addition, engaging Islamic philanthropy can also be a good idea given the rapid growth of zakat (alms-giving) sector in Indonesia. Some provinces, such as Aceh Special Province, even obligate civil servants to pay zakat through a specific qanun (regional regulation subjected to Islamic stipulation). 

If a silver lining from the experience of Covid-19 in Indonesia can be found, it might be by experimenting with UCB to safeguard the sustainability of children’s well-being during the recovery and beyond. After all, today’s children will be the citizens of tomorrow. The Indonesian government should display a strong political will and commitment to fulfil children’s rights and potential.


Covering the Covid shock on The Interpreter in 2020

A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
Published 24 Dec 2020 06:00   0 Comments

From the first days in January this year, the question that dominated the outbreak was how upfront Beijing had been about the novel coronavirus that became known as Covid-19. Richard McGregor:

So far, the handling of the crisis seems to have underlined one of the ongoing problems with the authoritarian strictures of the party-state, which places a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability … Could the virus have been contained, and its spread limited, if officials in Wuhan had levelled with both their bosses, and the public, earlier? It is impossible to say, but at the moment, it certainly looks that way.

Still, the warning signs about the rapid spread of the virus – and what would result in more than 1.7 million deaths so far – did not translate into public trust, particularly in already politically stressed Hong Kong. Vivienne Chow:

An unprecedented level of panic is caused not just by fear, but by the lack of trust. Reactions of the people of Hong Kong and the international community are a vote of no confidence in the authorities’ abilities to protect people and contain the virus. Authorities here are not only the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments, but also the World Health Organisation, which is supposed to “lead partners in global health responses”.

Australia began to react with travel restrictions, buying time at a cost to the education and tourist industries, but Dominic Meagher warned “that time must now be used effectively”.

Three things must be done: eliminate panic, develop some form of treatment, vaccine, or cure, and put in place more sustainable policies to slow down the virus.

But by late February politics and prejudice had complicated the response around the world over. Audrey Jiajia Li:

With 28 countries so far reporting confirmed cases of the virus, caution over the mysterious deadly illness is expected and natural. Yet it is important to emphasise that Chinese people are the victims, not the culprits, of this epidemic.

South KoreaEurope, the United States, India and almost everywhere saw spiking rates of infection. The Tokyo Olympics were soon abandoned, Indonesia struggled and Pacific island nations feared the danger as lockdowns spread. Leaders felt the pressure to rise to the occasion. Michael Fullilove:

There has been a lot of discussion about the communications tools, including websites and texts, that governments are employing to speak with their nations about the coronavirus pandemic … The media noise being generated about Covid-19 is deafening – but the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can penetrate it.

And by the end of March, it was increasingly clear the virus would hold momentous consequences for the world. Daniel Flitton

The crisis will affect everything in some way, whether budget assumptions, global supply chains, or the trappings of power … drastic change [may be] later assimilated into a “new normal”, the point was still a major readjustment and far-reaching – and lasting – implications not only for the community, but also for relations between nations.

So The Interpreter examined the cross-cutting influence of the virus had on existing international challenges, whether the Hong Kong protest movement, poverty in India or the Philippines, migrant workers in Singapore, insurgency in Thailand, fighting the remnants of Islamic State, conflict in Afghanistan or tensions on the Korean peninsula. The crisis had a disproportionate impact on women, while the cost to the global economy was also manifesting. Roland Rajah:

The social distancing required to slow the virus – both voluntary and mandated by governments – means the economic hit is going to be large, and there’s probably not much that traditional demand-stimulus policies can do to materially counter it. In part, that’s because people won’t go out to spend the money, but it’s also because the virus is an intensifying supply-side shock as well – with big disruptions to normal business activity and many workers pulled out of work, either for health reasons or as workplaces and schools are temporarily shut down.

And if a first step to combating a problem is first understanding it, disinformation and conspiracy online was certainly no help. Natasha Kassam:

The dilution of information on the internet is currently posing a risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher.

Austin, Texas (Ampersand72/Flickr)

Bright spots emerged. Enterprising Indonesians mixed their own hand sanitiser, and Bob Kelly – aka BBC Dad – had some helpful advice for those staring at a Zoom meeting working from home:

This will be a slog for the next several months, and my guess is that for all the convenience of telework, most people will enjoy going back to an office when this situation finally breaks.

Nick Bisley wondered at the future power dynamics in Asia. Mark Beeson asked what the crisis might hold for the vaunted international order?

Any of the big issues that collectively confront us – including climate change, economic disadvantage, and, of course, controlling pandemics – would seem to necessitate some form of institutionalised international collaboration.

Countries raced to develop vaccines while wrestling with the rights to privacy when tracing the virus spread. The future design of cities was questioned, we wondered about spies and the warning signs, protecting political leaders from the virus or whether they could strike a global bargain to do better next time?

Jennifer Hsu charted the growing power China’s Xi Jinping amid the pandemic, while Erin Hurley watched Donald Trump shrivel before the challenge. Meantime, Stephen Howes urged the world to remember those most vulnerable:

Covid-19 is hitting at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since the end of the Second World War. What if the virus takes hold in a massive refugee camp in Africa, the Middle East or Asia?

Should the world have been better prepared? Shahar Hameiri:

Used to financing and implementing limited interventions far from home, developed states’ governments were suddenly fighting huge contagions on the home front, for which they were often poorly prepared. And since very limited collective capacity had developed previously, their full focus immediately turned inwards, thus producing a fragmented, “zero-sum” response globally.

Or did the world overreact? Ramesh Thakur:

Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.

Perhaps, in the end, planning doesn’t matter. Gordon Peake and Christian Downie:

Magnified exponentially by these last few weeks, there seems something both absurd yet strangely comforting about feeling emboldened enough to guess a course for endpoints years away … [looking back] planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future.

Let’s see in 2021 if nature cares that humans can count in years.


Main image via Flickr user 7C0


Avoiding a “lost decade” in the Pacific

Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Published 16 Dec 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The horror year that has been 2020 is thankfully coming to an end with a dose of welcome optimism, now that vaccines are on the way. But the end is still far from within sight for many of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours.

In a new Lowy Institute policy brief, we argue that the Pacific is staring at a potential “lost decade”, owing to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. Many more Pacific islanders will be left unable or struggling to meet their basic needs, and the prospects for a more stable, prosperous and secure region will be greatly reduced.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific.

None of this scenario would be in Australia’s interests and would reflect poorly on the country as a friend in the region. Australia should do all that it reasonably can to avoid it.

Remoteness has helped the Pacific escape the worst of the health implications from the pandemic. Yet the grim reality is that the economic devastation is still set to be among the most severe anywhere in the world. This is owing to the region’s heavy reliance on key income sources badly affected by the crisis, especially international tourism, and the inability of Pacific governments to mount anywhere near the fiscal firepower needed to limit the damage, as richer nations have done. Fiji’s tourism-dependent economy is the worst affected and expected to contract by more than 20%.

The costs of the crisis are also likely to be especially long-lasting. By our projections, average income per person in the Pacific will not recover to its 2019 level until 2028 – a Pacific lost decade. And there remain plenty of downside risks to this outlook.

While overcoming the pandemic is the top priority, fiscal stimulus will be the key to enabling a strong post-pandemic recovery. We estimate that the Pacific will need at least A$5 billion (US$3.5 billion) over the next few years in additional stimulus spending to fully recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Most would need to go towards productive investments that can be quickly scale up in areas such as infrastructure, capital maintenance and climate change adaptation. Some should also go towards social priorities (for which the economic pay-off is more long term) such as health, education and income support for struggling households.

Pacific governments will not be able to finance this themselves – having little access to private capital markets and being reliant on overseas aid. It will therefore fall to the region’s development partners to play the leading role in financing the Pacific’s recovery.

Expanded international debt relief could play a useful role in some Pacific island economies to free up the necessary resources. This mostly relates to large loans from China to Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. Increased financing from the multilateral development banks is also an option via either the adoption of less conservative capital adequacy rules or new financial contributions from donor governments.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific. The Australian government is already doing a lot. It has in particular already increased its international financial assistance via the establishment of a special A$300 million Covid-19 response package for the Pacific and committed half a billion dollars to roll out vaccines in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Unloading Australian-funded Covid-19 response supplies in Honiara, Solomon Islands in April (DFAT/Flickr)

These are significant measures. Nonetheless, it still does not come close to matching the scale of a once-in-a-century crisis nor Australia’s interest in minimising the damage this inflicts to the region.

We argue Australia should establish a $2 billion Covid-19 recovery financing facility for the Pacific. Australia normally provides about 40% of all financial assistance to the region, so this would be in line with Australia’s “fair share” and role as the Pacific’s leading development partner.

The facility should provide funding in the form of outright grants as much as possible. However, as political appetite may be limited, the use of appropriately structured loans is also feasible as a lower cost option in helping reach the full scale of financing required. From a Pacific debt sustainability perspective, the economic returns from recovery spending can offset the cost of increased future debt service payments associated with borrowing to finance the recovery.

The arguments for Australia establishing a recovery financing facility for the Pacific are similar to those justifying the huge increase in domestic Australian government spending that has taken place in response to the pandemic – historically low long-term government borrowing costs and high returns to investing in the recovery now, in order to avoid the far worse alternative of allowing economies, and societies, to be permanently set back.

Having made its own fair share contribution, Australia would then be in a strong position to advocate for others in the international community also to step up in helping the Pacific avoid a lost decade.


Putting real Australian money on the table to help Indonesia

Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Nov 2020 12:00   1 Comments

Australia is lending A$1.5 billion to Indonesia to help it get through the economic crisis unleashed by Covid-19. This is welcome news and another sign of Australia stepping up to assist key partners in the region during an extraordinary global crisis.

The Australian loan will help the Indonesian government finance its budget deficit. As in all countries, effective response to the pandemic-induced recession requires a massive increase in the government budget deficit. Earlier in the year, Indonesia’s ability to finance this was extremely uncertain. Indonesia experienced violent capital outflows in March and April as investors worldwide reacted to the scale of the unfolding crisis. Foreign investors dumped Indonesia’s government bonds, and the rupiah plummeted. Because foreign investors normally fund a large part of the budget deficit, this threatened a severe problem. Thankfully by mid-year the outflows had subsided. But inflows never really returned in the way needed, especially given the substantially enlarged budget deficit that required financing.

With limited international help available, the Indonesian government turned to Bank Indonesia, the central bank, to directly fund a large part of the budget deficit. At the time, this was a big gambit. Unconventional monetary policy, in various forms, was already the norm in many advanced economies. But the idea that emerging economies could also engage in such practices without triggering an even more negative market reaction and further currency depreciation was not widely accepted.

In the end, the market reaction was muted. Perhaps because investors had already acclimated to the extraordinary policy actions of rich country central banks and accepted this as a relevant emergency response to the pandemic. Or perhaps it simply reflects the search for yield triggered by those enormous injections of liquidity that only assets in emerging markets can satisfy. Regardless, Indonesia had found a financial lifeline, even if this still carried some of its own risks.

A shipment of medical personal protective equipment from Australia to Indonesia in August (Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)

So where does the Australian loan fit in?

I have advocated for some time that Australia should be willing to extend Indonesia a large standby loan facility, prospectively for as much as A$15 billion, in response to the pandemic crisis, which could be drawn upon if Indonesia had difficulty financing its budget deficit. This would have been a scaled-up version of previous A$1 billion standby facilities, ultimately never drawn upon, that Australia had provided Indonesia during past episodes of global market turmoil in 2008–09 and 2013.

The idea of a standby loan was to serve as an insurance policy. It would help to boost market confidence – making it easier for Indonesia to raise funds from the market – while providing an assured source of funding should this be needed. Such a facility would be particularly useful if there were another serious dislocation in global financial markets, especially as this could make relying so heavily on budget financing from Bank Indonesia much more difficult.

The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead mean Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time.

In the end, Australian assistance has taken the form of an outright loan for A$1.5 billion. This is not enough to be a game changer for Indonesia, which needs to raise as much as US$10 billion each month. But it will help. And there are several reasons discussions between Australia and Indonesia could have led to this particular outcome – a moderately larger loan than in the past but provided on an outright, rather than standby, basis.

On the Australian side, there would likely have been some political reluctance to providing a multi-billion dollar facility, given Australia is also battling its own domestic recession. In reality, the facility could be structured to come at little or no cost to the Australian budget. But the “sticker shock” may still have been too much for the government’s domestic political calculus. If this was the main limitation, then a standby loan of only A$1–1.5 billion would have been too small, given the scale of the current crisis. It would have been a minimal gesture on the part of Australia, simply keeping up with what had been done on previous occasions. Whereas an outright loan represents a bigger commitment by putting real Australian money on the table.

Indonesian preferences would also have been very important. President Joko Widodo may have preferred the tangible outcome of an immediate loan rather than the abstract insurance-like benefit of a larger standby loan facility. More generally, Indonesia’s policymakers now seem more focused on containing the government’s rising interest bill – which will reduce the space available for priority development spending such as infrastructure investment – rather than managing the risk of another severe bout of capital outflows. The interest rate on the bilateral loan has not yet been disclosed but will likely be quite cheap compared to Indonesia’s normal borrowing costs. It will also reduce some of the burden on Bank Indonesia in helping to fund the budget deficit.

Australia could arguably do more to assist. The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead means Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time while another bout of severe capital outflows remains a risk, even if this seems to have substantially receded for now.

Overall, however, the announced loan is a sensible and welcome step-up in Australian support.


In post-Covid recovery, hidden costs of going green

There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
Published 12 Nov 2020 07:00   1 Comments

Amid concerted global efforts to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a growing interest in promoting a “green recovery”. Green recovery encourages a closer link between economic restoration and transition towards a more sustainable economic model which includes more ambitious climate policy and renewable energy. While the concept is appealing in theory, the international community needs to pay attention to its potential risks, particularly for developing countries.

The idea for green recovery has strong support from European countries. In June, Germany unveiled a fiscal stimuli package which included US$46 billion of special allocation to support investments in sustainable economic activities. The European Union adopted an environmentally friendly recovery plan, which was widely seen as a continuation of the European Green Deal, which has an aim to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050.  

International financial institutions have also pledged their support for green recovery. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, has announced the availability of $1 trillion in lending capacity, along with its commitment to promote the green recovery. Some countries and international NGOs began to advocate for the adoption of green recovery as a globally accepted path for post-coronavirus economic revival, among others through the 5th Session of the UN Environment Assembly, to be held in Kenya next year.

But how do developing countries, such as Indonesia, see the green recovery concept?

A report titled “Asia’s lamentable green response” by the ING Group criticised Southeast Asian countries for not sufficiently including green stimulus measures in economic recovery packages. Developing countries, many of which have to deal with severe environmental problems, indeed understand that the green recovery is relevant to contemporary development challenges. It will attract more investment in long-term sustainable projects and help reduce their dependence on extractive industries and commodity sectors.

There is plenty of enthusiasm about the potential of a green recovery, to both revive the economy and build resilience. Indonesia, for example, offers tax incentives for investment in renewable energy to help meet a renewable energy target of 23% by 2025, along with $47.6 billion fiscal stimuli.

Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage.

However, there are some concerns about the unintended risks of green recovery. Although green recovery is initially intended as a domestic economic strategy, the implementation of green recovery in one country could have a lasting impact on other countries through trade and investment relations. Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage. Developing countries are lacking financial and technological capabilities to match developed countries in assisting their green sector.

Moreover, specific subsidies and support to the green recovery, such as for research and development, could be inconsistent with World Trade Organisation rules. Together with new standards and regulations in a greening global economy, the extensive subsidies for the green economy will only make developed countries more economically competitive than developing countries. Imposing policies inconsistent with non-discrimination principles for the sake of environmental protection is possible under Article XX (b) and (g) of the WTO. However, the application of such environment-related trade measures will add a further burden to developing countries that are experiencing a drastic decline in export volumes.

Also, there has always been a great debate determining what amounts to an environmental good. Crop-based biofuels, such as from palm oil, for example, are considered environmental goods by developing countries, as they can be used as suitable alternatives to fossil fuels. In contrast, the EU has its own classification on which biofuels are sustainable or not. As a result, there is a potential for irreconcilable views on whether subsidising biofuels can be categorised as one of the green recovery projects.

A harvest of palm oil fruit to be trucked for processing in Indonesia (Stratman²/Flickr)

The international community should take coordinated action to mitigate the unexpected consequences of green recovery, as well as exchange views on how the green recovery concept can be beneficial for all countries, especially by discussing the following three matters.

First, international forums and international organisations should develop widely accepted regulation and guiding principles which will prevent green recovery from creating trade barriers, new environmental standards and unfair subsidies. None must merely use the green recovery as a tool to gain market access using environment pretence.

Second, international support needs to be made available to enhance developing countries’ capacity to harness economic opportunities within the global green economy. Indeed, in recent years some emerging economies have become increasingly prominent producers of environmental goods and renewable energy. In aggregate, however, the green market is still dominated by multinational corporations based in developed countries. Companies from developing countries, especially small businesses, face enormous challenges in meeting complex environmental standards of the green market.

In that context, programs such as “Aid for Trade” need to offer a specific project to help developing countries build trade capacity and resilience in producing and exporting green products. Through Aid for Trade and other similar activities, developing countries can be integrated more into global supply chains of green technologies, particularly by supplying intermediate inputs to high-tech green products produced by developed countries.

Third, the international community needs to develop a multilateral framework to help least-developed countries raise resources for green recovery, including through debt restructuring. These countries have tremendous difficulty in mobilising funds for sustainable economic activities, due to weak fiscal capacity and substantial external debts. One example of debt restructuring is debt-for-environment swaps, in which donors or international financial institutions agree to annul part or all of the outstanding debt in exchange for spending in environmental preservation. 

Most of all, the green recovery strategy should include perspectives of developing countries to anticipate its unintended consequences better. Accommodating concerns of developing countries through constructive dialogue is crucial to ensure broad support for the global implementation of a green recovery.


Main image courtesy of Flickr user Engineering for Change.


Singapore and Sri Lanka: Newfound opportunities amid Covid-19 pandemic

Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Published 27 Oct 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Photos of empty supermarket shelves became commonplace in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutting down of borders and decreasing trade have affected many countries, especially those that heavily rely on imports and exports.

It is understandable that countries may restrict the flow of goods including food to safeguard their own interests during a crisis. For instance, Vietnam temporarily halted rice exportation to ensure that there was sufficient food consumption food domestically.

“Food security” is measured through the accessibility of food and the ability of an individual to have access to it. Singapore is a compelling example. Although it has been ranked as the most food-secure country in Asia Pacific under the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2019 Asia Pacific regional report, Singapore is susceptible to disruptions in the global supply chains since it imports more than 90% of its food. Singapore has witnessed how the uncertainty has triggered panic and resulted in hoarding of household supplies. It took contingency plans by issuing a joint ministerial statement with six Asia-Pacific countries in March 2020 to keep the global supply chains intact to enable the flow of goods during the pandemic.

New area of cooperation for Singapore and Sri Lanka

Covid-19 has opened new opportunities for Singapore and Sri Lanka to collaborate. The Singapore government has donated medical supplies including test kits, thermal scanners, surgical masks, surgical gloves, medical goggles and non-contact infrared thermometers to assist Colombo to keep the pandemic at bay. The two countries have also worked closely together to repatriate Sri Lankans stranded in Singapore. Singapore wants to project itself as a dependable and resourceful partner that taking the initiative to assist others in times of need.

This extends to food security. A webinar organised by officials in Colombo and Singapore in July to discuss agribusiness and digitalisation was an effort by the two countries to strengthen their relations in food management. Their long-standing trade relations have been exemplified by the high total volume of total US$883 million in 2019. Singapore was also Colombo’s fifth biggest investor in the same year.

Singapore in February: Rice, bread, noodles and vegetables, and of course toilet paper, were highly prized items in the early days of the pandemic (cattan2011/Flickr)

Many Singapore organisations have sought opportunities in Colombo’s growth sectors, including food and beverage, tourism, infrastructure and consumer goods. There are approximately 100 Singaporean companies operating in Colombo. Prima group was the first Singapore company to set up operations in Sri Lanka as early as 1977 and has become a household name over the years. It has also made Trincomalee its South Asia hub. In 2018, several local businesses signed MoUs to establish their presence in Colombo. For instance, Art Holdings signed an agreement with Beijing Genome Institute to set up a crab farm in Sri Lanka.

Despite the challenges, Covid-19 has propelled countries to reimagine existing opportunities and leverage new ones. Colombo, a key exporter of rubber, tea and fresh/processed food, has been affected by the disruptions in the global supply chains. The new area of cooperation between Singapore and Colombo is likely to benefit both countries. As Singapore tries to diversify its food imports to remain as food secure as possible, Colombo is seeking to capture new markets, along with regaining the lost ones.

A stepping stone for Sri Lanka’s economy

Following the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s landslide victory in this year’s parliamentary elections, Colombo is likely to adopt an Asia-centric foreign policy. The government’s reorientation also reflects a change in the balance of powers that is moving eastwards. Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage has said that Colombo should focus on its neighbourhood and move away from Western-centric diplomacy.

Asian countries may be better positioned to assist Colombo to reduce its foreign debt and boost economic spending. The current government is of the view that forming strategic partnerships with Asian countries could pose fewer challenges than with its Western counterparts, who are more inclined to raise issues of human rights.

Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.

Historically Sri Lanka has focused heavily garment exports to the West. However, its economy that is highly dependent on tourism, exports of garments and foreign worker remittances, has contracted further since the Covid-19 pandemic. Although senior analysts Hemant Shivakumar has said that the government’s pivot towards its neighbourhood would not happen by jeopardising its relations with Western countries, it cannot wholly rely on the US and European Union as the main export destinations for its garments industry.  

Although the agricultural sector has contributed relatively less to the GDP, it has employed approximately a third of the labour force, especially among the rural population. The new area of collaboration between Singapore and Sri Lanka in food security could be a stepping stone for Colombo to develop its local economy and increase its food exports to other Asian markets that are trying to remain as food secure as possible.

China is another key market, given that it has seen major food shortages in the past. Although Beijing has made substantial improvements to increase its agricultural capacity, it still faces threats to food security. Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.


In Bangladesh, Covid adds to a list of maladies

Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Published 1 Oct 2020 07:00   1 Comments

The Covid-19 situation has had a devastating effect on the local economy, the brunt being borne by the country’s export-oriented garments industry. It has propelled owners of various businesses – and that includes the media sector – into showing employees the door, and with rising unemployment follows idleness, and broader consequences unimagined.

Official statistics place the number of those affected by the coronavirus, so far, in Bangladesh almost 360,000. More than 5100 people have died from Covid-19, though there are reasons to believe the figures could be much higher. A particular problem in tackling Covid-19 has been the propensity on the part of large sections of the population to ignore instructions, such as wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. The capital Dhaka remains notorious in that little consideration is being given to the regular instructions handed out by the authorities on warding off Covid-19. Crowds are still seen gathering in markets and roadside tea stalls, with little thought to the ramifications of such unhindered movement.

The malady has not spared a number of prominent Bangladeshis. Among the casualties have been academics, writers, journalists, artists, civil servants, policemen and military personnel. On Sunday, the country’s attorney general died of the disease, which is one more hint of the way in which Covid-19 has been ravaging the country. Yet the disease has also intersected with climate change–induced challenges, which also pose a major threat to the densely populated nation. Indeed, this was a point Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made in a recent article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper and also in her virtual address before the 75th session of the UN General Assembly.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (on screens) addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly on 26 September (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

That said, there have been the rather unsavoury truths making the rounds in Bangladesh’s Covid-19 narrative. In recent weeks, corruption related to Covid-19–negative certificates being issued by some hospitals, prominent among which is Regent Hospital, has been exposed to obvious public consternation. The hospital, whose owner is now in prison and who before the scandal broke appeared to be connected to influential people across the spectrum, was caught giving out false certificates to people seeking tests for the disease, without actually doing the tests. The scandal led to bigger questions, specifically on the role of the nation’s health directorate in granting permission to such hospitals, no questions asked and no inquiries undertaken, to handle coronavirus circumstances.

As if Covid-19 weren’t enough, the country has been under intense pressure in other areas. A growing closeness to China has led to a diplomatic strain, displeasing India. Dhaka and Delhi have traditionally had close ties, but recent strains brought on by India’s failure to conclude a water-sharing treaty over the Teesta river and the Indian government’s move for a national register of citizens in its north-eastern region have become pretty pronounced. Fears have persisted in Bangladesh that the citizens’ register introduced by New Delhi could be a move towards pushing into the country people the Indians believe are Bangladeshis who over the years have settled illegally in such Indian states as Assam.

Many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the Belt and Road Initiative are none too favourable.

With China, Bangladesh’s relations have been warming in recent years. Development projects have been undertaken with Chinese assistance, factors which predictably have India worried. Bangladesh is also a recipient of Chinese military equipment, which is another cause for worry in New Delhi. Besides, the Chinese have been keen to draw Bangladesh into its Belt and Road Initiative, which again is disturbing, for many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the BRI are none too favourable.

For Bangladesh, the urgent requirement is keeping a balance in its diplomacy, a good reason being its belief that China, India and even Russia could be instrumental in a resolution of the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar. With as many as 1.1 million Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s south-eastern Cox’s Bazar region and with little sign of a solution to the problem, Bangladesh is in a straitjacket.

Add to those worries the demand by Saudi Arabia that the 54,000 Rohingyas currently in the kingdom be provided with Bangladesh passports. These Rohingyas have in the past two decades made their way to Saudi Arabia through various means and clearly are not part of the Bangladeshi population. But this demand by the Saudis is concerning for Dhaka, which has 2,200,000 of its workers in the kingdom and whose remittances make an important contribution to Bangladesh’s foreign exchange basket. If now the Saudis tie the continued stay of the workers in the kingdom to the question of a grant of passports to the 54,000 Rohingyas, Bangladesh will feel a new pressure that it will find hard to handle.


Building a Covid vaccine strategy for Australia

Any Covid-19 vaccine that reaches the market is likely to be imperfect at best (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Any Covid-19 vaccine that reaches the market is likely to be imperfect at best (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Published 22 Sep 2020 10:00   0 Comments

This month, Australia signed a partnership with AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company behind the University of Oxford’s proposed Covid-19 vaccine, securing the rights to locally manufacture the vaccine, should it meet safety and efficacy requirements. The Oxford vaccine group has been one of the forerunners in the global race to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, with at least 25 additional vaccine candidates undergoing clinical trials globally, and more than 100 in earlier stages of development.

But as the prospects of a viable vaccine become increasingly within reach, focus is now shifting to what a Covid vaccination strategy should and would look like.

While Australian leaders have set an impressive target of 95% vaccine coverage, limitations in manufacturing and distribution are likely to see a staggered roll-out of any new vaccine. And if so, as we seek to tackle a disease that unashamedly discriminates along lines of socioeconomic class, race and comorbidity, how do we choose who gets vaccinated first?

Three key considerations should guide an effective and equitable vaccine distribution strategy for Australia – and how Australia helps its neighbours.

An imperfect vaccine – letting go of the idea of the silver bullet

Unlike the panacea many are wishing for, any Covid-19 vaccine that reaches the market is likely to be imperfect at best. This requires a paradigm shift in our expectations of a Covid vaccination strategy.

The influenza vaccine is probably the most useful comparison – with effectiveness estimated at between 30–60% (in preventing local doctor or hospital presentations with influenza), and requiring annual vaccination to reflect changes in circulating viral strains, the fluvax is hardly a silver bullet in influenza prevention. Vaccines for coronavirus are likely to face similar limitations in effectiveness and duration of protective effect.

A Covid-19 vaccination strategy will be far from a one-shot wonder and instead will require a long-term commitment to viral suppression.

However, unlike the fluvax, the objective of a Covid-19 vaccination strategy will be to achieve herd immunity, where the proportion of individuals with immunity to the virus is sufficiently high as to halt viral transmission. Estimates to date have indicated that around 2 in 3 people would need to be immune to Covid-19 to achieve herd immunity.

How many people would actually need to receive the vaccine to achieve this level of protective immunity is still unclear, and depends on how effective the vaccine is in generating a protective immune response. Simulations from the US suggest that for a vaccine that is 80% effective, 75% of people would need to be vaccinated. However, a less effective vaccine may need near complete coverage in the community, raising a broader question as to the ethics of mandating vaccination.

Evidence to date also suggests that the immune response to vaccination is likely to wane with time, meaning that regular repeat vaccinations are likely to be necessary. In any sense, a Covid-19 vaccination strategy will be far from a one-shot wonder, and instead will require a long-term commitment to viral suppression.

An unequal virus – who gets the vaccine first?

Viruses may not be able to choose their hosts, but the past six months has unreservedly shown that Covid-19 discriminates. Indeed, data from the US, where the virus has run an aggressive and widely disseminated course, has revealed higher incidence rates of Covid-19 among racial and ethnic minority groups and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, with concentrated outbreaks occurring in prisons and aged-care facilities.

It is on this backdrop of inequity that focus is now shifting to developing a priority model for distributing a Covid-19 vaccine within Australia. Traditional approaches to planning mass vaccination for pandemics such as influenza have focused on vaccinating those at highest risk of severe infection and mortality (such as those with underlying health conditions) and individuals such as healthcare workers who have high risk of exposure and may serve as vectors for transmission.

Australian leadership in supporting vaccine access and distribution within for Asia-Pacific neighbours is likely to advance broader diplomatic interests (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)

Models for a Covid-19 vaccine largely draw from these principles but are undoubtedly shrouded in ethical complexity. Even if a tiered approach for vaccine access is devised, such as to prioritise essential workers or individuals with multiple medical issues, ongoing attention will be necessary to ensure individuals from minority groups are not left behind. This will rely on extensive engagement with community leaders to ensure accessible, culturally appropriate (and correctly translated) information, and will require vaccine distribution to go hand-in-hand with a comprehensive surveillance strategy.

Neighbourly duties – investing in leadership in the Asia-Pacific

Finally, in a time when national introspection has become the norm, Australia has the opportunity to assert itself as a leader and advocate within the Asia-Pacific.

Amid increasing geopolitical uncertainty, Australian leadership in supporting vaccine access and distribution within for Asia-Pacific neighbours is likely to advance broader diplomatic interests, as well as demonstrate a commitment to global health equity.

While Australia has successfully negotiated access to the intellectual property of the Oxford vaccine, a lower “ability-to-pay” and/or lack of manufacturing capacity may preclude similar access for other nations. Australia has indicated a willingness to roll out a working vaccine to Pacific island nations and countries in Southeast Asia. Harnessing this opportunity for collaboration has potential to build stronger Asia-Pacific ties, and at the same time may allow for earlier resumption of travel within the region.

Indeed, as Australia stands on the precipice of the next phase of the Covid challenge, the choices we make in building our vaccine strategy will be best measured by those it leaves behind.


Australia needs the workers, the Pacific needs the jobs

G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
Published 27 Aug 2020 07:00   1 Comments

Finding a consistent stream of agricultural labour in Australia has long proved a challenge. With Australians often unwilling to accept this type of work in the numbers required to get food to market, the government has sought to use visa schemes to remedy the problem, welcoming foreign labour. Yet in doing so, they have pivoted the industry’s labour market towards one specific visa category, and created an unfair competition between different visa holders. This situation now has serious implications for Australia’s foreign policy.

First, a little history. In 2005, the government thought it had struck upon an innovative solution to its agricultural labour shortage problem. Thousands of young and physically capable people entered Australia each year through its Working Holiday Maker scheme (known as the “backpacker visa”). This visa is open to people aged between 18 and 30 from European, North American and East Asian countries, allowing them to work in Australia for a year (citizens of Canada, France and Ireland have an age limit of 35). The scheme proved incredibly popular, and many people used it as an opportunity to advance their careers or find a pathway towards permanent settlement in Australia.

Capitalising on this sentiment, the Australian government decided to offer the chance to gain a second year-long visa if people first spend three months working in the agricultural industry in a rural setting. Subsequently a third year-long visa was made available after a further six months of agricultural labour.

Yet the upshot was to completely skew the agricultural labour market towards a group who weren’t actually committed to the regions they were working in – people who would simply disappear after meeting their minimum requirements. At the same time, it created a captured market for employers. This led to numerous instances of worker exploitation in both wages and conditions.

Fast forward to the present and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the restrictions on movement to Australia have meant the reliance on this visa group has also created a serious labour shortage in the agricultural industry.

In competition with these backpackers is one of the central pillars of Australia’s “Pacific Step-up”, the Seasonal Workers Program (although the scheme itself pre-dates the “Step-up” branding). The seasonal workers program aims to create agricultural job for citizens of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours, as well as those of Timor-Leste.

Tomatoes on the vine, Queensland, Australia (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Providing labour market access to developed economies for the citizens of developing nations has long been understood as the most effective – and least paternalistic – tool to enhance their livelihoods. Pacific Island governments have sought such access for some time. In contrast to backpackers, these seasonal workers return each harvesting season, understand the requirements of the work, and because they are supporting families in their home countries ­– rather than just ticking a box ­­– are regard as more committed and productive

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours.

According to the World Bank, following several months within the seasonal workers program, Pacific Islanders typically send back around $8,000 (US$5,700) to their families in their respective countries. This can be as much as three years worth of wages that they would earn at home. Tongans are the largest group who utilise the seasonal workers program, in per capita terms, and it has been estimated that their net earnings exceed the combination of Australia aid to Tonga and Tonga’s exports to Australia – an indication of why the scheme is so valued through the Pacific.

Yet the seasonal workers program has significant barriers to entry for agricultural businesses. Employers must be pre-approved by the government, and all positions they have must face labour market testing. Employers also must also provide accommodation, and be responsible for worker welfare outside of work hours. This helps mitigate against the chance of exploitation (although not completely), but it also leads some employers to baulk at using the program for their labour needs, seeing the framework around the scheme as too burdensome, especially when hiring backpackers involves none of these provisions.

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours. With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating the region’s tourism industry, the seasonal workers program will be even more vital for Pacific Islanders once borders gradually reopen.

Yet Australia should be looking for more ways to further encourage the agricultural industry to use the program to meet their labour needs. The most obvious solution would be to reconfigure the backpackers visa to reduce its agricultural components. However, the visa should not be completely abolished, as some unions are advocating in a misguided belief that Australians would rush to take these jobs instead. They won’t. The working holiday scheme remains an important instrument to attract young and educated people to Australia.

Reducing the unbalanced competition this visa creates in the agricultural labour market should be a priority for the government. There is currently a strong alignment of needs between Australia and the Pacific in this area. Allowing the seasonal workers program to flourish is in Canberra’s interests just as much as those of Pacific Islanders.


Cambodia: Hard choices

Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 11 Aug 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Cambodia’s foreign policy has been largely driven by the politics of survival, as the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has an ambition to perpetuate its domination of Cambodian politics for at least another 50 years.

Of course, this survival instinct is meshed with other factors to determine the direction Cambodia adopts in the world. One is economic pragmatism, as the country seeks to sustain growth and diversify its export markets – with economic success a vital source of legitimacy for the CPP-led government. Another is multilateralism, as Cambodia continues to try to integrate itself into the region after the truma of the war years.

Yet these economic and multilateral aims have been upended by the Covid-19 crisis.

Cambodia appears to have so far managed the threat from the virus relatively well, despite initially downplaying its potential severity. Up till now, there has been no recorded community transmission, although the number of cases has spiked in recent weeks, with 248 recorded cases and no deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organisation. All of the confirmed cases since May have been imported cases as Cambodians working and studying abroad return home.

But big challenges remain. Prior to the pandemic, Cambodia’s foreign policy has received considerable media and academic attention for its increasing alignment with China, seemingly to the expense of its relations with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other key partners such as the United States. Criticism of Cambodia’s domestic politics had also stained Cambodia’s international image. The US has imposed sanctions on Hun Sen, and the European Union has been critical of what it saw as increasing authoritarianism.

While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards.

An EU decision to strip Cambodia of a tariff exemption has led to a particularly heated debate. Europe is a key export market for Cambodia, but the EU decision to withdraw its “Everything But Arms” trade scheme, set to take effect from 12 August, will carry a heavy price. While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards, given it has signed a free trade agreement with communist states such as Vietnam.

Some analysts have also rightly warned the suspension of the trade scheme, albeit a partial withdrawal, is likely to force Cambodia to further embrace China in order to sustain economic growth. Just last month, Phnom Penh and Beijing finalised a free trade agreement allowing duty-free trade in hundreds of products between the two countries. Although the trade deal appears to benefit China more than Cambodia, given the unbalanced trade volumes and Cambodia’s trade deficit, the agreement nonetheless shores up an export market just as the EU partial ban comes into effect.

Cambodia’s government has a vision to become an upper middle-income country in the next decade. Yet allowing the country to be caught in the middle of great power competition will not advance this ambition. Instead, the Cambodian government needs to convincingly demonstrate the principles of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” as enshrined in its constitution. That means reaching out to many partners, driven by multilateralism. The regime’s survival might just depend on it.


Pacific islands: The cost to tomorrow of the crisis today

Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 30 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The global economic recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic will have acute repercussions for the youth of today – both now and for their inheritance. The International Labour Organization recently warned the economic crisis is hitting younger people “harder and faster than any other group”. And it is adding fuel to existing grievances. This year, unemployment and floundering economies, especially in association with corruption, poor governance, entrenched political elites and now the pandemic, have intensified youth-dominated protest movements, for instance, in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria.

And, while there will be few people anywhere left unaffected, the disproportionate brunt will be borne by developing countries, where youth populations are more likely to be dominant. This includes Australia’s immediate region – at least half of all Pacific Islanders are aged under 23 years, constituting a “youth bulge” in numbers alone. 

When I first began delving into the ramifications of the youth bulge in the Pacific for a recently published Lowy Institute report, Covid-19 wasn’t even on the horizon. But, as it turns out, there couldn’t be a more prescient time than now to examine this topic, as the virus intensifies the pressures on people’s lives and their future prospects.

Challenges to development and prosperity in the region, such as climate change, disaster resilience, gender inequality and non-communicable diseases, have been on the media radar. But the scale is growing, with the population of the Pacific Islands forecast to expand from 11.9 million to 19.7 million by 2050. Population growth could have the single greatest effect on every development sector in the region, including progress in health, education, economic development and employment, and the fate of peace and stability, not to mention the capacity of infrastructure and services.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

This is not to push an alarmist view. During long periods spent reporting on the ground in the region over the past decade, especially in the most populous Melanesian island states of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the reality of how youth and their views of the future are being affected, for example, by unemployment, low literacy, rural underdevelopment, persistent poverty and corruption, is more than evident.

At the same time, there are many stories of young men and women who have overcome adversity with life-changing success. When I interviewed Patrick Arathe in 2013 in the islands of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, he was 23 years old and had developed a farming enterprise with a group of young boys. It had grown to be a major supplier of fresh produce to the local hospital, businesses and surrounding communities. The profits of the enterprise were invested in the boys’ welfare and education. Meanwhile in Honiara’s main market, there are many young women displaying creativity and enterprise in their businesses of growing and selling spectacular tropical flowers.

In the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, I encountered a rural village gang in the Kamanabe area who had renounced a notorious career in carjacking, mugging and extortion on the nearby Highlands Highway to form a youth co-operative committed to generating legitimate incomes from producing honey.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, global youth unemployment was 13.6%. In Australia, it was 12%, but across the Pacific Islands region, it was an estimated 23%, rising to an estimated more than 40% in the Solomon Islands. Needless to say, these statistics will rise.

The region’s youth bulge is the result of high fertility rates, low use of family planning and a strong tradition of large families that are a vital social support network in countries where pensions and government-provided social services are limited.

Most Pacific governments are well aware of these issues and acknowledge the challenges. Last year, PNG Prime Minister James Marape publicly stated: “We have a responsibility to ensure that we invest in our future, so that our children, our children’s children and all those that come beyond have a strong foundation.” But there is a huge gap in the region between devising policies and programs, on the one hand, and then securing the funds, resources, expertise and manpower to successfully implement the solutions on the scale needed. This is the real struggle.

The to-do list is long: improving quality education and literacy outcomes, extending the reach of services and economic opportunities to the large cohorts of youth in rural areas, and diversifying the mineral and natural resource–dependent, but job-poor, economies of PNG and Solomon Islands. Then there is preventing the next generation inheriting the disability burden of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Large numbers of young people are not a disadvantage or threat – quite the opposite, if they experience opportunity and fulfilment. But, as the Bougainville civil conflict in the 1990s and civil unrest in Honiara in 2006 and 2019 have shown, weak governance, corruption, inequality and economic crises can push the grievances of the most vulnerable. Today, young Pacific Islanders are increasing their demands to be heard on political issues, and they are impatient and frustrated with corruption and cronyism in structures of power and leadership.

As the youth demographic in the Pacific progresses towards an expected peak by the middle of the century, now is the time for a long-term view of our international development and aid ties with the region and the dividends of supporting efforts towards a region capable of channelling the energy, enterprise and leadership of the younger generation.


What’s the secret to Southeast Asia’s Covid success stories?

First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 28 Jul 2020 06:00   0 Comments

After almost seven months, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge the world, but some places seem to have managed surprisingly well. Thailand has not reported any local transmission for over 60 days. The countries of the Mekong region have reported so few cases that many people are asking whether their success is real – and if it is, how are they doing it? The New York Times went as far as to report that “no one knows what Thailand is doing right”.

The reality is that there’s no mystery. The strategy behind these successes is based on the same basic factors: prioritising health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, enforcing early border controls, and mandating behaviour change – a strict lockdown, widespread use of masks and physical barriers, and avoiding indoor or confined spaces. These things work.

We can be fairly confident that the situation claimed in these countries is real because Covid-19 is not subtle. Exponential growth of a disease that leaves highly infectious people in hospital for weeks inevitably means the end of your health system within two months and widespread panic leading to economic collapse.

If Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos had been running an ineffective strategy for six months, they would be overrun by disease. If they were trying to cover that up, social media would be full of fearful rumours, evidence of mass graves, dead hospital staff – the signs of a coverup seen in Wuhan in January and February are not making themselves known in these countries today. There are no signs of a cover up, therefore there is no mass outbreak, therefore whatever they’re doing is working. Laos is a slight exception here, having confirmed just 19 cases and lacking the transparency to alleviate rumours. But even there, evidence of a runaway hidden epidemic is not forthcoming.

Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents.

How can it possibly be working with so few tests (with almost 15 times New Zealand’s population, Thailand has performed just 40% more tests)?

High levels of testing are critical if your strategy is to identify infected people then isolate them and their close contacts individually. But testing isn’t a requirement for a strategy based on universal compliance – mandatory quarantine for new arrivals, nationwide lockdown, and nationwide use of masks and barriers don’t rely on identifying who is infected. All that’s required is good leadership and effective communication.

The sum of their actions is a comprehensive strategy that has been working. So long as their borders remain well controlled and they continue using physical barriers and masks, these countries likely to continue to see relative success.

Why have they mostly done the right thing when others seem incapable, despite the simplicity?

Weather and architecture may have made it easier for the public to avoid enclosed spaces. But the big difference has been attitude – both of leaders and of the public.

The Mekong countries never thought they were immune from a problem in the People’s Republic of China. And they have vivid memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic. They took the threat seriously from early on and responded with a SARS strategy, not a seasonal flu strategy.

Thailand began screening all airport arrivals for fever on 3 January (two days before the PRC confirmed to the World Health Organisation that they had identified a “pneumonia of unknown cause”). Ten days later, Thailand confirmed its first case: the first known case outside the PRC. After confirming just 800 cases, Thailand announced a state of emergency and began a strict lockdown on 26 March. They only began easing the lockdown in May.

Healthcare workers at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute, in Nonthaburi, Thailand, 2 April 2020 (UN Women Asia and the Pacific)

Most importantly, the government strongly encouraged people from the start to avoid crowds and confined spaces, and to always wear cloth masks when they left home. Masks are a familiar accessory in the region, often worn to reduce pollution inhalation, and people remember SARS and other coronavirus epidemics, so the public was quick to respond.

Like Thailand, Vietnam went early and hard, prioritising health over other concerns. It began strict border controls in January, cancelled public events and schools, strictly enforced wearing masks, shut all non-essential services and imposed a three-week lockdown in April. Also like Thailand, Vietnam employed extensive contact tracing, but only targeted testing.

Laos had some advantage from fewer international arrivals than Thailand or Vietnam, but the first case was confirmed on 24 March. Just five days later, the government announced a strict lockdown and closed all borders. The lockdown lasted nearly seven weeks, while international arrivals continued to be restricted until June. Social distancing rules were implemented, and non-essential businesses were closed.

While the successful parts of their strategies are shared across the region, there have also been some responses that do not help in the least, but do cause serious harm. Cambodia, in particular, has adopted many of the worst elements of the PRC strategy: a completely unnecessary crackdown on human rights, restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. These things are not relevant to stopping Covid. Even mass protests (if done outdoors, with some distancing and widespread use of masks) do not seem to increase spread of the virus. Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents. Unwarranted surveillance is not part of a good Covid-19 response. Independent investigations can occur without risking a new Covid outbreak. Cambodia can successfully control Covid without these abuses.

The right measures for stopping Covid-19 are no secret, but implementing them takes commitment. The virus spreads physically (mainly over short distances) and the more virus someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to get infected. Distance, barriers and good ventilation are the only ways to interrupt transmission. If you know exactly who has the virus, you can target your responses to reduce the cost on everyone else. But if your surveillance breaks down for any reason, you need a general strategy. In that case lockdowns and universal masking are the only options.


Vanuatu: A real test for local emergency response

Aftermath of Cyclone Harold in Melsisi settlement, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu (Ginny Stein/RedR/NDMO Vanuatu)
Aftermath of Cyclone Harold in Melsisi settlement, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu (Ginny Stein/RedR/NDMO Vanuatu)
Published 23 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Rated as the country with the highest disaster risk worldwide, Vanuatu is no stranger to severe tropical cyclones. When Tropical Cyclone Pam struck the country in 2015, it affected around 166,000 people and left a trail of destruction.

Similarly, Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category 5 cyclone that hit Vanuatu on 6 April this year, affected around 160,000 people. The northern provinces of Sanma, Malmpa and Penama were severely impacted, with around 70% of the structures damaged in Luganville, the country’s second largest city.

But the context into which Harold landed was quite different from any previous occasion. It was in the midst of a global pandemic, and the emergency response effort also had to be different.

With Covid-19 infections rising across the world, Vanuatu had declared a state of emergency on 26 March, placing restrictions on both international and inter-island travel to minimise the risk of importing and spreading the virus. As Harold approached, the country eased social distancing measures to enable people to seek shelter in evacuation centres, but it did not reduce any restrictions that would facilitate a typical international humanitarian response in a disaster of this size.

While not flawless, the Cyclone Harold response in Vanuatu proved the viability of the localisation concept, even as it highlighted the vast challenges that come with delivering a complex humanitarian response amid enormous constraints.

As a result, the country would directly experience what it means when emergency aid becomes local. “Localisation” is a concept that has been advocated in numerous papers and seminars in recent years, but its implementation has been slow to evolve.

Cyclone Harold, however, left Vanuatu little choice, and the response effort became a case of “forced localisation”. While far from perfect, the outcome clearly established that there is no going back to the old way of doing things.  

Alongside the Covid restrictions, the country was already facing a number of challenges. On the political front, the country was under the custodianship of a caretaker government while political negotiations were underway following a general election. And in March, increased volcanic activity on Mount Yasur had started to affect thousands of people on the Island of Tanna.

How the country managed its response to Cyclone Harold in the midst of these challenges can provide insights into what a nationally led disaster response can look like in the Pacific, as explored in the rapid review jointly conducted by the Vanuatu Association of NGOs (VANGO) and the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG).

With concerns that an outbreak of Covid-19 could easily overwhelm the country’s medical system, the government took a strong stance on managing the response locally, declaring that “no foreign personnel are being brought to Vanuatu for response efforts at the present time; this will be an internally run operation”.

It was an important step by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), as on previous occasions (such as Cyclone Pam), there had been an influx of international support during the response phase, which made the government’s coordination efforts more complex.

While this experience allowed the government to experience how to manage a response with limited external technical support (although internationals living in Vanuatu were still engaged to help), the national response could have been delivered better in a number of areas – especially in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Harold.

Covid-19 restrictions also included tight quarantine protocols for humanitarian supplies arriving in the country. These restrictions by the government, along with inadequate logistical capacities, resulted in the delay of releasing international humanitarian supplies received. With the delays in releasing supplies, insufficient local stocks of aid and remoteness of the affected areas, formal support was slow to reach people, with some of the worst affected communities in isolated areas not receiving any official aid even after two months. In fact, supplies such as tool kits – urgently required in the early stages of recovery – were reaching some communities only three months after the cyclone, well after people had invested their own savings to build back their homes.

But there were also encouraging signs that the country had made progress by integrating lessons from Cyclone Pam and other disasters. The Provincial Emergency Operations Centres (PEOC) – set up as part of the process to decentralise disaster management capacity – coordinated the response on the ground. This was an important step to ensure the response was guided by local needs, although there were significant opportunities for local expertise to be better utilised in the response. Some of the affected communities from the remote mountain areas in the Island Santo had to walk six hours to reach food supplies, which could have been avoided with better planning.

Workers fumigate humanitarian supplies arriving at Bauerfield International Airport in Port Vila (Ginny Stein/RedR/NDMO Vanuatu)

As the Covid-19 pandemic set in and international staffers still in country were sent home, national humanitarian staff were able to play a greater role in response work. With international surge personel not allowed entry, local recruitment increased and remote support options were used – an approach the government is likely to encourage for future responses. With reduced presence of international personnel, the clusters – coordination groups for specific response sectors such as water, shelter, health, etc. – were chaired by government officials and saw much greater participation of local organisations and national staff, a considerable shift from previous response efforts.

One of the most important aspects of Vanuatu’s response to Cyclone Harold was the role of local communities and traditional structures in supporting affected people. The Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs) mobilised communities to raise funds and collect relief items. Youth and mother’s groups from unaffected villages and islands identified ways to help by donating root crops and organising delivery logistics. These traditional ways of supporting people often filled the gaps in the official response. Furthermore, sourcing food rations locally – promoted by the government – meant that the food relief provided to affected communities was more diverse and nutritious than the standard relief food items distributed in previous responses.

The aid distribution from donors, however, mostly followed established patterns of funding international organisations. Very little funding was directly provided to local organisations actually leading the response on the ground – a missed opportunity for the donors to better support the step-up in local leadership and capacity during the response.

While not flawless, the Cyclone Harold response in Vanuatu proved the viability of the localisation concept, even as it highlighted the vast challenges that come with delivering a complex humanitarian response amid enormous constraints. For this reason, it will likely be a point of no return for humanitarian response in Vanuatu. After demonstrating that they can manage a major disaster response with limited external capacity, in a global pandemic, heavy reliance on international experts is a thing of the past.

Of course, there is more to be done by the government, local civil society and international organisations to ensure the next responses build on this experience. But for the time being, it will be telling to see how these lessons contribute to change in disaster response in Vanuatu as well as in the whole Pacific region.


Philippines government driving jeepneys off the road

A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

After almost four months of lockdown measures due to Covid-19, the Philippines government in June eased restrictions for the majority of the country. But even as public transport systems slowly got back to running, something was missing: the distinctive jeepneys, still banned from plying their trade.

On June 24, Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chief Martin Delgra announced that “traditional jeepneys” would be allowed on the road the following week in Metro Manila, where the majority of jeepneys are used. Two days later, however, the office of President Rodrigo Duterte backpedalled, stating that only “roadworthy” jeepneys – the qualifier unclear – would be accepted.

So far, only 49 jeepney routes out of more than 900 existing ones have been allowed to reopen in Metro Manila. That’s roughly 8% of 74,000 jeepneys back on the streets. And without any reliable source of income for months, packs of jeepney drivers can still be seen begging on the streets and voicing their calls to bring back their livelihoods.

The jeepney is an icon of Philippine roads, breaking the sameness of cars and buses with over-the-top decals and a long, open-air passenger area. More importantly, it serves as the cheapest and most accessible form of transportation for the commuting public. Each vehicle carries up to 20 passengers, charging just 16 US cents for a 5-kilometre trip. But these mechanical mammoths – dubbed the “Hari ng Kalsada”, or King of the Road – have been targeted by the government’s “modernisation program” since 2017.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road tells a different story.

Headed by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), the plan is premised on replacing many jeepneys running on old and rundown engines with new, greener models. Since the inception of the plan, Philippine officials have encountered regular criticism from transport and commuter groups calling the move “anti-poor” and a “corporate capture”. 

One of the country’s biggest transport groups, Piston, is a vocal opponent of the program. While not against the modernisation plan per se, they remain critical of the provisions that insist jeepney drivers and owners cover the costs of the program’s requirements – including engine replacement. According to the group, prices of replacement units start at more than US$30,000 (A$43,000). That’s a tall order. A single unit owner or driver’s capital stands at around $3,800 to $7,690, going by industry standards. Piston estimates that some 650,000 drivers and 250,000 operators are at risk of losing their jobs permanently to “profit-driven modernisation.”

Is the government using the pandemic as a springboard to fully exact their modernisation scheme?

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque attempted to allay such fears, saying that now, amid the crisis, is not the time for modernisation. In spite of those words, however, there were telltale signs of a jeepney phase-out. Most modes of transportation were operational by the end of June, to some degree. On the same day the DOTr initially announced a road reappearance of jeepneys, they also made it clear what their priorities were. Jeepneys were pegged at the bottom of the public transport ladder, due to passenger proximity and health precautions. Trains and buses were at the top, followed by coaster vans, the state-promoted “modern jeepneys” (fitted with air conditioning, new engines and Wi-Fi), motorised tricycles (in some cities) and then the “traditional” jeepneys. On the agency’s Facebook page, disparaging remarks and videos against common jeepneys have been routinely posted, while touting the modern jeepney as a vehicle for the future.

Jeepneys on the road in Manila, January 2019 (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Independent think tank Ibon Foundation disputed the notion of jeepneys being more vulnerable to transmission of the virus as a basis for the prohibition, pointing out that jeepneys are actually at an advantage because open-air vehicles offer better ventilation.

The most blatant sign of the government preventing the comeback of jeepneys has been its treatment of the drivers themselves. Most come from low-income backgrounds and earn about US$6 to $8 per day. Drivers strapped for cash have increasingly been seen on roadsides carrying signs for spare change. Invoking physical distancing rules, the police responded with arrests. In June, six members of Piston were jailed after protesting the government’s forced jeepney phase-out and demanding aid. They were charged with holding a mass gathering in violation of quarantine. Ironically, upon their release, tests revealed that two of the detained had contracted the disease while incarcerated.

With reports of ailing and starving families of jeepney drivers rampant, support through food and cash donations poured in from various corners of civil society and the general public. Towards the end of June, however, some groups engaged in the relief effort alleged harassment and threats of arrest by the police. On 27 June, a solidarity day for jeepney drivers was held, even while maintaining distancing. Food packages were collected at various sites in the city, and others used the occasion to protest the criminalisation of drivers. Police were deployed around the city and were reportedly intimidating participants.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road – through both policy and police harassment – tells a different story. The fight for survival amid the pandemic is not over. But while everyone reels from the global repercussions, the administration of Rodrigo Duterte looks eager to use it as an opportunity to drive the last nail into the jeepney’s coffin.


Southeast Asian democracies in declining health amid Covid-19

Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Published 3 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting democracies in the Asia-Pacific region in ways that demand Australian attention.

The ability to weather a crisis of this magnitude depends upon partnerships and collaboration – economic, social and political – with key countries in the region. These partnerships are more difficult when democracy hangs in the balance.

Before the pandemic, many observers discussed and debated the illiberal turn in Southeast Asia. So while it is not the primary cause of illiberalism and the expansion of arbitrary power, Covid-19 will exacerbate this trend.

The shift was already evident in the crackdowns on political opposition in Cambodia, the use of constitutional reform to consolidate military influence in the civilian government in Thailand, and the increasing violence and illiberalism of President Duterte’s government.

The brightest example of democracy in the region, Indonesia, has in recent years begun to lose its democratic credibility. There were growing concerns that despite President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) winning a second term, the government was compromising on the hard-won progress of democracy and accountability.

Government critics were targeted with charges of treason. The powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission were compromised. And Prabowo Subianto, the Jokowi's presidential rival, was welcomed into the cabinet. There was no doubt that pre–Covid-19, democracy was under threat.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. But Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the health of democracy in the region.

In January 2020, Thailand identified the first case of Covid-19 outside China. Singapore, despite acting fast, now has the highest number of cases, exposing the vulnerabilities of its low-paid 1.5 million migrant workers.

Indonesia has the highest number of deaths, with government denial and confusion leading to an alarmingly high number of deaths of doctors and nurses. There have been some successes, with Vietnam the first country in the region to open up again after restrictive measures.

There are four trends we can see in the ways governments in Southeast Asia have responded to Covid-19.

First, as in many other parts of the world, government power has been used at the expense of human rights. More than just lockdowns and curfews, citizens have been targeted with criminal charges for criticising the government’s handling of the crisis.

Civil and political rights have become victims of Covid-19. Journalists have been arrested for criticising government responses to the pandemic in Indonesia. In Myanmar, journalists interviewing the Arakan Army, now branded a terrorist organisation, have been targets of criminal sanctions.

The second trend is the increasing role of the military and police, with Covid-19 creating opportunities for the expansion of military power and security measures. In Myanmar, a Covid-19 committee with both civilian and military representatives has been formed to address the health crisis, which blurs the line between civilian and military authority.

The role of the military is also evident in other parts of the region. In Indonesia, many the civilian authorities in high-level positions in the health sector who are leading the pandemic response are former military officers.

The third trend is that, unlike other parts of the world, the courts are less active – or absent altogether – as a check and balance on executive power. There are some exceptions; the challenge to the president’s decree on economic stimulus in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court is one example. Activists fear that that decree is unconstitutional because it grants immunity to government officials involved, raising corruption fears.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives for nomination day ahead of the 10 July Singapore general election, 30 June 2020 (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Across Southeast Asia, the courts have more often been used to enforce government power in arbitrary ways that exacerbate social inequalities, such as the debate in Myanmar over different penalties given to Buddhists as opposed to minority Christians or Muslims found to be in breach of Covid-19 restrictions.

The final trend is that armed conflict has continued, for the most part. Conflict persists in the southern Philippines and in southern Thailand, and across Myanmar’s border regions, particularly in Rakhine and Chin states.

The call by the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, urging all parties to conflict to focus instead on combating Covid-19, has largely gone unheeded in Southeast Asia. In May, the military in Myanmar finally declared a partial ceasefire, but conveniently created an exception for areas where the fighting is worst.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. The expansion of government power is a concern, but the declining health of democracy in the region was not caused by Covid-19, although it will exacerbate this illiberal turn.

Australia’s ability to pull through in economic and social terms depends upon maintaining strong connections with the region. This crisis of democracy presents a serious challenge, and Australia must support those in the region working to reverse the decline.


Cambodia: Caught in the middle

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Jun 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Even as it grapples with the economic fallout of Covid-19, Cambodia has a China problem. The perception of Prime Minister Hun Sen as a stooge for Beijing became entrenched long before the coronavirus outbreak – but it was left unexplained. However, as the virus is gradually brought under control, this idea of Cambodia circling ever more tightly in China’s orbit and descending into dictatorship threatens the country’s economic recovery.

The supposed China connection has been elevated since The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that Cambodia was helping China realise its “string of pearls” strategy by allowing Beijing military access to a naval base in Sihanoukville. It has kept resurfacing, including with speculation that other nearby ports are under construction.

The allegations that Cambodia is likely allowing China to build dual-use ports capable of accommodating Beijing’s military aircraft and warships are not a welcome sign. Such speculations lack concrete evidence and have been vehemently denied by the Cambodian government, but they have serious repercussions for Cambodia.

They not only further undermine Cambodia's image on the regional and international stage, but they also potentially place the country in the centre of strategic competition for dominance in the Asia-Pacific between China and the US.

Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

In recent years, Cambodia and the US have experienced growing mutual strategic mistrust. While the US is suspicious of Cambodia’s increasing friendliness towards China, Cambodia is wary of the US push for regime change in Phnom Penh. However, Hun Sen was assured last year in a letter from US President Trump that “the United States respects the sovereign will of Cambodian people and we do not seek regime change”.

The cost of this strategic mistrust is measurable. Despite relative success in controlling the spread of Covid-19, Cambodia needs effective post-pandemic recovery strategies and policy responses to build back better economically. The World Bank has predicted a sharp decline in Cambodia's 2020 GDP growth, potentially registering a negative growth rate of between -1 and -2.9% – the slowest growth since 1994.

The situation is dire. Cambodia’s main GDP growth drivers such as the garment, tourism and construction industries are faltering. Almost 200 garment factories in the country have suspended operations, and around 170 companies in the tourism industry have been shut down.

Cambodia will need broad international ties to support its recovery. While the pandemic is still severely impairing global supply chains, and the tourism industry still hobbled by international travel bans and other restrictions, such links will need to be re-established.

Thus, Cambodia cannot afford to be branded a China lackey. To address the strategic mistrust between Phnom Penh and Washington, the US needs to engage Cambodia in ways that are neither confrontational nor undermining towards the Kingdom. Although efforts have been made and positive developments have emerged in recent months, relations are still strained.

While Cambodia continues to conduct foreign policy guided by economic pragmatism, it needs to strike a fine balance in its relations with the superpowers. Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

Garment workers in a clothing factory in 2016. The garment industry accounts for nearly 16% of Cambodia’s annual GDP and over 80% of exports (Marcel Crozet/ILO/Flickr)

Engaging all partners, the US and its allies in particular, is therefore vital to Cambodia’s foreign policy and sustainable development. Its inclusive foreign policy motto, “Reforming at home and making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence,” is a great strategic vision, but realising it is not so easy.

Meanwhile, Cambodia needs to address domestic challenges such as corruption, human rights violations, social injustice and environmental issues in order to sustain bilateral aid.

One of its post-pandemic priorities will be to resolve its differences with the European Union – Cambodia’s largest export market – over concerns surrounding the partial withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001. Although Cambodia can still export to Europe even without the EBA scheme, the loss of trade privileges would have a negative impact on the garment industry, which accounts for over 80% of Cambodia’s exports.

Cambodia also has to recalibrate the trajectory of its political development, widely perceived as edging towards authoritarianism. Although it favours political elites, staunch government supporters and particularly Prime Minister Hun Sen (who has been in power for more than three decades), it may not reflect the interests of around 3 million Cambodians who voted for the opposition party in the commune elections in 2017.

The country’s perceived descent into authoritarianism clearly does not align with international efforts invested since the 1990s to assist Cambodia in upholding democratic values and practices. A reconsideration of the country's overall political trend and increasing repression of dissent are therefore urgently needed.

At the same time, as it works to deal with the many social and economic challenges caused by Covid-19, the country’s strategies for economic recovery need a vision that goes beyond the economic sphere.


Aiding the Pacific during Covid – a stock-take and further steps

Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Published 4 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 crisis is now widely seen as the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression. In the Pacific, as in the rest of the world, economic activity has collapsed as a result of lockdowns to contain the virus. As an aid dependent region, a critical question is whether enough outside support will be made available to help Pacific governments keep their economies and societies afloat through the pandemic.

By our estimate, the Pacific’s development partners have so far announced around $825 million (US $570 million) in Covid-19 related financial support, including the debt standstill announced by the G20 in April. That’s equal to about 1.7% of the region’s collective output, not insubstantial. It is also rising as more announcements are made. Nonetheless, it’s still well below the 10% of GDP and upwards being deployed in many advanced economies, including Australia.

Not all the announced amounts are additional. Australia has announced a Covid-19 package for the Pacific worth $100 million but with all of this coming from the existing aid budget. Some reprioritisation of existing support undoubtedly will have made sense. There may also have been some additional funds freed from projects put on hold or delayed due to the virus. The World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for their part have so far announced $143 million in combined Covid-19 response measures, coming from a mix of reprioritisations and stretching their balance sheets.

At the global level, the headline grabbing news has been the debt servicing standstill announced by the G20 for the poorest countries (including most of the Pacific Islands countries). The standstill only applies to debt owed to bilateral creditors and lasts until the end of the year. By our estimate, this year’s bilateral debt relief (including a hold on this year’s PNG’s repayment of Australia’s $440 million) accounts for around 60% of total debt servicing costs in the Pacific or about 1% of regional GDP. Most of this reflects the standstill on Australia’s one-off exceptional loan to PNG. Without this, the standstill would only be worth about 0.2% of regional GDP (and 28% of total debt servicing). The bulk of this smaller amount reflects bilateral Chinese loans. Notably, though China has doled out many large loans in the Pacific over the past decade or so, these are still operating in their interest-only phases – meaning debt servicing to China is still quite small.

More important than the debt standstill could be the decision by the G20 to endorse an expansion of the rapid financing windows of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ordinarily, countries can access up to half their IMF quota in a year and 100% on a cumulative basis (quotas being in reference to each country’s IMF voting rights). This has now been expanded to 100% and 150% respectively. The amounts on offer come with limited IMF conditionality and, at least for the Pacific, are very sizeable – equal to 3.5% of GDP for the average Pacific economy and over 8% of GDP for Kiribati and Tuvalu. So far, the IMF has only announced a rapid financing package for Samoa and Solomon Islands but approvals for other Pacific countries might also be in the works, noting the IMF says more than 100 countries have requested emergency help.

What more could be done in the near term?

Extending the debt standstill could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant.

One simple step would be to extend the duration of the G20 measures already announced. Currently the debt standstill will expire by the end of the year and enhanced access to the IMF rapid financing windows will revert back to normal levels from 5 October. Yet, financing needs in response to Covid-19 will likely persist well beyond these arbitrary dates, in the Pacific and elsewhere. Continued support will be needed. Extending these existing measures to the end of 2021 would be a relatively uncomplicated further step.

Another obvious step would be to broaden the bilateral debt standstill to multilateral and private sector creditors, as the G20 has already called for. Extending the debt standstill in this way could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant. According to our estimates, this could free up an additional 0.8% of GDP for the average Pacific economy or around $400 million across the region.

The IMF could also expand the total amounts available under its rapid financing windows. The IMF has a trillion-dollar total lending capacity. Many have argued this may not be enough for the current crisis. Yet, as Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, the current risk for the IMF looks more like it could end up lending too little to too few.

A relatively straightforward way for the IMF to get more money out the door would be to simply substantially expand the maximum amounts available under its rapid financing windows. Another option would be for the IMF to issue a new round of Special Drawing Rights, though this has already been raised by many leading figures while the United States has remained opposed at least for now.

Finally, bilateral development partners like Australia could of course do more. Ideally by providing more grants but also via additional loans, if need be.


Going local: Lessons from Covid response in Indonesia

Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Published 1 Jun 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Covid-19 and the significant changes it presents are forcing new ways of working, including for humanitarian responders. In Indonesia, the government response to the crisis has been criticised internally and internationally as slow and lacking transparency. Senior government figures downplayed the crisis in its early days, and agencies and the public struggled to get reliable information about the prevalence of the disease.

As the public has pushed for more action and information in order to better understand and respond to the unfolding emergency, civil society groups, particularly those well versed in disaster management and humanitarian response, have quickly taken action. The results have shown not only what is possible in the Indonesian context, but also pointed a way towards reform that the international humanitarian system has talked about for years but has never really seen materialise.

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the first of its kind, identified many of the major challenges to the humanitarian system and how the global professional community could address them. One example is a focus on strengthening and empowering local leadership, rather than reinforcing the dominance of international humanitarian actors, including in coordination mechanisms, as well as closing the gap between traditional long-term development actors, peacebuilders and humanitarian responders.

SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

Despite the best intentions of the reform agenda and a plethora of commitments, progress has been hampered by persistent bureaucratic barriers and a lack of evidence of change.

Recent research suggests that Indonesia is a prime candidate for testing an approach to country-led reform. Following the devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that struck Lombok and Central Sulawesi in 2018, the country took major steps to localise humanitarian response and to empower national actors to drive decision-making. This decision surprised many agencies, and forced adoption of the new ways of working promoted at the WHS in 2016.  

While the localisation agenda has gained widespread recognition, in some countries it has been largely rhetoric. Indonesia’s policy compelled the necessary shift in power dynamics and the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian actors. In the Sulawesi relief effort, national organisations took the place of big international agencies, and civil society groups and first responders were given priority. Indonesia has also made progress in optimising humanitarian coordination, inviting national networks to join the UN-led Humanitarian Country Team, the main forum for coordination and strategy. Further, the government has formally adopted the cluster approach, which aims at improving planning and efficiency within specific areas of need, such as health, food, logistics or sanitation.

As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded in Indonesia, the groundwork laid by those developments helped enable a locally driven response and coordination effort. The Pujiono Centre for Disaster and Climate Risk Reduction Studies provides a clear example of effective local action. The Centre acted quickly to pivot its emerging coordination platform into a Covid-19 response network. From simple beginnings in early March, the SEJAJAR network-of-networks has grown to include 25 national networks across sectors, and nearly to 600 sub-national level organisations across 34 provinces, including Nusa Tenggara Timur, Central Sulawesi and West Papua.

SEJAJAR, an acronym of Sekretariat Jaringan-antar-Jaringan (OMS-LSM in Bahasa Indonesia), means equal in English, with the aim to reflect the equality among members of the network working together at all levels to curb the outbreak.

SEJAJAR provides a vehicle for collective engagement with government, a periodic webinar series to discuss critical issues and regular training opportunities for members, on subjects such as NGO business continuity and coping with financial crises in the face of Covid-19. In recent weeks, it has secured participation in the government-led National and Provincial Task Forces. Civil society groups have also been able to engage policy debates with ministers and senior officials on Covid-19 issues. SEJAJAR provides support for other networks, both within ASEAN and across the Asia-Pacific region.  

Working in collaboration with OXFAM and the Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Centre, the initiative has from the outset intended to achieve a post-Covid Indonesia that has a strong civil society in equal partnership with government.

In a number of ways, the network provides a powerful example of progress in country-led reform:

  • Extending the nexus: bringing together representatives from development, peacebuilding and humanitarian bodies to discuss how to improve response in Indonesia;
  • Shifting the power: changing the dynamics between the traditionally dominant international responders and local actors. Local organisations can source, negotiate and acquire products and services from international actors in humanitarian clusters as suppliers
  • Area-based coordination: locally led coordination at the provincial level ensures that structures, responses and discussion reflect local priorities, are contextually appropriate and leverage the best-placed resources.

Although still in its infancy, SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

It also raises issues to explore further: How has the mechanism shifted power dynamics between stakeholders in Indonesia? What lessons can the provincial model be applied to global thinking around area-based coordination?

Understanding this initiative will equip stakeholders in Indonesia and elsewhere to improve a humanitarian system that is now, more than ever, in need of rapid and fundamental change.


COVIDcast: Dame Meg Taylor on keeping Pacific Islands safe

Published 29 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In the latest episode of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands Program, sat down with Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, to discuss how Covid-19 is affecting health, economics, local communities, climate change, regionalism and geopolitics in the Pacific region.

Dame Meg acknowledged the growing geopolitical tension in the Pacific region but said these dynamics are nothing new to a region that has been dealing with foreign influence for centuries. She made the point Pacific agency should not be underestimated.

 

The Secretary General praised the “tremendous” response by most Pacific governments to lock down quickly, which has left many Pacific countries Covid-19 free. But this response has come at a “devastating” cost to Pacific economies.

It’s not just the people (working in tourism), the hotels et cetera. It’s about any other business that has an influence to make sure that food is on the table. It’s agriculture, the taxi drivers, the retailers. All this is impacted.

She also discussed the role of traditional welfare systems in filing gaps in social welfare structures and underpinning Pacific resilience, and how these systems are reacting and being tested.

The discussion also covered the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.

Dame Meg endorsed the prospect of a “travel bubble” between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, while noting it would need to be carefully established to protect vulnerable Pacific communities from coronavirus, and that Pacific leaders should be included in discussions around its establishment. 

The discussion also covered the shortcomings of public health institutions, as well as the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.
 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


A cry for help as Covid‑19 sweeps Latin America and hunger bites

Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Published 27 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

It was a cry for help, the word “hambre” (hunger) projected against the Torre Telefónica building in downtown Santiago, Chile’s capital. It abruptly woke up a city that has been under total quarantine since mid-May. “We are locked up and we are starving,” said José Morales, a resident of El Bosque, an impoverished shanty town south of the Chilean capital.

The light projection against the 1990’s mobile phone shaped telecommunications building – an icon of the now crumbling Chilean neoliberal economic model – happened just a few hours after a violent clash on 18 May between the police and dozens of El Bosque residents. “Those who are not dying of the corona are dying of hunger,” Morales told me on the phone. “Yes sir, hunger is back in Chile.”

 

 

With almost 640,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths, Latin America has become the new focus of the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has landed in a region where 30% of its 629 million inhabitants can be classed as poor, and about 10% live in what can be regarded as misery. In its sprawling and impoverished slums – where around 117 million poor live – a new pandemic is breeding, hunger.

In Brazil, with the second-highest number of cases of coronavirus in the world, hunger is ferociously biting. It seems to be a long time since 2003–14, when the country under the Workers’ Party managed to pull 29 million out of poverty. That was a time when Brazil, the largest economy of Latin America, came off the UN map of hunger.

The Brazilian impoverished favelas, home to 13 million, are not only agonizing about the lack of food but also about the lack of clean water – so fundamental to fighting the virus. For Rodrigo Afonso, executive director of the NGO Ação da Cidadania (Citizen Action), “tens of millions of Brazilians are in a situation of food insecurity”.

According to the World Bank, this year Brazil’s economy will contract by 5%. This is bad news for a quarter of the Brazilian population – some 50 million – who live in poverty and under the shadow of hunger. “Where there is hunger there is no hope,” once said former Brazilian president Luiz “Lula” da Silva. In Brazil – led by health hazardous president, Jair Bolsonaro – hope is in short supply.

Waiting for food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)


Globally, due to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic crisis, the number of people suffering from acute hunger could double to 265 million this year, according to the UN World Food Program. In Latin America and the Caribbean hunger today affects 42.5 million people.

According to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, CEPAL, this year Latin American will experience its biggest economic contraction in history. During 2020 the CEPAL expects that poverty would increase by 4.4 percentage points from 30.3 to 34.7% – this means 29 new million poor. Between poverty and hunger there is a terrifying slippery slope.

All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise.

Argentina is the second largest economy in Latin America. According to the National Institute of Statistic and Census of Argentina (INDEC, in Spanish) 35.5% of its population of approximately 45 million live in poverty. The government has reported that 11 million are now relying on food assistance – this is a substantial increase from 8 million pre-pandemic. The one-off $10,000 Argentinean pesos – approximately US$ 163.42 – that the government distributed last April among the poorest families was not enough to guarantee food.

After Brazil and Mexico, Colombia, with approximately 48 million, is the third most populated Latin American country. In Colombia hunger has a colour – red. Since April when the quarantine started, red rags such as tea towels, t-shirts and even underwear have waved from impoverished Colombian homes signalling the lack of enough food as a call for help.

The red rag symbol has spread rapidly in several shanty towns of the country – where approximately 6.2 million live.

The first red rags began appearing in Soacha – a sprawling slum city in Bogota where one million people live or rather try to survive. Soacha is also one of the largest concentrations of people displaced from the five decades of civil war. Thousands of Venezuelans live there too – refugees from Venezuela’s atrocious economic crisis. “I am not as concerned with the coronavirus as I am with hunger in this city,” warned Soacha’s mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga in March. “If we do not turn on all the alarms and international cooperation, we will have more deaths from hunger than from coronaviruses.”

Drive-thru Covid-19 testing, Brasilia (Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado/Flickr)


Latin American food security has worsened in the last few years, according to a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. According to this organisation, a third of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean already live in a precarious state of “food insecurity.” And the coronavirus, the report said, will exacerbate the problem. “In Latin America, hunger is just around the corner,” Julio Berdegue, the Latin American representative of FAO told the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. “It is essential to keep the food system alive so that the health crisis does not turn into a food crisis,” he said.

Perhaps it is already too late – hunger is back, as the resident of Santiago’s El Bosque shanty town told me over the phone. All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise. And authorities are resorting to the usual measures, police and military repression, false fixes and shallow promises. In the era of the coronavirus, right now, Latin America is gliding into its darkest days yet.


​​​​​​​COVIDcast Episode 12: Pandemic, emerging markets, and US dollar

Published 22 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In Episode 12 of COVIDcast, Roland Rajah, Director of the International Economy Program, sat down with Brad Setser, Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss the upheaval brought about by the pandemic in emerging economies and what this has revealed about the importance of the US dollar in the functioning of the global economy.

Rajah and Setser began by discussing the dramatic outflow of capital from emerging markets between March and April. Setser described this as “the most rapid withdrawal of foreign financing that anyone had seen since the global financial crisis”. Although markets have since stabilised largely due to the intervention of the Federal Reserve (the Fed), a number of economies remain very fragile. As Setser put it:

“So long as oil prices remain low, or tourism remains shutdown, or if you needed foreign financing to roll over your debt, foreign financing remains scarce … Even though the most important shock and the peak of market stress is past, some countries are living off buffers and borrowed time.”

Setser also noted that while the Fed had reacted creatively and forcefully, the International Monetary Fund had been left on the sidelines and had yet to offer a crisis facility that is attractive to the big emerging markets.

 

On the role of the US dollar as global reserve currency, Rajah questioned the ability of emerging markets to wean themselves off dollar dependence. Setser argued the US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Despite China’s goal to establish the RMB as a global reserve, the crisis and the response of the Fed, including providing dollar swap lines, had reinforced the dominance of the US dollar.

The US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Given this dominance, Rajah asked why the United States did not actively take advantage of the dollar as a powerful tool of attraction in its competition for influence with China, and whether it had been too selective in the countries to which it offered swap lines. Setser said “the Fed’s mandate doesn’t include providing political swap lines to gain political influence” yet also that “the United States hasn’t made full use of its financial power”. America could try to compete with China to provide financing for infrastructure as well as financing in times of crisis through the Treasury’s balance sheet, he said.

Rajah concluded by asking what emerging economies could and should do to get through the current crisis. He noted everyone needs to run large fiscal deficits, but, in the absence of outside help, emerging economies are turning to their own central banks in unconventional ways reminiscent of quantitative easing in advanced economies. Setser argued it was a balance of risks versus benefits, and that each country has a choice to make, “between a weaker currency and easier access to central bank financing for fiscal deficits”.

 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.


Now is the right time to bring Fiji into trans-Pacific bubble talks

Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Published 21 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

It’s peak surf season in Fiji. Usually surfers would come from all over the world to surf the famous “Cloudbreak” and holiday resorts should be packed. But Rendezvous Surf Camp, the launch pad to some of Fiji’s best breaks, excepting four guests, is empty.

One night this week, sitting around drinking kava with the staff (with appropriate social distancing), they fondly recalled years gone by when famous surfers cracked beers at the now deserted bar.

Sun, sand, no tourists: an empty Fiji resort (Samantha Cook)

Some locals have taken a “sega na lega” (no worries) approach. With coronavirus restrictions somewhat relaxed and inter-island travel having resumed, many Fijians have taken the opportunity to relax or return to their villages and undertake subsistence farming.

But living off the land won’t pay the rent or meet credit repayments. There is a growing feeling of uncertainty permeating the tropical air. While the Fiji government has implemented measures to soften the blow of Covid-19, there will still be a strain.

I’m regularly asked by locals about when flights will resume with Australia, as though I have ScoMo on speed dial.

With so many Fijians dependent on the tourism industry, which makes up about 40% of Fiji’s GDP, locals are growing anxious. Already the pinch is being felt.

Australian, New Zealand and Fijian government representatives have met to discuss ways the countries can cooperate to jump-start Fiji’s economy. But pre-Covid these discussions had already started with talks of diversifying Fiji’s economy by strengthening incentives and market access in the agriculture and business outsourcing sectors. While coronavirus has been responsible for instigating technology transformation in businesses through forced working from home arrangements, I’m doubtful as to whether the experience of the virus can trigger economic diversification at the rate needed to reboot Fiji’s economy. 

In 2019 Fiji was ranked 102 out of 190 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. The country is also geographically remote and battles climate change-related challenges, which all present significant barriers to achieving rapid economic transformation.

There seems to be little option available but to restart Fiji’s tourism industry. One safe and measured way of doing that is through Fiji’s inclusion in the mooted trans-Pacific bubble.

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk.

Annually Fiji receives around half a million tourists from Australia and New Zealand who make up around 65% of total tourist numbers. So by reintroducing flights from Australia and New Zealand, undoubtedly the Fijian tourism industry would see an immediate uptick.

Fiji has been very diligent in its Covid-19 prevention efforts. With now only three active cases, the country may soon be coronavirus free, meaning the real risk is a second wave of infection brought from Australia or New Zealand.

Aside from public health concerns, there is of course a diplomatic and PR risk, as neither Australia nor New Zealand want to be responsible for reintroducing coronavirus to the islands.

Fiji has formally expressed its desire to be a part of the trans-Pacific bubble and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said inclusion of the Pacific Islands is “on the cards”. However, Ardern has stressed the importance for Australia and New Zealand to get their health response right first, and to have agreement and support of the Pacific.

But just how long must the Pacific wait? What tangible strategies can Australia and New Zealand feasibly think about now to start implementing for Fiji to be included?

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Further, the traffic needs to flow both ways. Given the importance of remittances, its vital for governments to consider how seasonal workers can return to Australia and New Zealand. Governments might also explore opportunities to increase the number of participants in Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme in areas, which could experience greater demand, for example healthcare, childcare as well as aged care.

As the Covid-19 crisis began in Wuhan late last year, much of the world sat back idly, feeling immune and labelling it a ‘China problem’. Fast forward to March this year and coronavirus quickly became a global problem, with governments calling home their citizens, including expats, many of whom had less than 48 hours to leave. The decisions felt very “reactive” to what are admittedly unprecedented events.

The one lesson already clear from the Covid-19 response is the importance of preparedness among friends. More intra-Pacific dialogue about Fiji’s inclusion in the bubble should occur now, rather than leaving the Pacific as an after-thought. As some of the biggest aid donors in the region, Australia and New Zealand cannot afford to be reactive in their efforts to assist Fiji and other countries in the Pacific on the road to economic recovery.


Covid-19: The need to aid Asia to open up

Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 20 May 2020 06:00   1 Comments

Two things about the public health and economic impacts of Covid-19 are now clear.

First, with just a few exceptions, most affected countries have suffered egregiously, and in many cases unnecessarily. This is a tragic situation.

Second, the response has been mainly left to the national governments and citizens of individual countries.

Sadly, at the international level, the response has been weak – much weaker than what is required. The urgent need now is for multilateral organisations and wealthy nations to respond with coordinated aid programs. The aid should go towards improving both public health and economic conditions in the affected countries. This applies to Asia in particular.

One example from Asia will suffice for now.

Bangladesh has had a good development record over a few decades. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has compared the socio-economic development of Bangladesh favourably with other South Asian countries, including India. Yet the international aid package for Bangladesh to fight the current crisis has been small and has moved slowly.

Bangladesh is severely resource constrained and can only afford to spend US$12 per capita for health. Only $4 per capita can go towards public health programs. Rapid mobilisation of international aid is now vital.

Sadarghat terminal in Dhaka (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The country has a national emergency response plan, but mobilising resources for the plan and proper targeting will require both bilateral and multilateral assistance to reach the government and non-governmental organisations quickly. One of us has calculated – using the best available data – that a further package of at least $4 billion will be needed in order to stem the downward slide and restore a reasonable rate of economic growth.

The example of Bangladesh shows that large economic responses are needed from the international community. Urgent funding for humanitarian priorities is required as well. The detection, over the past few days, of Covid-19 in the huge Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar is an alarming development. The likelihood that the virus will now quickly spread poses grave risks both for the one million Rohingya refugees in the camp as well as for the wider Bangladesh community nearby. Developing countries in Asia are struggling to cope with widespread impacts of the crisis such as this as well as instability across international financial markets.

Networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world.

Strikingly, almost no Western donor country has shown interest in providing significant support to developing countries in Asia. Rich countries are unleashing staggering levels of resources to deal with problems inside their borders while most developing countries are hopelessly ill-equipped to cope.

For Western donor countries, this is not their finest hour. This collective response of Western nations sends a powerful message to developing countries ­– this time, you are on your own. The corollary is that Asian countries should look to expand their own forms of regional cooperation.

We can see from the rapid transmission of the virus across international borders that numerous key linkages now exist across the world. For example, trade and transportation networks, financial networks, and other networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world. We can pull up the drawbridges for a time but at some stage we will need to start lowering them again. It will be hard to know when to start doing this and which drawbridges to lower first.

Nevertheless, it is urgent to reopen economies as soon as possible. One of the most important global lessons of post-Second World War economic history is that openness is a key factor spurring growth.

In 2008, in a major report on international economic issues, the World Bank’s Commission on Growth and Development pointed to the importance of openness. Surveying the experiences of 13 high-growth economies since 1950, the Commission concluded that the essential shared characteristic and “the central lesson of this report” was that “during their periods of fast growth, these 13 economies all made the most of the global economy”.

Sustained growth, the Commission said:

was not possible before 1950. It became feasible only because the world economy became more open and more tightly integrated.

The past two months has seen an unprecedented array of barriers erected across the world, especially in wealthy countries. It is to be expected, of course, that governments will move to protect their citizens – but it is inevitable that much of the protection is also highly protectionist.

The danger now is that wealthy countries will become inward-looking. Countries such as Bangladesh will find that vital opportunities to grow their way out of the Covid-19 crisis are denied to them. Yet they will need continued access to international markets to pursue the export-oriented growth strategies that have been so successful in the past.

Thinking optimistically, we can hope that when the worst of the current crisis has passed, there will be much needed discussion about reforms needed in global and regional relationships.

But the global and regional international organisations and wealthy countries have a largely unmet responsibility to act quickly. They must move now so that channels of cooperation can be preserved even in the face of crisis today.


PNG and Covid-19: The costs of economic stress

Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Published 19 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea has grappled with economic instability for years, exacerbated by generally declining global commodity prices, increasing national debt and allegations of fiscal mismanagement. None of this is helped by high rates of population growth and unemployment. Now the coronavirus pandemic will deliver a further blow to the nation’s extractive economy as the world enters a recession and demand for resources drops.

Health-wise, the Pacific Island state is one of the more fortunate countries, so far, with only a handful of confirmed Covid-19 cases and no fatalities.

But the resource dependence which PNG has promoted since independence won’t be a strength. The returns of the sector, already associated with poor job creation and failure to drive inclusive development, will further diminish. Before the virus outbreak, resources contributed 29% to the country’s GDP, and more than and 10% of government revenues. But in recent years volatile world markets and too much spending in advance of revenue delivery, leading to mounting debt, have significantly wiped out the anticipated benefits for development. A sovereign wealth fund intended to secure long-term revenue savings is not yet operational.

The government was planning record expenditure this year. Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has now left a glaring 2 billion kina (A$890 million) budget shortfall and national debt could surpass 40% of GDP by the end of the year. Meanwhile the country’s growth is forecast to decline to -0.2% this year.

This, as well as the state of emergency provisions, will affect the nation’s 8.6 million people, of whom about 40% already live below the poverty line.

Port Moresby, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)

Local PNG economist, Busa Jeremiah Wenogo, has long advocated the development of small and medium enterprises and the informal economy in PNG to boost sustainable livelihoods. But he has warned that social distancing and banning of gatherings places “almost 80 percent of our nation’s workforce in the informal economy in a dire situation”.

Likewise, in a recent interview Paul Barker from PNG’s Institute of National Affairs identified the vulnerability of those with greater dependence upon cash crops for their livelihoods. “[People] living in areas of higher population density, including on oil palm settlement schemes [have] little, if any, land set aside for food production,” Barker told me.

In rural communities, where more than 80% of people reside, subsistence agriculture on customary-owned land remains the bedrock of household self-sufficiency and this will go a long way to maintaining rural food security. The country’s customary or traditional governance also plays an important role in local-level resilience. In times of great need, many families and communities instinctively turn to their head of clan or village chief for direction and support, rather than politicians. It’s likely such coping strategies will come to the fore during the weeks and months ahead.

However, in more crowded urban centres, where people don’t have the same access to land or social support structures, loss of incomes and poor food security could lead to a rise in crime.

Nothing incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption.

Large-scale violence or conflict is a different scenario. In PNG’s post-Independence history, apart from tribal warfare, this has been mostly connected with local grievances about the nature of foreign involvement in the economy. The most obvious and deadly example was the Bougainville civil war (1989-1998), triggered by anger over environmental damage and inequity associated with the then foreign-owned Panguna copper mine. More recently, landowner grievances about the Exxon Mobil co-venture, PNG LNG, and the Barrick Gold majority-owned Porgera gold mine in the highlands have resulted in violent skirmishes.

Having witnessed decades of under-development alongside massive resource projects, there is nothing that incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption. A special grevience is the idea of foreign companies taking the land’s wealth and at the same time leaving them poorer. For most citizens, there is a difference between suffering and hardship which has a comprehensible cause and that which is the result of social injustice.

Despite Covid-19 placing an enormous strain on our Pacific neighbour, Barker’s assessment appears sound, that “there should be no reason for chaos or PNG turning into a failed state, although many of its institutions can long be deemed as failing, or severely deficient.”

And though it is too early to judge, further political strength may come from Prime Minister James Marape, who came to power last year. Maraphe has adopted a more assertive stance with foreign investors in resource projects, claiming to better represent his nation’s interests. The emergence of Covid-19 coincided with Marape’s attempt to end Barrick Gold’s involvement in the Porgera mine and amend the terms of the proposed P’nyang gas extension project agreement with Exxon Mobil. Despite the courts ordering the government back to negotiations with Barrick Gold, Marape’s approach is what locals have demanded for a long time. The security and “trust” environment for foreign investors won’t improve unless Papua New Guineans see better returns.

PNG is still ranked a nation of “low human development”: life expectancy is 64 years, barely a quarter of the population have access to reliably mains electricity, and just over half of people in urban areas have improved sanitation (in rural areas, this the rate is less than 15%).

So the pandemic, if anything, highlights the urgency of maintaining a focus on diversifying the nation’s economy to better ride global events and uncertain world markets. Diversification became a core part of the government’s budget policy two years ago. Before the coronavirus outbreak, public expenditure was tuned to stimulating agriculture and the private sector, alongside investment in infrastructure and services, such as roads, power, and digital connectivity.

The government is making cautious moves to lift some of the internal lockdown restrictions. This will lead to improved conditions for the local economy. But it will be important, in carrying the country through this crisis and preserving stability, to not lose sight at the national level of the long-term needs, such as rigorous fiscal management, and more diversified and resilient employment for millions of Papua New Guineans.


Constitutional questions over Solomon Islands’ coronavirus crackdown

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 18 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

On 25 March, following a government decision, the Solomon Islands Governor General Sir David Vunagi, declared a state of public emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Solomon Islands remains one of a few countries worldwide that is still without a reported case of the novel coronavirus. The Emergency Powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 authorised Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare to make orders to protect the country from the pandemic and to prevent the spread of virus if there were cases. A travel ban was imposed, stopping international flights (except cargo flights), and schools closed. The maritime border with Papua New Guinea between Shortland and Bougainville was also shutdown.

The government’s decision to invoke a state of emergency was widely accepted as necessary in order to protect the country from Covid-19. On the face of it, the decision was also in line with the constitution.

But there is now an urgent need to examine whether the government has politicised the state of emergency, and whether its behaviour really is constitutional after all.

The regulations give the PM the power to make orders to restrict the movement of people, vessels and aircrafts, restrict assembly, suspend the media and declare a public place as emergency zone. These restrictions could infringe people’s fundamental rights, such as the right to movement, free association and freedom of expression as provided for by the constitution.

The current government’s position is that the Covid-19 Regulations restrict the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, such restriction is not absolute. As stated under section 16(7) of the constitution:

Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of the [fundamental rights provisions under the constitution] to the extent that the law in question makes in relation to any period of public emergency provision, or authorises the doing during any such period of any thing, that is reasonably justifiable in circumstances of any situation arising or existing during the period for the purpose of dealing with that situation.

The High Court of Solomon Islands in Douglas v Attorney General [1999] SBHC 147 explained section 16(7) as follows: “If anything contained in or done under the authority of any law, enacted pursuant to the state of public emergency, is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in the circumstances etc., it may be deemed unconstitutional and invalid.”

The key point is the idea that restrictions on fundamental rights must be “reasonably justifiable … for the purpose of dealing with that situation”.

Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

The question therefore must be “what is reasonably justifiable” for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – which is the situation for which the state of public emergency was invoked. Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

An example is questions about logging production around the country and phosphate mining in Rennell, which has continued, including with overseas shipments, despite the declaration to keep borders closed. The Bulk Carrier Vessel MV Worship Light was cleared by customs to offload cargo near Honiara despite earlier allegedly violating “international and domestic maritime regulations”. The Western Province Premier, David Lani Gina also questioned why another container ship was allowed to dock at Noro without undergoing a 14-day quarantine as required by the Covid-19 regulations. These are instances of not applying the regulations with potential to undermine the purpose of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Other cases have also raised questions about what could be “reasonably justified” as related to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Claude Posala, a senior medical officer who was outspoken on health issues, lost his job on 6 April for having allegedly breached regulation 26 because his social media posts were purportedly “inflammatory against the government”.

More recently, the national government threatened to suspend the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) because the province’s Premier, Daniel Suidani was allegedly making statements against the government’s efforts to fight against Covid-19. This included cautioning the government about obtaining Covid-19 equipment from China. Suidani had earlier drawn the ire of the national government for opposing the diplomatic switch to China last year, yet he has described the latest threats as unsubstantiated and based on misinterpretations of the law.

After the opposition leader Matthew Wale cautioned the government not to suspend the MPG “at a time when unity is needed”, the government responded claiming that Wale’s statement was intended to “create disharmony” and “provoke animosity against the government during [the] state of emergency period.” The government said Wale “would be referred to the police for breaching Covid-19 emergency measures”.

Such instances suggest the government has politicised the state of emergency, using the powers to marginalise anyone questioning its decisions, while also being selective in its application and enforcement of the regulations. The Covid-19 regulations, on their face, are constitutionally sound, and may allow for orders that may restrict fundamental rights. Yet the application and enforcement still has to be constitutional, which in this case means applying the law in a manner reasonably justifiable for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.


COVIDcast Episode 11: Dave Sharma MP on COVID-19 and Pacific relations

Published 15 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In Episode 11 of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program, sat down with Dave Sharma, Liberal member for the federal seat of Wentworth, to discuss strengthening ties between Australia and the Pacific, and a potential Australia‒Pacific travel “bubble”. Sharma has a particular interest in the Pacific region, having served as a diplomat in Papua New Guinea, and is co-convener of the recently formed Parliamentary Friends of the Pacific.

Sharma began by outlining his proposal that the “trans-Tasman bubble” – opening trade, commerce and tourism links between Australia and New Zealand – be extended to Pacific nations. Sharma said Covid-19 had been well controlled in the region with a low number of cases, and he focused on the fact that tourism and trade with Australia and New Zealand was an “economic lifeline” for Pacific neighbours. He noted the heavy toll the virus had taken on the economies of the region, citing Fiji as an example:

About 40% of its GDP comes from tourism and that’s basically gone to zero through this crisis. In Australia we’re looking at an economic contraction of somewhere in the high single figures, but Fiji is looking at the 20‒30% range.

On the question of the global impact of the virus, Sharma said, “It’s much more feasible to see these sorts of normal commerce, trade and tourism links re-establishing themselves between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific than it is with other parts of the world”, although he cautioned that a Pacific travel bubble would not be in place before the end of 2020. He also noted that relaxing travel restrictions would happen sequentially: “Domestic travel first, Australia and New Zealand travel next, and then more broadly into the Pacific.”

Pryke raised debate about Australia’s migration program and how proposed changes might affect Pacific nations. Sharma highlighted the importance of the Pacific Labour Mobility Schemes, describing it as a “win‒win” for the countries involved, in sharing skills, facilitating remittances, and addressing a shortage of workers in certain sectors.

Pryke and Sharma also discussed what might be next for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, what else Australia is and should be doing to respond to Covid-19 in the Pacific, and how Australia’s ties with the region can be further strengthened.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


To act, or not? Al-Shabaab’s response to a Covid-19 crisis in Somalia

A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, regional security agencies have flagged the potential for a new wave of violent extremism to emerge within Somalia. World Health Organisation figures show that Somalia has had more than 1200 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 50 deaths. However, the actual number of cases is likely far higher due to limited testing capacity and lack of skilled health workers.

The pandemic has presented the opportunity for groups to ramp up both rhetorical and physical attacks while governments are feeling particularly weak and distracted by the virus, with the dual objectives of furthering their own respective ambitions and expanding their support base. How, and with what effect, al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most well-known violent extremist group, will operate under these new conditions is yet to be fully realised. However, there are a number of potential trajectories that may emerge.

Exploiting conditions and strengthening networks

Within Somalia itself, the current conditions would be easy for insurgent groups to exploit. Tensions have been running high in the capital after the recent police killings of two citizens while enforcing Covid-19 restrictions on 24 April, culminated in widespread protests over the apparent impunity of the government security forces. And the timing could not be worse, as the frustration over price hikes in food prices in the lead up to Ramadan fans civil unrest. While escalating food costs around the Holy month of Ramadan is not unique, the pressures of the Covid-19 lockdowns mean that the price spikes are higher at a time when the income for many is drastically reduced.

What benefit does this civic unrest have for al-Shabaab? The political turmoil could be harnessed to radicalise and recruit new members, to promote a view that the government of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has mishandled the Covid-19 crisis, and to present themselves as an alternative.

The Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for al-Shabaab to tighten it grip and expand its control over regions.

So far, the group appears to have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to escalate operations, with a number of attacks reported throughout the month of April. They likely will also capitalise upon existing resentment toward the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The continuing lockdown and price escalations coupled with the reduced earning capacity may push more people to turn to informal networks. In times of crisis, research has indicated that networks have proven invaluable lifelines for everything from ensuring survival, and a means of income to a sense of normalcy. Covid-19 could also see al-Shabaab grow its support network through the provision of much needed services. Extensive informal networks already exist within Somalia, and the prolonged lockdown risk growing these networks further. These networks operate without state regulation or state control and could be readily exploited by al-Shabaab. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for the group to tighten its grip and expand its control over regions.

Aid work is continuing in Somalia to assist in tacking Covid-19 (Trócaire/Flickr)

Targeted messaging

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a “global ceasefire” as the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic. While this has seen some modest success (for example, the Saudi coalition’s unilateral ceasefire in Yemen), it seems unlikely this will resonate with non-state jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab. The Islamic State has already encouraged its supporters to attack Western targets while they are weakened and distracted by the pandemic.

Al-Shabaab has also taken the opportunity to bring Covid-19 into their broader anti-Western narrative, blaming the spread of the virus on “the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”. As the pandemic continues, it is yet to be seen whether al-Shabaab will follow the example set by al-Qaeda, with whom they have been affiliated since 2009, which has focused on providing health guidance and condemning the immorality they argue caused the pandemic, rather than actually encouraging violence as Islamic State has done.

The cost of doing nothing?

However, there may be other reasons for al-Shabaab to remain away from the spotlight during the crisis. Violent overtures during this time might be poorly received, and rather than encouraging recruitment, may in fact result alienate the public. Indeed, this very scenario occurred in previous crises in the Horn of Africa. The group has previously caused more harm than good to its reputation during crises, such as during the 2011 famine when it denied there was a famine and banned aid workers from entering Shabaab-controlled territory, turning many of their former supporters against them, and it is yet to be seen if the group has learned from past mistakes.

Alternatively, the group might not have the resources to continue a widespread campaign in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The group’s extensive networks of taxation – a network that allegedly extends into the diaspora ­– may be feeling the pinch under market contractions both within Somalia and abroad. This may lead the group to press pause on their campaign of terror for the foreseeable future.

Al-Shabaab has a number strategic choices that could all likely serve the group well, be it using the pandemic to reiterate the failings of the current government, or extend and strengthen existing informal networks, or promote their messaging. Even if the group choose not to act, there is still the possibility of benefit. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab have proven themselves past masters of exploiting political turmoil, and the current crisis provides the group with another opportunity.


The health challenge in PNG is far greater than Covid-19 alone

A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth.

Many women and girls walk kilometres for days when heavily pregnant in order to access health facilities. Just ten years ago, women and girls in rural districts would only visit a clinic as a place “to go die”, not to deliver a baby. Stigma and poor health literacy added to the fear – with the country still the hotspot for the world’s most drug-resistant tuberculosis, alarming malaria rates, and recent polio outbreaks. Even today, for every 100,000 live births in the country, 215 women die in complications resulting from labour.

Now add to this the danger of Covid-19.

The PNG health system should fear a larger indirect death toll than from the coronavirus pandemic itself. The myths and misinformation associated with Covid-19 are only going to add to the barriers of receiving a supervised and safe birth. PNG has a population of more than 8 million, with health challenges unfortunately as diverse as its 800 different languages. Vaccination rates are poor, and with people fearful of Covid-19, women and girls will deliver babies in the bush, often alone.

The challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services.

Studies of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone revealed a 34% increase in maternal mortality rates in health clinics alone during the outbreak. This followed stress on the medical supply chain and transport of drugs and equipment within the country. PNG faces the same risks should Covid-19 overburden the health system. Relatively simple treatments such a medications, gauze, or IV drips can stop a mother from bleeding to death, but it all depends on these potentially life-saving materials being available in rural health clinics.

In pre-Covid times, tuberculosis had been feared as the world’s biggest killer disease, claiming more than 4000 lives a day globally. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we must not forget that tuberculosis remains the biggest killer, and the most drug-resistant strain, XDR-TB, is silently spreading in PNG. Millions of dollars and years of research have been dedicated towards tuberculosis programs in PNG, and this cannot go to waste as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Strict tuberculosis treatment regimes are still required, with complete patient compliance. Otherwise, tuberculosis prevalence will spike, and with it worsening drug resistance and ultimately more deaths.

A classroom in Kimbe, West Britain, PNG (ADB/Flickr)

Chronic disease is a major challenge across the Pacific. Malaria is a constant threat, especially in PNG and Solomon Islands, which accounts for more than 90% of cases in the Western Pacific Region, according to the World Health Organisation. That figure could climb if Covid-19 disrupts mitigation efforts, such as the spraying of insecticides, use of treated nets, or access to malaria testing.

Immunisation rates also remain stubbornly low. Headline outbreaks demonstrate the dangers, such as in 2018 in PNG with polio – a disease once thought all but eradicated – or in Samoa with a devastating measles episode. Covid-19 has the potential to severely disrupt what should be routine immunisation programs by gobbling up resources and putting a stop to vaccination patrols due to travel restrictions. The damage from this disruption may not become evident for five or more years.

So for PNG, even as the government seeks to contain the spread of coronavirus, now is the time to emphasize that immunizations are an essential health service. This effort will ultimately reduce the burden on the PNG health system.

All this illustrates that the challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services. The virus not only attacks people, but the systems people have built in an effort to support the most vulnerable. The burden on an already weak health system will be immense and long-lasting.

PNG is unlikely to reach the Sustainable Development Goals target of reducing maternal mortality rates by 2030, along with the lowering the cost of other major diseases. If any good is to come from the Covid-19 pandemic, hopefully it will be the chance for PNG to reassess the deep-seated problems in its health system and governance – and work towards improving healthcare access for all.


Creating a Pacific bubble

An Australian funded Covid-19 support package arrives in Solomon Islands last month (DFAT/Flickr)
An Australian funded Covid-19 support package arrives in Solomon Islands last month (DFAT/Flickr)
Published 7 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

The success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic in both Australia and New Zealand has led to a novel idea – the opening up of trans-Tasman travel as long as each country is able to keep infections under control. It would be a ray of hope and normalcy, and an economic plus for both parties. While so far no Pacific countries are included in the “bubble”, Minister for International Development Alex Hawke has indicated they could well be next – provided they continue to successfully manage the pandemic.

Early signs are positive. Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have had no infections at all, while Fiji had just 18 cases, with no new infections in the last two weeks. New Caledonia has not had a new case in several weeks. Tonga has had no cases, is even looking at re-opening night clubs.

The benefits of a regional bubble extending to the Pacific go beyond increasing the number of sunny holiday spots available to Australian tourists. A relaxation on travel restrictions would have an enormous impact on the lives of children in the region. Australia considers the Pacific “our family” – and its Pacific Step-up strategy has largely been about entering a new chapter in the relationship with these neighbours. Here is an opportunity to do just that.

Countries in the Pacific are seizing this moment to increase regional cooperation. The Pacific Islands Forum, of which Australia is a member, has invoked the Biketawa Declaration to respond to the crisis, the same collective response instrument that was used when Australian and New Zealand peacekeepers were deployed to Solomon Islands. The Forum has compared the response to Covid-19 to the Tuvaluan concept of “te fale-pili” – meaning houses which are close to one another have a moral responsibility to protect each other in times of hardship. The region is ready to step up, and is asking Australia and New Zealand to join them in doing so.

Suva, when the cruise ships had come to town (ILO Asia-Pacific/Flickr)

Fiji has one of the lowest rates of extreme poverty in the Pacific yet its prosperity is built almost entirely on tourism – 10% of households have at least one person working in the tourism industry. According to the ANZ bank, Fiji may lose nearly 602,000 visitors by air this year, a 67% drop translating into a GDP contraction of around 12%, putting about 75,000 jobs at risk. Vanuatu, too, is expected to experience a contraction in GDP, in part due to a loss of up to 21,000 tourism jobs, and will likely experience a major recession, compounding the impact of Tropical Cyclone Harold.

The fall-out of this drop in visitor numbers will be experienced by the most vulnerable: children in poor households whose families have the least savings. Or in the case of Vanuatu, families already reeling from the impact of Cyclone Harold. At a time of belt-tightening across the Australian government, allowing tourism to continue to Pacific neighbours is one way of ensuring they do not fall into a poverty and debt trap.

The sunburnt English backpacker is unlikely to return to regional Australia anytime soon. By scaling up regional worker programs, Australia can ensure enough labour in key industries, while giving hard-working Pacific Islanders a chance to send money back to their families.

Another major income source for families in the Pacific is remittances; they are a greater share of Pacific economies than aid, and represent between 5­–40% of the GDP of Pacific countries. The World Bank estimates that due to Covid-19, global remittances are projected to decline by approximately 20%, making this economic shock the largest decline in remittances in recorded history.

Australia is the source of 26% of remittances to the Pacific, with Pacific seasonal workers sending home approximately $2,200 over a six-month period in Australia, and bringing an average of $6,650 in savings back at the end of their work. The Australian government has allowed Pacific Islanders on labour mobility schemes to stay in Australia during the pandemic and to keep working, allowing this lifeline to continue.

The creation of a regional bubble which includes the Pacific would allow these programs to continue and even to expand, as agricultural and seasonal labour from other countries dries up – the sunburnt English backpacker is unlikely to return to regional Australia anytime soon. By scaling up these programs, Australia can ensure enough labour in key industries, while giving hard-working Pacific Islanders a chance to send money back to their families.

This pandemic is a cataclysmic upending of business as usual for international tourism and migration. And yet Australia is incredibly fortunate to find itself in a neighbourhood where Covid-19 is being taken seriously, and has so far been contained in several countries. The Pacific Step-up is about Australia forging genuine partnerships with neighbours. That means relationships which are reciprocal and made between equals, which makes them enduring in a way that donor-recipient bonds are not.

Australia and New Zealand have been invited into the Pacific family – with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails. There are almost 1 million children in the Pacific whose livelihoods hang in the balance – their ability to continue their schooling or obtain the healthcare they need is dependent on a functioning local economy. Including the Pacific in the bubble should be Australia’s declaration of faith in the Pacific family and show a commitment to the future of the children who live there.


Philippines: Bangsamoro, between conflict and Covid-19

Residents wait to vote on an autonomy referendum, 6 February 2019, Salvador, Lanao del Norte, southern Philippines (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Residents wait to vote on an autonomy referendum, 6 February 2019, Salvador, Lanao del Norte, southern Philippines (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In the midst of a delicate war-to-peace transition, still punctuated by military operations, attacks from militant groups and vendettas between feuding clans, the newly created autonomous region of Bangsamoro, in the southern Philippines, is now living in fear of Covid-19. While the extent of the pandemic remains unclear due to lack of testing, the virus presents an additional challenge the 13-month-old interim government led by the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could have well done without. They might, however, find a silver lining among the pandemic’s dark clouds.

One year after its creation, the MILF-dominated Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) still needs to prove itself. Most of the established ministries are operating, one third of the MILF’s combatants have been decommissioned and the much-awaited block grant mechanism – which provides the region with some financial autonomy – is on track. But internal divisions within the Bangsamoro parliament, adjustment to the realities of governance, and administrative hiccups have also led to skepticism on the ex-rebels’ ability to govern efficiently. They also face a dilemma in their relations with the region’s most powerful families. Bangsamoro’s tradition of dynastic leadership means the former rebels need to accommodate clans that remain the backbone of the Bangsamoro political culture. Yet building a strong and inclusive institution inevitably implies challenging these families’ influence.  

Persistent violence is an additional burden to communities plagued by uncertainty and economic hardship. It might further threaten humanitarian operations. It could also jeopardise peace in the long run.

In this context, the Covid-19 crisis is becoming a crucial test. The region’s weak health infrastructure is clearly not prepared for the impact of a wide-reaching pandemic. But, if managed well, the crisis could prove to be an opportunity for the regional authority to assert itself as a capable institution in the eyes of both the region’s clans and the general population.

In the battle against the virus, the BTA needs to work in close collaboration with the five provincial authorities and numerous municipalities across the region, which are all in the hands of various clans. In the early stages of the pandemic, it drafted a contingency plan, set up a regional Covid-19 taskforce and demonstrated leadership in keeping the public informed on developments. Meanwhile, the provinces and municipalities led by local powerbrokers constituted the first line of response, channeling food assistance to communities that have been under various lockdowns since March. In some cases, BTA ministries reached out with direct aid as well, working with local authorities. While the response was not always systematic or well-coordinated, it achieved a degree of complementarity and seems to have avoided the worst – at least for now.

At times, political discord hampered the response, notably in Cotabato City, the seat of the BTA. Cotabato’s outspoken mayor has never hidden her scepticism of the former rebels’ capacity to govern, opposing the formal turnover of the city to the Bangsamoro more than one year after its residents voted, along with other Bangsamoro inhabitants, to join the new autonomous region. Since the outbreak, she openly argued with BTA officials about protocols for the distribution of relief. While this pandemic-related dispute has waned for now, the clash of interests between a strong-minded local leader and the new Bangsamoro administration is likely to resurface.

Sheikh Kalifa Usman Nando (left), Wali (ceremonial head) of the Bangsamoro Government, and Interim Chief Minister Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim at the first session of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, 29 March 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not Covid-19 alone that threatens Bangsamoro’s mostly rural areas. The lockdown’s impact on an already dire economic situation threatens long-term consequences. Following President Duterte’s announcement to lift the lockdown over some parts of the Philippines, the BTA needs to plan ahead. Testing for the virus in the Bangsamoro is not yet possible, and medical equipment is sorely lacking.  While the BTA is setting up an isolation center in Cotabato to care for potential patients and plans to increase local testing capacity, it should also improve contact tracing and implement  social-distancing measures in the post-quarantine stage, in coordination with local authorities.

Given the track record of past regional governments, even if relief operations continue after the lockdown, communities will likely worry about uneven distribution and be suspicious of any potential misuse of funds. The BTA needs to ensure maximum transparency in the distribution of aid and avoid favouritism. It would also likely gain goodwill by preparing early to help the socio-economic recovery of the most vulnerable areas that were affected by the lockdown. It should not, in particular, ignore the remote and often neglected islands of the Sulu Archipelago.

Covid-19 and its impact should also not eclipse a longer-lasting challenge in the Bangsamoro: communal violence between clans, known as “rido”. Since the outbreak, these feuds have killed at least three people and displaced several hundred. Persistent violence is an additional burden to communities plagued by uncertainty and economic hardship. It might further threaten humanitarian operations. It could also jeopardise peace in the long run. Even in this time of pandemic, the BTA should boost reconciliation efforts to pacify such vendettas.  

A holistic response to the pandemic would show the BTA’s constituents it has the commitment and ability to deliver essential services at an unprecedented time of crisis. The interim government needs to work closely with provincial leaders, building trust, maintaining peace, and ensuring transparent management of the pandemic. Covid-19 provides an unexpected opportunity for cooperation, not just in tackling the pandemic but in fostering a peaceful future in the Bangsamoro.


Winds of change: Rethinking disaster relief after Cyclone Harold

Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 30 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Wind speeds over 215 kilometres per hour, more than 180,000 people affected, communities and their infrastructure hit hard, and countries in lockdown – Cyclone Harold is the most recent climate-fuelled calamity to wreak havoc in the Pacific islands. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, this recovery will be one of the most challenging for the region.

It is not the first, nor will it be the last, of these devastating Category 5 cyclones. The difference this time is that external humanitarian “saviours” will be scarce on the ground, but perhaps the current situation will create a space for more locally driven and flexible responses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050.

The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, acknowledged the devastation, but also the possibilities to reshape disaster relief operations, stating that “the pandemic offers an opportunity to consider climate-smart response and recovery measures”. Following every major environmental disaster, performance assessments have highlighted the need for better coordination, stronger local engagement, and “building back better”. Now is a good time to deliver on those ambitions and elevate the role and recognition of local systems.

In the 2019 IPCC Report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050. The human, economic, and social costs of future events will be high and pressure on community responses elevated. It has been estimated, for example, that the impact of Fiji’s 2015 Tropical Cyclone Winston will be felt until 2025, with a substantial hit to its economy – one fifth of its 2014 GDP.

The risk to communities will be even greater following Cyclone Harold if local networks and assets are not better leveraged. Post-disaster assessments have highlighted that after immediate humanitarian needs are addressed, efforts must be geared first toward vulnerable people, then focus on shelter, livelihoods, and infrastructure. Priorities are place-dependent – but if no one asks local people, no one knows.

Unfortunately, these questions are not always posed. Humanitarian assistance often ends up being supply-driven rather than demand-driven. During Cyclones Winston and Pam, a notable proportion of aid went to waste because it did not meet local needs and, more concerning, overwhelmed supply chains and deliveries of needed goods. Basic aid did not reach several communities simply because lack of visibility or legal recognition existed in the formal system. Consequently, densely populated peri-urban settlements suffered.

Most Pacific island countries now take a sector-based approach to disaster response, which in many cases leads to siloed interventions. Those in charge of shelter delivery do not always speak productively to those providing water, health care, or protection services. As the UN gender adviser Aleta Miller noted following Cyclone Winston, “a lack of coordination between the wide range of actors involved in responses can cause even more harm … if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. 

In response, area-based approaches (ABAs) have been developed and widely adopted by the humanitarian aid community for more effective post-disaster recovery. As the name suggests, the idea is to focus on specific locations, and within them provide coordinated, cross-sectoral responses, such as linking water aid with shelter and food production aid.

Satellite images of tropical Cyclone Harold near Vanuatu (NASA/Artyom Tadzhibaev via Flickr)

Following Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, a summary of lessons learned highlighted the need to ensure connectivity between national and community responses. Of note was the need for key information to be delivered via trusted communication channels, such as radio stations, churches and traditional leaders. In addition, the report called for a tighter fit between National Disaster Management Offices (NDMOs) and local emergency operation centres, along with more thorough consultations with vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Recently, the Pacific Islands Forum announced their commitment to a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19. Details are scant, but presumably such a pathway will be collaborative and inclusive. Working from the top down in the Pacific is difficult given the limited reach of many national and regional agencies. The ABAs, championed in other parts of the world as effective for their post-disaster recovery, might be just what is required with their ground up approach to engage communities and local leadership. Robert Dodds, Pacific Regional Shelter Manager at International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) explains, “we need to engage with local communities and local government first and foremost. It’s about them being in the driving seat”.

ABAs have strong appeal in the Pacific islands and are becoming the preferred approach for leading actors, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Global Shelter Cluster (GSC). However, they will only work if implementing organisations take the time to forge local partnerships and prioritise genuine needs.

From the field, we know that ABAs are difficult to enact, slow to deliver, and involve rounds of negotiations between invested parties. They do not fit the project management tools and modes of operation most often used by aid organisations, and they need adaptive delivery approaches that do not always suit agencies’ short timeframes. Yet, when done well, they respond to pressing needs and enable those on the ground to lead, which is vital to sustainable outcomes, especially in these unprecedented times that risk becoming “the new normal”.


The danger of disease in the world’s largest refugee camp​​​​​​​

Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women)
Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women)
Published 24 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The Bangladesh government made the decision earlier this month to place the southern district of Cox’s Bazar in lockdown as Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh increased. Cox’s Bazar hosts the world’s largest refugee camp, housing almost a million Rohingya since late 2017 when around 700,000 fled violence in Myanmar, joining those previously displaced by fighting.

While there is yet to be a positive case of coronavirus identified in the refugee camps, the first case was recorded in the city of Cox’s Bazar on 24 March. Entry and exit from the area – other than emergency food supplies and medical support – has been prohibited in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. 

A recent report for the Centre for Humanitarian Health at John Hopkins University has nonetheless suggested that a large-scale outbreak of Covid-19 in the camps is very likely and would lead to thousands of deaths.

Communities displaced by conflict are uniquely vulnerable to pandemics. In fact, displaced populations are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, and are more likely to die from infectious diseases than anything else. This is because their immune systems are often depleted, often having had limited access to food, potable water, and healthcare, and living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

Health infrastructure already overstretched and under-resourced, and health services don’t enjoying the full confidence and trust of the Rohingya residents.

Almost immediately after the influx of Rohingya refugees into Cox’s Bazar in late 2017, the World Health Organization detected a rapid and ongoing spread of diphtheria in the camps. Diphtheria, like Covid-19, is transmitted through respiratory droplets, and spreads quickly in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with compromised immune systems.

In 2018, the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) further warned that the presence of cholera and acute watery diarrhea in Bangladesh, combined with overcrowding, lack of access to safe water and high rates of malnutrition in the camps, could result in an outbreak having “the potential to kill thousands”. The pre-existing prevalence of acute respiratory infection, with around 175,000 cases since start of 2020, is a strong indicator that Covid-19 would spread easily in the camps.

While diphtheria has a vaccine, and cholera a treatment plan, Cocid-19 so far has neither. In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment, social distancing, self-isolation, and good hygiene practices have proven to be the most effective ways of staying safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. This fact has exposed socio-economic inequalities between those who are capable of these strategies, and those who are not.

Medical aid seen in the camps in July last year. Entry and exit from the area has now been prohibited (MedGlobal Org/Flickr)

For communities that are displaced by conflict, social distancing, self-isolation and access to soap and water are immediate challenges. For many of these people, the ability to isolate themselves from others is, as described by Médecins Sans Frontières, “a luxury”.

For the Rohingya who live in the 34 makeshift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, social distancing is not possible. Most live in cramped shelters covered with tarpaulin, and access to food and potable water is limited; it generally requires daily walks and waiting in queues. People also need to walk to and queue for overburdened and overcrowded hygiene facilities, including toilets – and they have limited access to soap.

The camps themselves are severely overcrowded. In a single square kilometre, 40,000 Rohingya reside. Overcrowding makes basic services hard to provide, and the rush to provide water facilities and latrines, after the influx of more refugees in 2017, increased the risk of water contamination.

Rohingya in these camps also have somewhat limited access to health care information and services, with health infrastructure already overstretched and under-resourced, and health services not enjoying the full confidence and trust of the Rohingya residents. This undermines their ability to protect themselves and compromises any effort to identify, monitor and contain outbreaks of contagious diseases.

Limited access to healthcare information was compounded recently by the government ban on mobile-phone and internet usage (Rohingya in the camps are not able to legally purchase SIM cards and internet coverage in the camps has been restricted since September 2019). This has generated misinformation and ignorance about Covid-19 and led to 26 international humanitarian agencies calling on both the Bangladesh and Myanmar Governments on 16 April to restore telecommunications in order to support “humanitarian efforts to save lives”. This ban has also separated Rohingya from support networks in Myanmar and elsewhere, so important at this time.

Misinformation is further resulting in people who feel unwell not disclosing this information because of frightening rumours about what authorities do to people showing symptoms of Covid-19. In addition to the impact this might have upon the spread of the disease, it further increases fear, insecurity, and stress among the Rohingya.

Telecommunications is also essential to carry out humanitarian work, particularly now as international actors work remotely (to avoid bringing the virus into the camps) and rely on people in situ. While some international organisations have continued and expanded their activities in the camps to best prepare for an outbreak of Covid-19, all relief work other than essential activities was halted in late March.

Protection services have drawn down, including child protection and psychosocial support, leading to likely increases in insecurity and violence, especially as stress and anxiety increase in the camps. Child-friendly spaces have been closed and a long-awaited education program put on hold. Children, and particularly girls who are often confined to their shelters, are thus unable to access what may be their only safe spaces and support mechanisms at a time when they are most needed – compromising their current and future well-being.

So far, experience has shown that responding to the coronavirus pandemic requires early action, well-resourced and organised health care, socially disciplined and well-informed populations with the capacity and resilience to respond, and space and time. These were already in short supply in refugee communities. As Bangladesh enters its monsoon season in coming months, major challenges are ahead.


The phony war ends: PNG’s coronavirus challenge takes shape

A lack of reliable electricity is one of the many challenges in PNG compounded by a pandemic (ADB/Flickr)
A lack of reliable electricity is one of the many challenges in PNG compounded by a pandemic (ADB/Flickr)
Published 21 Apr 2020 11:00   2 Comments

For a few weeks it has seemed like PNG might have been engaged in a “phony war” against coronavirus.

Only two cases had been confirmed across the nation of around nine million people. One was a foreign mine worker who was quickly sent out of the country once his positive test was confirmed. The second was a health worker in East New Britain province where the source of the infection wasn’t entirely clear.

The government’s response to the positive cases was swift and harsh: a state of emergency, non-essential business lockdowns, bans on domestic air and road travel, and restrictions on markets and roadside selling. Parliament met and extended the declaration earlier this month.

And in the absence of any flare-up, those tough measures appeared to be working – although they were starting to chafe.

Prominent politicians such as the East Sepik Governor Allan Bird – who had advocated a hard-line shoot-to-kill order on illegal border crossers to stop the spread of the virus ­– had started to question the need for the harsh lockdowns, highlighting the economic impact.

But the past few days have started to reveal how pandemic has been silently spreading throughout the country. PNG’s phony war appears to be at an end.

Last week, five new cases were confirmed. Concerningly, three of those were in the Western Province, which borders both Indonesia and Australia’s Torres Strait. Another case was confirmed in East New Britain and alarmingly, the first case in Port Moresby: a quarantine official who had been working in the country’s Covid-19 national operations centre.

That takes the case load to seven. By international standards, those numbers are still small. But they also are a measure of the limited amount of testing that had been done – around 350 tests until this week.

PNG’s health system will struggle. Prime Minister James Marape has admitted as much – saying that the government hasn’t invested in health care as it should.

One provincial health worker has told me that they have been concerned about potential coronavirus cases in their area for weeks, but the restrictions on the national testing regime meant they weren’t able to have tests done to confirm their suspicions. Another official close to the national pandemic response believes the virus may be much more prevalent in the country than the tests so far have confirmed.

The country’s Institute of Medical Research in Goroka had been the centre of testing until a second laboratory in Port Moresby was established recently. But limits on the availability of testing agents means that the government has had to start sending samples to Australia.

PNG isn’t alone as a developing country with limited capacity to deal with this virus. There is the real prospect that Covid-19 will spread, largely unchecked, throughout the country for many months to come. Its land border with Indonesia means that whatever efforts it makes are always tied to the success its larger neighbour has in dealing with the pandemic.

And PNG’s health system will struggle. Prime Minister James Marape has admitted as much – saying that the government hasn’t invested in health care as it should. It already deals with a multitude of daily challenges including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. And beyond under-funding, corruption has hollowed out its capacity to respond.

Accommodating the PNG testing load in Brisbane is a major boost to the country’s surveillance capacity. It’s good to see Australia stepping up to help its nearest neighbour.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison must be commended for making sure that world leaders don’t forget the Pacific even as he and his government deal with the massive challenges at home.

Having raised the issue of supporting developing nations during their coronavirus response, on Thursday Morrison announced that PNG wouldn’t have to make any payments on a US$300 million loan negotiated as part of last year’s budget until the end of the year. It’s the start of what will should be an important and ongoing role Australia can play in helping PNG to deal with the virus and its impact.

It’s also one less thing that the country will have to worry about as it deals with what will be a massive challenge in the days ahead.


Australia needs a comprehensive plan for Covid-19 in the Pacific

Australian relief supplies delivered to Fiji at the weekend amid the Covid-19 outbreak and following Cyclone Harold (Defence Department)
Australian relief supplies delivered to Fiji at the weekend amid the Covid-19 outbreak and following Cyclone Harold (Defence Department)
Published 20 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Of all the regions in the world, the twin health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have the potential to hit the Pacific the hardest.

Pacific Island nations supported Australia during our bushfire crisis, sending members of their defence forces and making donations to communities in a much wealthier nation. This region is perhaps the most critical to Australia’s physical security – and a region which must be supported through the pandemic by a comprehensive Australian plan.

At latest count there are 266 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pacific island countries and seven deaths from the disease. The governments of at least 10 Pacific island countries have imposed states of emergency. Health workers with only a handful of ventilators at their disposal are bracing against more severe outbreaks. Travel throughout this vast and geographically dispersed region has been all but shut down, and populations already struggling with poverty are facing a grim economic outlook.

Perceptions in Pacific countries that Australia has let the region down at this time of need or is not listening to its Pacific partners could fundamentally compromise the Step Up.

The crisis will continue to unfold for some time yet out and will cast a long shadow over the countries of the Pacific.

There will be humanitarian, economic, social and political impacts – not only for the region itself, but also for Australia, which faces national security and geopolitical risks from an inadequate response to Covid-19 in the Pacific.

The coronavirus crisis has the potential to overburden weak local health systems. Healthcare systems in most Pacific countries suffer from a lack of resources, health professionals, basic equipment and infrastructure. In many countries, poor logistics, transport infrastructure and geographical isolation add to the challenges in providing health services in remote regions. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, and limited fresh water supplies in remote communities may also reduce the effectiveness of basic containment measures.

A caregiver for the elderly in Nuku’alofa Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

Some Pacific island nations’ economies face virtual collapse because of the pandemic.

Several nations are highly dependent on tourism, which has been shut down by travel restrictions. The most tourism-dependent economies are Fiji (where tourism comprises 17% of GDP), Samoa (23%), Vanuatu (40%), the Cook Islands (73%) and Tonga (10%), according to ANZ research and official figures.

Economic impacts are likely to go beyond tourism. The World Bank has identified the following additional economic risks for Pacific nations:

  • Commercial fishing may be reduced due to travel restrictions;
  • Fish exports may be affected by a global economic slowdown;
  • Construction and infrastructure projects may be affected by availability of labour and materials;
  • Remittances from Pacific nationals working abroad may slump;
  • Slower global growth may impact commodity prices and resources exports;
  • Global equity market declines may hit investment earnings of sovereign wealth funds which comprise significant sources of government revenue in Kiribati and Timor-Leste.

Covid-19 in the Pacific also presents risks for Australia’s national security and foreign policy interests. The Australian government’s participation in discussions by the Pacific Islands Forum on establishing a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19” is to be welcomed.

However, the need for humanitarian assistance comes as Australia already faces pressure from the domestic impacts of the virus, which will rightly always be the first priority for Australian governments. Economic contractions in Pacific nations will pose risks for Australian interests, including:

  • Direct impacts on Australian tourism businesses engaged with Pacific tourism;
  • Pressures from Pacific partners to boost development assistance;
  • Economic downturns may exacerbate the Pacific’s development challenges and increase state fragility;
  • Loss of income, which could create social tensions with risks of instability and conflicts in Pacific countries;
  • An impact on government budgets, which may increase the attractiveness of financial partnerships with China.

Papua New Guinea must be regarded as particularly vulnerable to the pandemic given the size of its population, its proximity to countries which have substantial outbreaks, and the lack of resources in its health system.

A priority for the Australian government in responding to the pandemic in the Pacific should be ensuring PNG receives urgent assistance to slow the spread of Covid-19. This assistance should be targeted at boosting the country’s healthcare resources and ability to test, contain, and treat the virus. Australia should provide direct support for such measures through its bilateral development assistance program. It should also urge speedy action by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on PNG’s current requests for funding for its Covid-19 response.

Buvussi Health Centre, PNG (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

Strong performance by Australia in assisting Pacific countries with Covid-19 would support the Morrison Government’s Pacific Step Up and its foreign policy objectives.

By the same token, perceptions in Pacific countries that Australia has let the region down at this time of need or is not listening to its Pacific partners could fundamentally compromise the Step Up.

This matters because COVID-19 also has implications for great power competition in the Pacific. There are already competing narratives about the roles of China and the US in responding to the pandemic.

On the one hand, the role of China’s government in initially covering up the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan may cause some Pacific countries to question the Chinese authoritarian model and to be wary of further engagement and exposure to China, including debt exposure. On the other hand, Beijing is seeking to use the apparent containment of the outbreak in China to articulate a narrative about the effectiveness of its model of governance and to establish itself as the world’s “counter-Covid leader in word and deed.”

China is seeking to boost its soft power through providing material aid to countries affected by the pandemic, including in the Pacific. It has convened a video conference for more than 100 Pacific government Ministers and officials with senior foreign affairs and health officials in Beijing. Its ambassadors in Pacific countries have been staging photo opportunities as they hand over cheques to local officials from Beijing’s US$1.9 million China-Pacific Island Countries Anti-Covid-19 Cooperation Fund.

Given the humanitarian, economic, foreign policy and geostrategic interests at stake, Australia needs a comprehensive strategy for working with Pacific partners on Covid-19. While the Australian Government has taken a number of ad hoc steps to assist the Pacific, the Foreign Minister and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific have had little to say about the issues facing the Pacific, let alone articulating any coherent plan for assisting the region and advancing Australia’s interests.

There needs to be a comprehensive and coordinated Australian strategy. This should comprise three phases: immediate humanitarian assistance; medium term economic recovery; and longer-term investment in resilience.

The strategy should be developed and implemented in close partnership with Pacific countries and organisations. Ultimately, we must listen to the needs and priorities of our Pacific neighbours.

It requires senior Australian leadership from the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and senior officials from Australia’s health, economic, foreign policy and defence agencies.

Phase one: immediate humanitarian assistance

The first phase would focus on containing the spread of the virus and responding to health and humanitarian needs, including economic needs such as the supply of essential goods including foodstuffs and fuel. Healthcare assistance would be a strong component of this phase.

Australia would provide funding, technical assistance, medical equipment, training, testing and personal protective equipment to hospitals and healthcare facilities in the Pacific. It would assist Pacific governments in providing advice and information to their communities on prevention strategies such as hygiene and social distancing.

Australia should also consider short term economic assistance, funded from the Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) budgets and leveraging funding from multilateral development institutions.

Covid-19 has highlighted the problem of a lack of access to water and sanitation infrastructure in many Pacific communities.

Short term economic assistance should also be targeted at Pacific tourism businesses which have called for measures such as freezing debt repayment obligations to banks.

Australia’s corporate sector is leading by example here – ANZ Pacific has offered to defer repayments for home, business and personal loans for up to six months for customers affected by Covid-19 in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and Kiribati.

Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority should provide support to Pacific regulators to facilitate such measures by local financial institutions.

Australia may also need to assist in providing a wider range of goods and equipment in short supply due to the impacts of the pandemic on travel, transport and global supply chains, given that many Pacific nations rely on imports for fuel and other essential commodities.

This phase would include Australia working with Pacific governments to ensure they gain access to the financial assistance being made available to developing countries by multilateral institutions and development banks.

Phase two: economic recovery

Australia should work on a Pacific economic recovery and rebuilding strategy with Pacific governments, the Pacific Islands Forum, other regional governments and groupings such as the G20, and the multilateral financial and development institutions.

Australian bilateral assistance will be able to support specific measures in consultation with Pacific countries. Australia can also provide technical assistance with the design of fiscal and monetary policy measures.

International support has contributed to a wastewater treatment facilty in Suva, Fiji (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

However, the scale of the economic fallout will require very substantial support from multilateral institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and ADB. Australia should play a leading role in advocating for the multilateral institutions to deliver economic and financial support for Pacific countries.

The recovery strategy should be multifaceted and could include:

  • Fiscal measures to support Pacific citizens, including measures which are effective in assisting people who work in the informal sector and may not be reached by existing social support programs;
  • A tourism recovery effort including marketing to traditional and new customer bases and temporary easing of government taxes such as airport taxes and passenger entry or exit charges to make the pricing of tourism products more attractive;
  • Liquidity support for small and medium sized businesses;
  • Bringing forward funds for infrastructure investments;
  • Assisting governments to finance domestic economic and fiscal policy measures;
  • Boosting Pacific labour mobility and migration opportunities to provide Pacific countries with enhanced flows of remittances.

The economic recovery strategy needs to reflect the specific circumstances of Pacific nations including their small population bases, lack of economic diversification, geographic isolation, remoteness from international markets and limited revenue bases and fiscal capacity of governments.

It also needs to reflect social needs including gender issues and the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, children and people in remote communities.

Phase three: building resilience

Over the next two to three years, Australia should consider the longer term implications of the pandemic for the Pacific.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our Pacific partners’ healthcare systems. This comes after several years in which the Coalition government’s ODA cuts have fallen more heavily on healthcare than on aid programs in physical infrastructure, trade facilitation and international competitiveness.

While the Coalition has increased Australia’s overall development assistance for the Pacific (by cutting aid significantly for East Asia and South Asia), it has also reoriented Pacific assistance to “hard” physical infrastructure at the expense of “soft” human infrastructure including health.

The Australian government needs to pause its review of its international development policy and reassess in the light of the pandemic’s lessons.

Soldiers from PNG with Australian officials following the summer bushfires in Australia (Defence Department)

Development assistance needs build greater capacity in healthcare and to support economic and social resilience. In health there is a need to improve resources, skills and capabilities both in responding to public health emergencies and also to tackle the region’s ongoing challenges in non-communicable diseases and preventative health interventions.

Covid-19 has highlighted the problem of a lack of access to water and sanitation infrastructure in many Pacific communities. Climate change will put additional pressures on water and sanitation infrastructure as rising sea levels, storm surges, and high tides introduce saltwater into freshwater resources in low-lying Pacific atolls.

Infrastructure investments should include social infrastructure in areas such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) that are less commercially attractive for private sector investors. Consideration should be given to earmarking a share of the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Finance Facility for the Pacific for investments in health and WASH infrastructure.

If Australia genuinely wants to be the partner of choice for Pacific island nations – with all the benefits that will bring for our national interest – then how we contribute to their Covid-19 challenge in coming months will shape our future in this important region.

This is a test that the region desperately needs Australia to pass.


How much is too much? Covid loans for the Pacific

A water supply, solid waste and sanitation project in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
A water supply, solid waste and sanitation project in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 16 Apr 2020 13:30   0 Comments

There is a growing recognition that Australia will need to do a lot to help the Pacific get through the Covid-19 pandemic. Like everywhere, big sums of money are needed. The question is how to finance it.

Many advanced economies are rolling out budget packages of 10% of GDP or more. The Pacific might need something similar. If so, that could mean as much as A$5 billion.

For the aid dependent Pacific, funding at anywhere near this scale must come from outside. Though other development partners will need to contribute, Australia is by far the leading player in the region. So there is some expectation that Canberra will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

For nine Pacific countries, sizeable Covid loans combined with policy dialogue around how future government spending and development partner assistance might be adjusted seem a reasonable path forward.

 

Given Australia’s own budgetary pressures, consideration has naturally gravitated towards the idea that much of this may have to take the form of loans rather than grants. Yet, that sits awkwardly with the repeated warnings issued by many – including by the authors of this article, as well as the Australian government – about the mounting risk of debt overload in the Pacific.

Can a big round of Covid loans really be justified, especially at the scale that might be required?

Concerns about debt overload usually focus on the debt sustainability analysis (DSA) ratings produced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These DSAs generally point to very limited room for the Pacific to absorb significantly more debt, with many countries already judged to be at a high risk of debt distress (see the table below).

However, mechanically applying the existing DSA ratings is not the best guide to thinking about how to finance today's pandemic response. The DSAs are based on a host of assumptions that will now need substantial revisiting, most notably about the scale and nature of future government borrowing plans. Clearly, with the current situation facing the region – which also includes a major tropical cyclone which hit Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga – financing needs and priorities will be substantially reshaped. Like their rich country counterparts, Pacific governments will need to keep their economies (and societies) afloat today, even if this might come at the expense of spending plans for tomorrow.

Updated DSAs will be required. But policy decisions are moving fast. In a crisis, there is no other choice.

 

CountryDSA rating *Total public debt risk indicatorExternal public debt risk indicator
KiribatiHigh riskNo breachNo breach
Marshall IslandsHigh riskBreachBreach
MicronesiaHigh riskNo breachNo breach
Papua New GuineaModerateNo breachNo breach
SamoaHigh riskBreachNo breach
Solomon IslandsModerateNo breachNo breach
TongaHigh riskNo breachBreach
TuvaluHigh riskBreachBreach
VanuatuModerateNo breachNo breach
Memo items
Fiji **SustainableN/AN/A
Palau **UnsustainableN/AN/A
Nauru **UnsustainableN/AN/A

To provide some immediate guidance, we conducted a simple exercise to examine the implications of a large package of hypothetical Covid loans against two key debt sustainability warning indicators.

The first focuses on the size of public and publicly guaranteed debt as a share of GDP. The second is the same measure but focused only on that owed to external creditors. In both cases, we use “present value” measures that account for how concessional or expensive each country’s existing debt is on average. We then add 10% of GDP in Covid loans – adjusting for the fact that we expect these would be provided on at least a semi-concessional basis (broadly following the loan terms under Australia’s Pacific infrastructure financing facility). We then compare what would result from a one-off round of Covid loans for each country against the warning thresholds used by the IMF and World Bank in their DSAs. Note, we make no adjustment for reduced economic growth as this remains uncertain and in only a few cases would this likely be large enough to sway the picture presented here.

The chart below shows the result for the total public debt indicator, while the overall results are summarized in the table presented above, along with the existing DSA ratings.

 

While having its limitations, the exercise suggests that five of the nine Pacific countries for which data is available would not immediately breach either of the warning thresholds. For these countries, sizeable Covid loans combined with policy dialogue around how future government spending and development partner assistance might be adjusted seem a reasonable path forward.

Conversely, two microstates – Marshall Islands and Tuvalu – do not appear to have scope for large Covid loans. For these two, the Covid financing response will need to take the form of grants.

Finally, Papua New Guinea and Tonga present a mixed picture, with each breaching one of the two warning thresholds. The breaches are however small, implying either more concessional or smaller loans could still be feasible. A more careful approach will nonetheless be needed in these countries given their heightened risk as well as to account for the negative growth impact of the virus. In the case of PNG, for instance, a formal structural adjustment program already looks likely to be a key part of any Covid bail-out package.

Clearly, there are more sustainable ways to finance the pandemic response from a Pacific perspective – using more concessional financing and combining this with debt restructuring or even outright forgiveness. Hopefully these will also be part of the overall pandemic response. The multilateral development banks are for instance preparing concessional financing packages, while on Wednesday night, the G20 has agreed to an eight month standstill on debt repayments to bilateral creditors – an approach that could benefit some Pacific countries, on the condition they are currently on debt service to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

Nonetheless, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. The scale of the current crisis means large Covid loans may need to be part of the answer. Fortunately, there is at least some scope to do this sustainably.


A decisive month for Covid-19 in Myanmar – and region beyond

Checking the temperatures of Myanmar fisherman on the Thai border (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Checking the temperatures of Myanmar fisherman on the Thai border (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 16 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As Thailand shut down its border last month, a wave of migrant workers jostled shoulder-to-shoulder back through the Myawaddy crossing to Myanmar. Some 45,498 Myawaddy migrant workers have reportedly been placed in quarantine – a total of 50,731 people were in isolation as of this week. But the effectiveness of the measures has been questioned. Concern grows that this may be Myanmar’s cruise-ship moment, but it is only one of a growing number.

According to the latest figures, the country had 62 confirmed Covid-19 patients and four deaths, the results compiled from more than 2100 tests. Recent cases suggest that some undetected community spread may also be occurring. The donation last week of a testing machine increases Myanmar’s testing capacity from 80 per day to 1400 – reliant still on obtaining enough reagents to conduct the tests. Doubt remains around these case counts and the real number of current cases won’t be known for at least two weeks.  

The Ministry of Health and Sport’s capacity for a pandemic has significantly improved in recent years. Myanmar was ranked seven (out of 11) Southeast Asian states in a recent pandemic preparedness index. In 2017, Naypyidaw invited the World Health Organization to conduct a joint external evaluation, a voluntary multi-sectoral process assessing public health emergency preparedness. Much of the capacity built since is around readiness to tackle seasonal vector borne disease outbreaks, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. This knowledge and architecture for communicable disease response will be useful during the current response.

There is already a high prevalence in the country of cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Preliminary research suggests these are associated with more severe forms of Covid-19.

Despite these improvements, Myanmar has the odds stacked against it in this pandemic.

The presence of several risk factors for severe disease or death from Covid-19 are not encouraging. There is already a high prevalence of cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Preliminary research suggests these are associated with more severe forms of Covid-19. The high rate of current smokers in the country – 43.8% among men aged 25-64 years old – is also cause for concern with similar associations with more severe forms of the disease indicated.

High rates of poverty and vulnerability are also concerning. Inequality is rife, not the least for the hundreds of thousands of precariously placed internally displaced persons and the 58% of the population living below or near the poverty line. Even before health system weakness or other factors are considered, these alone could make the case fatality rate higher in Myanmar. (One saving grace may be that Myanmar’s average age is 28 – older age is a strong risk factor for severe disease.)

Other worries abound. The health system remains weak and ill-prepared for this crisis. Bed capacity is limited. There are an estimated 600 critical care beds and 330 ICU beds (1.1/100,000 population) – the real operational number may be less. Other indicators may weaken an efficient response. Out of pocket expenditure on healthcare remains high at 76% of payments made at point of care, the highest in the region. This high cost of health care may mean people don’t seek healthcare and remain infectious in the community for longer, or wait too late to seek care and have more severe disease. These are but a few examples, but weakness in the health system will be exacerbated during the crisis.

The timing of the disease could also multiply its impact. The disease outbreak came just ahead of the Thingyan New Year celebration which runs through much of April. This is a period of increased mobility when people travel back to family and friends gather. Attempts have been made to curb such movements. Whether they are effective won’t be known until the end of the month. Following these celebrations, is monsoon season, when flooding and disasters are common, and vector borne disease, such as dengue increase.

Members of a Chinese medical expert team set out to Myanmar on 8 April from Kunming, China (Liu Ranyang/China News Service via Getty Images)

Complicating Naypyidaw’s response is that health governance is fractured in contested areas, with several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) running their own health services. These are supported by external actors, such as in Wa state, by Chinese state and non-state actors. They differ greatly in their capacity but are often poorly equipped. The immediate impacts aside, this crisis may see them become further decentralised through the support of external aid – the geopolitical impacts of which would be significant. For example, Chinese state actors may broaden their support in disenfranchised border communities in Myanmar in an attempt to build a second line of health security defence, this would rile Naypyidaw and have significant implications on ongoing conflict.

The reality is that areas controlled by EAOs will struggle to respond to the disease. Many of these communities and other vulnerable areas across the country could be hardest hit – particularly where healthcare is provided by humanitarian actors now running reduced programs. That will worry Naypyidaw and could draw muscular rather than cooperative response. 

Acknowledging the ongoing debate in the country, there is a chance that Myanmar may avoid the experience of Wuhan, Italy, or the United States. Thus far, reported case numbers remain comparatively low across Southeast Asia. This may be for one or several reasons including poor testing regimes or lower Covid-19 transmissibility in tropical climates.

Indeed, the response needs to fit the context. An extended European-style lockdown could be more damaging for the country than a more tailored response. In the short-term, however, particularly given the movement normally seen during this month’s New Year celebrations, measures that apply an abundance of caution are warranted and may mean a much shorter period of lockdown. 

Even if that most fortunate of cases is true, it may only be short-lived. The country needs to continue to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Myanmar is a crucial battleground to get ahead of Covid-19. Nestled between India, China and Bangladesh, or half the world’s population, and with porous borders, its ability to control an outbreak could have wider regional ramifications. Its success will be the regions.


Covid-19 and Pacific labour

(Cindy Wiryakusuma/DFAT/Flickr)
(Cindy Wiryakusuma/DFAT/Flickr)
Published 15 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

As borders close and globalisation contracts, consider the impact on the Pacific Island neighbours. Many countries in the region rely on labour mobility, with workers sent to Australian and New Zealand to help with fruit picking and work in regional areas. Workers on these schemes send around A$9,000 back to their families, the equivalent of three years wages in many countries.

Remittances such as these are vital to support countries with limited domestic industry. In Samoa, remittances make up around 18% of GDP, the equivalent of the manufacturing, agriculture, and mining industries combined for Australia. In Tonga, where remittances makes up 40% of GDP, the Australian seasonal work program alone is larger than aid plus trade.

Labour mobility is managed under the aid program and considered a win-win for Australian and New Zealand businesses struggling to have reliable seasonal employment. It provides greater agency to the most aid-dependent region in the world.

These programs were conceived in a world where Pacific Islanders could fly from their homes to Australia and New Zealand. Covid-19 has changed that world, at least for the short-term.

Countries all across the Pacific have declared a state of emergency, some lasting months. Flights have practically ceased. This slow-down greatly affects Pacific countries reliant on imports, tourism, and revenue from labour mobility.

The Australian government has responded, announcing on it would extend visas for Pacific Islanders already working on labour mobility programs by up to 12 months. New Zealand has extended temporary visas to late September. These arrangements will be a bonus for employers, enabling them to cover the next harvesting season and maintain experienced workers.

Both countries have barred all visa holders and hence future workers from entry. Pacific countries are also reluctant to send workers until it is safe to do so.

Horticulture work is physically exhausting and there is the very real risk of injury or illness (vijay chennupati/Flickr)

 

Extra income from extended visas will be welcomed by many workers. Interviews with returned workers in Samoa last month found many appreciated opportunities for extended deployments so they could send more money back to their families. Unsurprisingly, families of workers are worried about safety for those in countries with higher rates of Covid-19 than at home.

Horticulture work is physically exhausting and there is the very real risk of injury or illness restricting the ability for workers to continue indefinitely. Care must also be taken to ensure workers are still looked after and have sufficient income if they contract Covid-19.

If businesses stop operating, workers will be in the position where they are ineligible for welfare and unable to return home. This may be inevitable for hospitality workers in remote areas.

For businesses that continue operating, as many horticulture businesses should, there are practical challenges: colder weather and relocation to other farms. Workers are uncertain when they will be able to see their families again.

Vulnerable workers are at risk of exploitation, underpay, and modern slavery conditions. Given recent levels of uncertainty and the lack of other options, workers are particularly susceptible. Workers, their families and Pacific governments need greater transparency about health insurance coverage, worker obligations to particular employers, and what support and care is available in uncertain times.

If businesses stop operating, workers will be in the position where they are ineligible for welfare and unable to return home. This may be inevitable for hospitality workers in remote areas.

Pacific leaders met remotely on last week to discuss responses to Covid-19, with the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum proclaiming: “If ever there was a time where the region and its partners needed to work together… it is now.”

Australia and China are providing resources to scale up health facilities, but as even the wealthiest of countries are struggling, greater support may be required. The economic implications of this crisis are still being understood, and it will undoubtedly ripple across the Pacific where many countries are in lockdown.

Stimulus spending across the Pacific will be at a much smaller scale than seen in the West. Samoa has announced a US$23 million package. Vanuatu and Fiji, which are also responding to Tropical Cyclone Harold, have announced packages of US$32 million and US$400 million respectively.

Labour mobility can complement these packages, getting cash into people’s hands. A practical way to assist is to support workers with sending money back to their families right now when it’s most needed. Before the current crisis, nearly two-thirds of the money sent back from workers was once they’ve returned either from cash or ATM withdrawals at the airport.

There is already evidence that less money is flowing back to workers’ families. Financial services in Samoa have warned there is a significant drop in remittances received since the Covid-19 outbreak. Local families are either going without or relying on credit from village retail shops until they receive money again.

The service provided by Australia and New Zealand to assist in sending money back needs a more personalised approach. Workers have limited online financial literacy and, in many cases, limited English. Those in horticulture have restricted movement in New Zealand and are often in remote areas of Australia.

Governments need to explore safe ways with reasonable precautions to continue bringing Pacific Islanders to work particularly in horticulture throughout Covid-19. If the Pacific really is to be considered family, continuing labour mobility and finding solutions through this crisis must be front of mind.


As Africa prepares to fight Covid-19, China steps up

Disinfecting a clinic in Ekurhuleni, South Africa, after a nurse tested positive for Covid-19 (Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)
Disinfecting a clinic in Ekurhuleni, South Africa, after a nurse tested positive for Covid-19 (Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 15 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

As China slowly begins to recover from Covid-19 and re-start its economy, it is seeking to position itself at the head of the global virus response and fill the void in humanitarian assistance created by Western paralysis. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where China has a long history of providing medical aid as a foreign policy tool, and where is emerging as the number one humanitarian partner in this time of need.

China’s support to Africa is critical given that other economic partners are tied up with their own crisis at home. China also has a vested interest in protecting its African investments and rebooting commodity imports from Africa to refuel growth in China.

China seemed set to score the equivalent of a PR slam-dunk in Africa until reports of Africans migrants in Guangzhou being subjected to xenophobic harassment and forced to sleep on the streets made front-page news around the world at the weekend. This will erode some of the goodwill China has garnered through its recent actions in Africa, and is a significant blow to its carefully orchestrated strategy to utilise its international response as another springboard towards global leadership.

None of the Western actors are able to mobilize as quickly or as visibly as China.

Although numbers are likely underreported, Africa currently has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in 52 out of 54 countries. Considering the global toll, Covid-19 has been slow to take hold in Africa. This may seem surprising given its close connections with China, but it shows that China-Africa people-to-people links are perhaps less prolific than trade and investment data might suggest, and that there is less travel between the two than between China and the developed world. Unproven theories also contend that Africa’s youthful population, low population density, and warmer climate may render the virus less vicious.

Yet even comparatively lower rates of infection can wreak havoc on African countries fragile health systems, and could trigger widespread socio-economic or political turmoil. In Gabon, the country’s first case of severe coronavirus was so badly mishandled that the patient is thought to have died prematurely, half of the staff at the capital’s one decent clinic had to be subsequently quarantined, and both it and another clinic had to be closed for over a week for disinfecting.

Consequentially, the overall strategic approach in Africa has been focused on early, aggressive preventive measures including the shutting down of airports and widespread lock downs – and on appealing to China for support.

Shipments of supplies leave Chongqing, China (Zhou Yi/China News Service via Getty Images)

Despite suspicions around the quality of China’s assistance, for example in Nigeria, African countries are relying on supplies from China now that both Europe and the US are in short supply.

Since late March, the Chinese government, its state-owned companies, and private enterprises have provided massive amounts of cash, equipment, and expertise, in a fast and very visible way. On 6 April, almost 38 tons of Chinese government-provided medical supplies arrived in Ghana for distribution to West African states. Chinese multinational infrastructure companies are donating equipment, upgrading hospitals, and constructing quarantine facilities in their countries of operation.

Meanwhile, businessman-turned-philanthropist Jack Ma has struck a deal with the Ethiopian government and Ethiopian airlines, the go-to airline in Africa during this crisis, to distribute equipment around the continent. China’s wealthiest man also announced that his foundation would send an additional 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 protective suits and face shields to every country in Africa. Technology giant Huawei, and Huajian, a global shoe manufacturer, have also donated a million masks each.

China sees this as an opportunity to assume the role as humanitarian leader in times of global crisis – a role that has historically been played by the United States. Traditionally the world’s biggest investor in global health, the US recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which in addition to domestic relief provides modest supplemental foreign aid funding to help developing countries improve their Covid-19 response. However, supply shortages at home, dysfunction at the federal level, and a cumbersome bureaucracy and low risk appetite at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will challenge implementation in this rapidly evolving context.

A lot of existing support is also simply being repackaged as Covid-19 relief. In a sign of the times, the Jack Ma Foundation recently sent 500,000 testing kits and 1 million masks to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the US fight Covid-19. The European Union has also pledged to increase their funding to help African economies weather Covid-19, while G20 leaders are preparing debt relief and other financial aid packages for Africa. However, most of this aid will be channeled through multilateral agencies and international finance institutions, and none of the Western actors are able to mobilize as quickly or as visibly as China.

Yes, China is a long way off from becoming the world’s superpower. Yes, China is seeking to reshape the narrative around Covid-19 and deflate some of the blame for covering up the early crisis in Wuhan, not sharing information about the virus that could have helped other countries prepare better their responses, and underreporting its numbers.

Yes, China should also do more to help African economies lessen their debt burdens and prevent looming socio-economic catastrophes. And yes, there will be backlash against Chinese in Africa for the mistreatment of African migrants in Guangzhou.

At the end of the day, however, popular opinion will judge China by the number of masks and other vital equipment it has distributed to help fight this pandemic. For now, in the battle for influence in Africa, China is still coming out on top, yet again.


Why South Asia may come out of Covid-19 crisis better than many expect

Children throw a mixture of water, neem herb, and turmeric in what is said to be a natural disinfectant on a Chennai street during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
Children throw a mixture of water, neem herb, and turmeric in what is said to be a natural disinfectant on a Chennai street during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 10 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Many people assume that South Asia is a sitting target for coronavirus, with potentially millions of deaths leading to an impoverished and destabilised region just around the corner. That might well happen, and the countries in the region are locking down. But there are also reasons to think that Covid-19 could have less of an impact on South Asia than many fear. 

South Asia often brings to mind images of huge cities with teeming slums, poverty, poor sanitation, and disease. Surely, this means that when the virus inevitably gets a proper hold in the region, countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will suffer death rates and economic and social dislocation far in excess of that experienced in developed countries. 

What’s more, these dislocations could further exacerbate the many security problems faced by the region. Could Covid-19 destabilise Bangladesh for example? Or could the crisis embolden extremists in India and Pakistan, with big implications for domestic or cross-border security?

The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis have a long time to play out. But one thing we do know is that coronavirus can strike the world in unexpected ways. Indeed, there is a possibility that South Asia could come through the crisis, if not unscathed, then perhaps less damaged than other parts of the world. 

Demography also favours South Asia. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the youngest countries in the world, with 5–8% of their populations aged over 60 and 2–3% aged over 70.

Let’s look at different aspects of the crisis for South Asia – health, social order, economics, and security.

First is health. Despite their massive populations, total  cases reported by WHO are low: 5,914 in India, 4,072 in Pakistan and 164 in Bangladesh as at 8 April. Of course, rates of testing are low. More observable and perhaps a little more reliable are reported deaths, still low at 149 in India, 58 in Pakistan, and 17 In Bangladesh.

These countries could just be further down the curve than other countries, but they may also be following their own curves. Some speculate that tropical countries will fare better than temperate countries, potentially reflecting factors such climate, exposure to malaria, or even high tuberculosis vaccination rates. 

But demography also favours South Asia. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the youngest countries in the world, with 5–8% of their populations aged over 60 and 2–3% aged over 70. This compares with Italy’s age distribution of about 16% aged over 60, and 10% aged over 70. With around 85–90% of Covid-19 deaths in the over 60 demographic this may make for a smaller population at risk. 

Second, what could the Covid-19 crisis mean for social order and political stability in South Asia? Anecdotally we are not seeing reports of runs on basic commodities or the equivalent of the toilet paper wars that have afflicted Australia’s supermarkets. Although they have few resources for social welfare, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could also in fact have greater social resilience than many rich countries. People generally rely less on the state and may have more experience in dealing with disasters. Strong social and religious traditions could also provide a valuable reservoir to help resilience.

Donations of N95 masks and sanitizers for staff at a hospital in Karnataka for World Health Day, 7 April (Trinity Care Foundation/Flickr)

Third, are the economic consequences from measures taken to curtail the spread of the virus, including for food security. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have experienced relatively high economic growth for several years, although this has been slowing. India’s large and relatively sheltered economy (as evidenced by its withdrawal from the RCEP trade agreement) will likely help protect it from global shocks, such as occurred in the 2009 Global Financial Crisis. Across the border, Bangladesh, which has greater reliance on trade, will likely fare less well. Pakistan, which recently needed an International Monetary Fund bailout, is also fiscally fragile.

Despite endemic food security issues among the poor, exacerbated by recent food price inflation, these countries could be relatively resilient to disruptions in global supply chainsIndia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh all produce overall food surpluses, helped by high tariff barriers on food imports, which makes them less dependent on global food trade than some other countries. They also have long-established systems for government supported food distribution to the poor.

Last, is regional security. The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis for security and regional relationships will likely play out over a period of years, with many unexpected second and third order effects. But these could potentially be less adverse in South Asia.

The crisis has, for example, been used by Indian Hindu nationalists who blame the spread of Covid-19 in India on the Muslim minority community, or Pakistan. Severe health or economic impacts, if they were to occur, would also likely have an adverse effect on domestic order and security across South Asia.

But the crisis could also provide an opportunity and an imperative to end run existing logjams in regional relationships. Indian Prime Minister Modi has sought to use the crisis to jumpstart paralysed regional cooperation mechanisms. India’s porous borders with neighbours such as Bangladesh and Nepal make regional cooperation particularly important for it. The Pakistan government, or its military, might also see value in using the crisis to transcend some of Pakistan’s self-created security problems with India.

China is of course the biggest unknown for the region. It is possible that the crisis (and China’s role as the origin of the virus) could worsen an already generally negative strategic dynamic between India and China. But the two countries could also choose to use the crisis to find areas for enhanced cooperation in a new and reshaped post-Covid-19 world order.

It will be over months and years that all this unfolds. But we may find that countries in South Asia, and elsewhere, demonstrate unexpected degree of resilience or may even find ways to use the crisis for their advantage.
 

This piece is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.  


Cry the beloved world

Oke-Odo Market in Lagos on 30 March as Nigeria declared a partial lockdown (Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Oke-Odo Market in Lagos on 30 March as Nigeria declared a partial lockdown (Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 9 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in China starting in December last year. We watched on with growing alarm, but thought that it wouldn’t happen here.

The second wave has been unfolding from mid-February onwards in the rich countries of the world (as well as Iran). Some have responded better than others. None are out of the woods, and the suffering in some countries has been staggering, but many now seem to be turning the corner.

Tragically, we are also now experiencing the start of the third wave, in which Covid-19 is wreaking havoc in the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Out of the first 20 countries to reach 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, only three were developing: China is still officially a developing country, Iran was the fourth, and Malaysia the eighteenth. But out of the next 30, 16 have been developing countries. So far, Covid-19 has overwhelmingly been a rich-country burden, with 83% of the deaths to date in wealthy countries. But the next frontier for the pandemic is at the opposite end of the global income spectrum.

One thing that will protect developing countries is that they are third cab off the rank. They have had time to see the damage Covid-19 can do even in rich countries, and they are terrified.

Will Covid-19 rip through the most vulnerable countries on the planet and produce fatalities far in excess of anything we have seen to date? We will have a better idea of its global lethality in a couple of weeks, since by then the virus’ trajectory will, sadly, be clearer in a larger number of poorer countries.

Given the difficulties of social distancing and the weak public health systems in most poor countries, and given the number of developing countries in which Covid-19 has already made an inroad, it is hard to imagine that there won’t be at least some in which it becomes widespread. There are frightening accounts emerging from Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to name a few. It is surely plausible that at least for some poor countries the national health effects could be catastrophic.

Then there is the fact that Covid-19 is hitting at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since the end of the Second World War. What if the virus takes hold in a massive refugee camp in Africa, the Middle East, or Asia?

But will Covid-19 be a global public health catastrophe? It certainly has a mountain to climb to compete with the major infectious diseases. So far, more than 74,000 people have died of the virus. Every year, about 2.4 million poor people die of diarrhea, 1.2 million of tuberculosis, 1 million of HIV/AIDS, and 600,000 of malaria.

One thing that will protect developing countries is that they are third cab off the rank. They have had time to see the damage Covid-19 can do even in rich countries, and they are terrified. Many have put in place strict containment measures, if not shutdowns, at a very early stage of spread. Some have even gone into pre-emptive lockdown, before a single case of the virus has been confirmed.

Jobless labourers in Bangalore are employed to fill sacks with potatoes for the distribution of emergency essentials and groceries to be to people in need during India’s nationwide lockdown (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)  

One can hardly blame countries for acting promptly and decisively, especially when they know their health systems are weak. Nevertheless, even if warranted, these measures are now devastating the livelihoods of the people whose health their objective is to protect. Unlike rich ones, many poor countries lack the safety nets and access to capital markets needed to cushion the lockdown blow. And many have weak institutions, raising the probability of unintended lockdown consequences.

Images of labourers walking hundreds of kilometres from India’s capital back to their villages are haunting. In Papua New Guinea, a fresh round of police brutality has been catalysed by the country’s state of emergency. In Solomon Islands, a boat capsized last week in bad weather, leading to the drowning of 28 passengers returning to their home villages at the advice of their government.

Widespread fatalities would obviously make things much worse, but it would be a grave underestimate to evaluate the damage of Covid-19 only in health terms. The economic and social damage being wrought by the response to the pandemic – at home and abroad ­– is itself catastrophic for developing countries around the world. 

As the tragedy unfolds, it is not surprising that there is increasing talk of a humanitarian response, perhaps on an unprecedented scale. Whether that eventuates remains to be seen. Much of the development assistance architecture is itself shut down. Certainly, there will be additional multilateral financing, and individual bilateral efforts. But economic damage will not be enough to induce a major humanitarian response in the current circumstances. There would have to be prolonged periods of mass fatalities.

Whatever the uncertainties, there is one area where global cooperation will be critical, and that is to end the crisis. Even if countries contain Covid-19, they will be scared to relax domestic controls, and petrified to open borders again until they have some confidence that they will not face yet another outbreak. A combination of vaccines and effective treatments will be critical for allowing all countries once again to embrace economic activity both at home and abroad.

Ironically, for an era in which the irrelevance of aid has often been declared, an aid-funded international agency is playing a critical role in mobilising the funds needed for a Covid-19 vaccine: CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

Finding a successful vaccine is only the first step, and for that we shouldn’t actually need to draw on foreign aid. But the next step, and one where aid will be needed, is to distribute that vaccine. Donors will need to provide massive financial and logistical support to ensure that the vaccine, once developed, is distributed not just nationally but worldwide, and quickly. The same goes for treatments, once identified. The motivations for this will be not just humanitarian but commercial. It will be in everyone’s interests to open the world up again for business.


Coronavirus in conflict: The fight has hardly begun

Medical personnel outside a field hospital tent on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 5 April (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Medical personnel outside a field hospital tent on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 5 April (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 8 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

The War on Covid-19

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mobilising language of war is being used by leaders from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to France’s President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (now in intensive care ten days after being diagnosed with the coronavirus). While relatively stable and wealthy countries struggle to respond effectively to this threat, how will the world’s actual war zones cope?

Guterres calls for “the world to come together”, urging global ceasefires because the “only war we should be waging is the war against Covid-19”. But can Covid-19 bring solidarity and peace? Or will it bring further insecurity and violence to places already afflicted by conflict and, in turn, threaten international peace and security as these countries struggle to fight on another front?

Conflict-affected environments are especially vulnerable to the outbreak of infectious diseases, are less likely to be able to identify and respond to outbreaks, and are less equipped to stop their spread within and beyond their often porous borders.

This new “war” is becoming entangled with conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Colombia, and threatening to break out in the camps of millions who have fled these and other wars. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the fear among the Rohingya in the refugee camps is amplified by lack of information and separation from support networks, and intensified by the month-long effective ban on mobile-phone and internet usage imposed by the government of Bangladesh (the same has happened in Ethiopia, amid reports of government crackdowns on the Oromo Liberation Front). In Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece, asylum seekers cannot socially distance when 20,000 people are squeezed into a camp meant to accommodate 3000, and where they must queue for hours each day for basic food supplies. In overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps in Somalia, people feel as if they are “waiting for death to come”.

Elsewhere, it is hunger, not the virus, that is feared – a serious concern in places such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo if people can’t go out to work or sell to get money to feed families. In parts of Syria, it is “bombs falling from the sky and kids being blown to pieces” that remains the main worry.

In Colombia, the virus is bringing with it deadly prison riots and the threat of escalating femicide. In Lebanon, a sense of dread prevails, as it does in Syria’s rebel-held north-west, among people already ill and frail, with little shelter, limited access to running water and healthcare, with little information and even less trust and confidence in authorities. And Iraq is already struggling to find enough hospital beds and to bury its dead, amid fears about how the virus is spread.

In many of these places, social distancing is difficult, water and soap are scarce, and most healthcare needs are already unable to be met. As the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) President has described, the concept of self-solation, and also self-care, in these contexts is a “luxury”. Hospitals have been destroyed or lack capacity and resources, including medicine, staff, and equipment. Governance structures are often weak or corrupt, economies shattered, and infrastructure destroyed or inadequate. Many people are unable to access basic services and essentials, including food, and have minimal confidence or trust in political leaders. In Iraq, for instance, a depleted healthcare system that enjoys little public trust will not be able to respond effectively if there is a serious outbreak.

For these reasons, conflict-affected environments are especially vulnerable to the outbreak of infectious diseases, are less likely to be able to identify and respond to outbreaks, and are less equipped to stop their spread within and beyond their often porous borders.

Covid-19 and ceasefires

There are murmurings that Covid-19 could contribute to bringing peace to places afflicted by conflict, as people agree to divert all necessary attention and efforts to fighting a common enemy. Indeed, that is what Guterres has called for to enable the world to focus on “the true fight of our lives”, and ceasefires were, at least initially, welcomed in Philippines, Cameroon, Yemen and elsewhere. While bigger threats can lead to cessation of hostilities, such as occurred in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami, such crises of this scale tend to further undermine resilience, increase insecurity, and exacerbate the likelihood and intensity of conflict. Already, commitments to ceasefires have been broken within days and hostilities have escalated in Libya, and Yemen. Even if some ceasefires hold, the causes and effects of conflict continue and compound the risks these environments face from Covid-19.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres holds a virtual press conference on the call for a global ceasefire during the Covid-19 pandemic, 3 April (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

And with global attention almost exclusively on Covid-19, armed groups might seize the opportunity, as occurred when ISIS prisoners attempted to escape in Syria on 30 March, or exploit widespread fear and instability for their own advantage, as communicated by ISIS to its members in its weekly newsletter. In Afghanistan, sectarian attacks resumed, demonstrating opportunist attacks against minorities by non-state armed groups can occur when the world’s attention is elsewhere. Likewise, parties to the conflict can make political and economic gains by utilising the opportune moment presented by crises, as occurred during the Ebola outbreak resulting in heightened political tension in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. States can also use the guise of crisis response to repress the population. There have been fears that Covid-19 responses could legitimise actions which further persecute groups, in Yemen for instance, by imposing lockdowns which prevent access to food.

Reponses to Covid-19 can also further compromise security and undermine prospects for peace, even before Covid-19 gets a firm foothold in these places, with relief efforts hampered by lockdowns and widespread travel restrictions. In Iraq, while humanitarian agencies are finding ways to respond to people’s needs remotely, many of those in need cannot be reached by phone and must travel to community centres, amid reports of arrests of those who violate the lockdown. The curtailment of humanitarian services in Iraq has also has coincided with heavy flooding in Ninewa, Diyala and Salah al-Din, which has affected vulnerable groups, including those in camp settings and compounded the humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian, peacebuilding, and broader development organisations are drawing back their work to direct resources to only what is essential and to accommodate “social distancing”. Staff are grounded staff or scaled back, and organisations face unprecedented coordination, logistical, and financial challenges.

Covid-19 as a conflict driver

Covid-19 response will undermine the ability to respond to other healthcare and humanitarian needs in conflict- and crisis-affected environments. Already depleted resources, medical staff, hospital beds, financial support, and most aid efforts will likely be directed towards Covid-19 and away from the other dire needs of people in such environments – addressing a measles epidemic in Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, which has killed over 6000 people since the start of 2019, most of whom were children. As occurred during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, more people will die from other diseases as a result of resources and attention being redirected to Covid-19. While Guterres has urged not to sacrifice humanitarian needs unrelated to Covid-19, when calling for a unified response to the pandemic, many humanitarian actors worry that this could happen.

A Syrian civil defence member sprays disinfectant inside a hospital in the city of Idlib after the emergence of suspected Covid-19 cases in the province (Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As attention and resources are directed towards Covid-19, and donors focus on the threat facing their own countries, funding is likely to be diverted or curtailed and pledging conferences rescheduled. International funding to address humanitarian and other needs will be hard to find, not just because of resources directed to fighting Covid-19, but also in the face of anticipated global recession. This will further compromise resilience and deplete resources, leaving countries less able to respond to other threats, including conflict.

Compounding these risks is the impact on conflict resolution and peacekeeping already being felt as a result of Covid-19, with unit rotations suspended, potentially compromising the effectiveness of troops on extended tours of duty. Likewise, peace talks and diplomacy efforts are also at risk as people’s attention is diverted and their ability to travel is curtailed. And as national armed forces are increasingly brought in to assist in Covid-19 response activities, nations may be less inclined to commit troops to peacekeeping missions or humanitarian response efforts.

The increasing securitisation of responses to Covid-19, including police brutality against civilians and violence against journalists reporting on lockdowns, and the severe economic shocks, including widespread unemployment and heightened food insecurity, are also increasing tensions, insecurity and violence and the potential for outbreaks or escalation of conflict or unrest.

Unless attention and resources are directed towards the needs of people in conflict-affected environments, there will be greater humanitarian catastrophes, alongside increased threats to international peace and security in the form of recurrent or protracted conflict. At the same time, it will be even harder to contain the further spread of Covid-19.


Covid-19: Refugees at risk

 Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2019 (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2019 (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Published 7 Apr 2020 12:30   0 Comments

The first case of Covid-19 was detected near the world’s largest refugee camp last month. Human rights groups fear it’s only matter of time before it spreads among the roughly one million Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Having fled ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military, these people exist in extraordinarily cramped, fetid conditions without access to clean water or safe sanitation. Risks to physical health and safety abound: flooding, malnutrition, gender-based violence, even rampaging elephants. According to the Red Cross, the camps have a population density of more than 60,000 people per square kilometre – one and a half times the world’s most densely populated city, Manila.

Meeting recommended social distancing and self-quarantine practices to prevent the spread of coronavirus in these conditions is clearly impossible. Moreover, in a place where a vast majority of the population is almost entirely reliant on external aid for basics such as food, Covid-19 poses even greater challenges to daily life. Aid worker access has been limited to avoid spread of the disease.

There are always ways that refugees and asylum seekers can be active contributors, not just passive victims. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

“The humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar have already stripped back to essential-only services like healthcare and food distribution,” Athena Rayburn, a spokesperson for Save the Children wrote.  A cohort of rights groups have also written to Bangladesh’s prime minister, calling for a halt to the construction of barbed wire fences around the camps and life restrictions on mobile internet – both which further reduce the availability of services and information to refugees about coronavirus prevention. Paul Spiegel from the John Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health has called the camps a “perfect storm” for spread of the disease.

This is just but one refugee population. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, counts 26 million refugees worldwide under its mandate. Large, vulnerable populations live in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, in the urban slums of Malaysia, and as an underclass in Iran, where coronavirus has already caused thousands of deaths. Pakistan, Turkey, Uganda, and other countries host refugee populations of more than a million people. UNHCR has now suspended its refugee resettlement program indefinitely due to the virus, prolonging people’s waits in limbo indefinitely.

Transparency and public messaging have shown to be crucial in fighting the disease. Governments should ensure that resident populations of people seeking asylum have access to information in their own languages, to prevent spread among refugees themselves and to the wider community. In Indonesia, for example, nimble refugee-led organisations have been active in distributing Covid-19 prevention advice in languages such as Farsi, French, and Arabic. From Australia, the broadcaster SBS is providing up-to-date information on Covid-19 in 63 languages from Rohingya to Tibetan.

Nevertheless, the living conditions of many refugees around the world, whether in camps, urban settings, or detention centres, continues to make social distancing impossible. This poses the greatest threat to not only refugees themselves, but the community at large. Advocates and medical professionals say that releasing people from immigration detention and lifting the living standards of those in the community can help curb the spread of the disease.

For several years, aid groups and development experts have increasingly demonstrated the benefits of direct cash handouts to marginalised populations. One study from Kenya has shown that unconditional cash transfers can reduce poverty, boost school attendance, and – importantly – improve public health. A UNHCR cash transfer program for Syrian refugees in Jordan demonstrated that a majority of the beneficiaries used the money to pay rent, and as non-citizens, cover their out-of-pocket health expenses. Boosting contributions to the desperately underfunded UN refugee agency is an easy way for governments to contribute to Covid-19 prevention measures for refugees.

There are always ways that refugees and asylum seekers can be active contributors, not just passive victims. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Governments can loosen politically motivated restrictions on employment rights for asylum seekers, which economists and rights advocates alike have argued are unnecessarily cruel and expensive. This would allow them to leverage additional medical expertise. The Irish Medical Council, for example, has recommended that refugees and asylum seekers with medical training could be mobilised to provide “essential support” by taking up roles as healthcare assistants and helping in the fight against Covid-19.

As wealthy countries such as Australia look to protect their own citizens, they would do well to also remember the most vulnerable people, languishing in limbo within their own borders, in transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and indeed in countries of origin like Afghanistan or Iran. As Pierre-Alain Fridez, chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s migration body said last week:

Our countries will overcome the Covid-19 crisis. In order to survive, we must remain humane and supportive, and so we must not forget the weakest in our society.


A global call to arms

Dhaka, Bangladesh (Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Dhaka, Bangladesh (Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 6 Apr 2020 07:30   0 Comments

With confirmed Covid-19 cases now well past the million mark, most of the world is looking inward. Many countries feel overwhelmed by their local fight against the virus. But while some countries are just coping, others face a choice between stopping the pandemic or a famine. Most likely they will experience both. Any of us who can help, must.

Australia has joined the ranks of countries with their heads above water, led by Singapore (now under stricter lockdown), Taiwan, and South Korea, with Japan, and New Zealand. Canada and some European nations are also doing well. These countries have managed to respond just about early and strongly enough (for now) on both health and economic fronts. They all still have difficult months ahead, but other countries are in much worse positions. This is especially true for the developing world.

Imran Khan has warned that Pakistan cannot enact essential distancing measures without causing starvation. He says India, Iran, and others are facing similar or worse situations. Indonesia is fighting blind, without adequate testing. In South Africa, the government is unable to convey the urgency of health measures to the public. Zimbabwe is warning “we will starve”. Much of Africa is struggling, their health system already strained by ongoing epidemics. There are now fears that polio may re-emerge, compounding the crisis.

The US and People’s Republic of China cannot be relied upon to help: both are preoccupied blaming each other, while the US is struggling to cope with either health or economic crisis, and the PRC is focused on propaganda and opportunism.

In what can only be characterised as a “G-0” world, leadership falls to those who are willing.

Australia and New Zealand have special responsibilities toward their Pacific “family”. The announcement last week “Responding to the Covid-19 challenge in the Pacific” from Foreign Minister Marise Payne and International Development Minister Alex Hawke was welcome, but it must be the first step of many. Australian aid and development experts are asking if Covid-19 may divert resources from an already diminished development assistance budget. It must instead be a call to arms. Urgent action is required.

This is a virus that threatens the long-term interests and security of people everywhere, so it is not a challenge to leave for others to deal with alone.

The International Monetary Fund has called for wartime policy measures: first to save lives and stop the pandemic, then to ensure the post-war recovery. This should begin by ensuring the IMF is not collecting loan repayments from countries in urgent need of fiscal resources as the battle continues against the virus. The World Bank launched its first Covid-19 emergency support last week. It amounts to less than $2 billion, with a plan to provide $160 billion over 15 months. Over 15 days would be better.

The core principles of the strategy for fighting Covid-19 are now well established: slow the spread of the disease with distance and hygiene, so that cases can be found and isolated. But the rest of the world needs to survive through the social distancing measures, which means food and health services must continue. And as much as possible, work cultures must be switched to a distributed model, where connections are not physical. It is essential the world emerges from this crisis stronger, and more caring than we entered it.

Human solidarity is the best way to counter the opportunists seeking to use the crisis to further personal or geopolitical agendas. This is a virus that threatens the long-term interests and security of people everywhere, so it is not a challenge to leave for others to deal with alone. It is disappointing that existing mechanisms such as the UN Security Council have not risen to meet the challenge, but this only means that others must rise in their place.

The Covid-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge thanks to the connectivity of the modern world, yet with the usual leaders missing amid a retreat behind borders, it is incumbent on countries such as Australia to help spur a global response. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that “if you have a job, that’s an essential job”, many laughed. But he is not wrong. Morrison was talking about the domestic economy, but internationally, Australia has a job, too, and it is an essential one. To offer leadership, not for glory, but to empower and unite with those countries that are also stepping forward. If the G20 is the vehicle of choice, Australia should ensure that each of those countries that have led in this fight are represented there. This should include Taiwan and Singapore: their hard-won expertise is needed.

The fight against coronavirus will not be a short one. At times countries will do well, while others will not, and each will be in need of help at some times more than in other moments. Those hurting least must take the chance to help those hurting most. In a pandemic, helping your neighbour is helping yourself, because the best way to stay safe from a virus is to not be surrounded by it.


Timor-Leste: The consequences of Covid-19

Government Palace in Dili (Getty Images)
Government Palace in Dili (Getty Images)
Published 3 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

As of today, Timor-Leste has one confirmed case of Covid-19. Nonetheless, the feeling of panic among the public has been mounting. There is a valid reason for this: Timor-Leste’s public health system is under-resourced to respond to an outbreak of this scale.

Over the last one month, the government has taken several measures to prevent the spread of the virus, mobilising resources amid political uncertainty, budget constraints, and limited technical capacity. Despite the political divisions among power holders, the parliament unanimously voted in favor of President Francisco Guterres’s motion to declare a state of emergency, which came into force on 28 March. It enables the government to impose restrictions on movement, including enforcement of physical distancing. It suspends all public transport, and prohibits large gatherings and performing cultural ceremonies.

The government also requested parliamentary approval for the Petroleum Fund withdrawal of $400 million, for general spending as well as public spending to stimulate the economy. Yesterday, on 2 April, parliament approved $250 million of that request.

Media outlets are broadcasting messages to communities on prevention measures and bringing public-health practitioners to inform people about the coronavirus. In Dili, shops everywhere can be seen providing water and disinfected soaps. The Catholic Church has suspended celebration of mass across the country.

The effectiveness of prevention measures is yet to be proven at this point, but they show that despite the internal struggles concerning the legitimacy of the government, the political powers are still able to unite for the cause.

International development partners are also playing an active role. The Australian government, through the Menzies School of Health Research, is  partnering with the National Laboratory to validate tests for Covid-19. The government is also requesting assistance from China and Cuba. Cuba has long been a strategic partner for Timor-Leste in the health sector. Many international agencies in the country have adopted working-from-home practices.

The effectiveness of prevention measures is yet to be proven at this point, but they show that despite the internal struggles concerning the legitimacy of the government, the political powers are still able to unite for the cause. Covid-19 has overtaken the heated political debate among the elites, although it does not erase it. But the main concern is that when the virus becomes widespread, it will overwhelm already limited capacity.

The impact of Covid-19 will not be limited to the public health sector. As certain restrictions are imposed, worldwide and at the domestic level, it affects the cycle of economic activity of the country, adding another layer to the social and economic problems that Timor already has. The country’s domestic economy depends largely on government spending of petroleum revenues. There are limited jobs available in the formal sector to absorb a growing young population.

Timor-Leste’s economy has already experienced recession since 2017, due to internal political divisions. In 2017 and 2018, the GDP declined by 3.8% and 0.8%, respectively. Value added in important sectors such as retail and wholesale, accommodations and restaurants, as well as the transport sector declined significantly, according to the 2018 National Account report. The Business Activities Report also highlights that the the income of the business sector and private sector employment have been in decline since 2016. The economy began to show signs of recovery for 2020, which the World Bank estimated at 3.9%. However, the economy already slowed when parliament voted down the 2020 budget proposal in January this year. With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the world economy, Timor-Leste will return to recession. The most recent World Bank East Asia and Pacific Economic Update forecasted a growth rate of minus 2.8% in 2020.

This will inevitably affect employment, income, individual consumption, and the overall well-being of people. The severity of the impact of Covid-19 will depend, of course, on how long the pandemic lasts and the government’s response.

Even before the first case was confirmed and the state of emergency declared, the country’s economy was affected by the pandemic. The Petroleum Fund lost $1.8 billion due to financial market shocks, according to the Central Bank, which will affect government revenues. Tourism has been the hardest-hit sector, given the travel restrictions imposed worldwide. Although the country’s service export is small ($19.2 million in 2018), it has a direct effect on the domestic economy and people’s incomes. The retail and wholesale industry inevitably also suffer the consequences as the domestic demand for non-food items declines.

These factors will have tremendous impacts on employment in the formal and informal sectors. There are around 60,000 jobs in the private sector, which the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response have already put at risk. The informal sector is also not safe – it is the biggest source of income for Timorese, making up around 60% of employment. It faces a tough situation as domestic demand declines and the state of emergency continues. Around 250,000 people face losing their source of income. Given the high dependency rate, this would heavily affect household consumption. The most obvious example is in public transport service, which is privately owned. The state of emergency and the temporary suspension of school activities around the country mean that that they are losing their source of income.

No one is certain of how long this situation last, but the impacts are obvious and undisputable. It will deepen the severity of poverty in the country – not only in economic terms, but in social dimensions as well.


Double disaster: Emergency preparedness in the era of Covid-19

Women in Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women/Flickr)
Women in Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women/Flickr)
Published 1 Apr 2020 10:30   0 Comments

The humanitarian system is facing unprecedented uncertainty in the midst of the biggest pandemic since 1918. Over the last 10 years, the requirements for emergency relief programs have consistently outstripped resources – before the outbreak of Covid-19, efforts were aimed to address the needs of 166.5 million people in 35 countries, despite limited funding and capacity. And now, major crises, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Yemen, are seeing the potential implications of the spread of Covid-19 among highly vulnerable populations. In the coming months, existing operations will be tested further.

Yet what would happen if a new event struck somewhere in the world? As already witnessed in Croatia, where a 5.3 magnitude earthquake struck the capital Zagreb on 22 March, with the country on lockdown, a pandemic adds multiple layers to the challenges of disaster response. Emergency workers were forced to find ways to ensure that physical distancing requirements were adhered to in evacuation sites and emergency shelters.

Global restrictions on movement of people and goods and an uncertain economic climate are likely to further move the balance between international, national, and local responders, with a shift towards nationally led response.

If a large-scale disaster were to occur now, the humanitarian sector would be facing a system-wide response in the midst of a global pandemic. A situation of this scale, classified as a Level 3 response, or L3, would call for measures far beyond business as usual, even in a business attuned to unpredictability and adaptable to extremely difficult working conditions.

Existing L3 emergencies already face challenges which will be difficult to meet in the context of Covid-19. Should an event occur to make the situation worse, however, there are ways humanitarian agencies can look at reducing the impacts.

It is urgent to consider now, before it happens.

The US$2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Covid-19 comes on top of the $29 billion requirement to meet existing humanitarian needs in 2020. The 2020 appeal, which so far is only 3.9% funded, comes in the context of an impending global recession, and the possibility of reduced overseas development and humanitarian expenditures.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that there may be new funding opportunities opening up. Donors such as China, Russia, and Cuba are providing aid to countries such as Italy. And with people forced to further embrace technology to stay connected, there are also opportunities to harness new ways of financing, such as crowdfunding, which has grown significantly in recent years.

Surge capacity in an emergency is essential. Human resources are now strained and restricted in ways not dealt with before. Reduced mobility will hamper agencies’ ability to respond quickly. Even in the event that deployments can take place, staff may have to physically isolate for 14 days – a massive delay in a life-saving scenario.

Here, too, there are possibilities. The current profusion of agency and NGO personnel working from home could enable more professionals to provide remote support for emergency response. Collaborative surge could also enhance mobilisation among agencies to support those best placed to respond.

The elements of effective humanitarian coordination – personnel, systems, and processes – are all under immense pressure. During rapid-onset, large-scale emergencies, coordination is often a major stumbling block, with an influx of new people and agencies bringing varying capability and understanding of the context. Global and national responses to Covid-19 require coordination at many levels, on top of ongoing operations. National coordination bodies already responding to Covid-19 may be unable to scale up. Restrictions on travel and gatherings could rule out meetings in person.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (screen, top left) launches the Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, 25 March (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

Now is the time for testing remote coordination platforms. For example, WhatsApp was widely used in Indonesia as a formal and informal communications channel following the September 2018 Sulawesi earthquake. Movement restrictions might also relieve pressure on humanitarian coordination and minimise staff overflow or duplication of coordination systems, as occurred during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.

Global restrictions on movement of people and goods and an uncertain economic climate are likely to further move the balance between international, national, and local responders, with a shift towards nationally led response. Localisation is the path to national and local leadership, as well as more direct funding, but with health and emergency management systems being tested everywhere, a “double disaster” requiring system-wide response could swiftly overwhelm capacity. Regional and international support asked to augment local leadership may be limited, while local responders will bear greater operational risks, including exposure to Covid-19.

The heavy impact of Covid-19 on humanitarian supply chains and transportation would make logistics and transport even bigger obstacles in the wake of a major disaster, where critical infrastructure is often damaged and large volumes of relief items cause bottlenecks. This disruption is an opportunity for governments to increase engagement with local suppliers and to move towards cash-based responses, which can both avoid bottlenecks and enhance social protection.

Military deployments frequently provide support to relief efforts in large-scale crises, with vital assets, personnel, and supplies. But with many countries – France, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia – now mobilising military forces for domestic priorities, the likelihood of countries contributing forces overseas in an emergency is low. In the event of a major disaster, national defence forces might be the face of disaster response. This should be taken as an opportunity to develop more fit-for-purpose coordination mechanisms, better tailored to the local context. 

While it is critical to continue to address existing crises, humanitarian agencies also need to be prepared to step up should a major emergency occur. Covid-19 has already made evident what happens when we don’t anticipate the worst.  


Australia can’t let foreign aid fall victim to Covid-19

A DFAT-sponsored event in Timor-Leste to promote the rights of persons with disability, Dili, July 2017 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)
A DFAT-sponsored event in Timor-Leste to promote the rights of persons with disability, Dili, July 2017 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)
Published 25 Mar 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic comes precisely at a time when Australia needs to keep sight of our Pacific neighbours and to offer strategic support and help in dire times.

With the 2020–21 Federal Budget now deferred until October, gauging what Covid-19 means for the Australian aid budget is impossible. Based on the cuts it has suffered over the past decade, however, the Australian aid sector should rightly be concerned.

Australia’s aid budget now sits at $4 billion, down 27% in real terms since 2013. While the ensuing economic crisis does not bode well, the aid budget also typically falls victim to voter misunderstanding and a general ambivalence among voters.

Now more than ever, Australia’s aid and support in the Pacific region require strategic reprioritisation, with an increased emphasis on high standards and transparency in both infrastructure and humanitarian goals.

In February, ongoing redistributions of Australia’s aid contribution were flagged in Senate estimates, showing a rise in aid spending in the Pacific at the cost of support in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South and West Asia. Spending has also been seen broadly to flow away from health and humanitarian programs towards infrastructure projects.

This growing shift is a cause for alarm. As noted in the Interpreter just last week, Australia’s largest aid beneficiary, Papua New Guinea, struggles to support the healthcare system for its 10 million citizens. PNG’s limited healthcare resources have long been teetering on the edge of crisis. Similarly, other Pacific countries suffer from stretched health services, as witnessed in the measles outbreak centred in Samoa last year.

The Australian Federal government announced in December last year a review into Australia’s aid budget. The review will seek to measure the effectiveness of Australia’s aid contribution and identify “new and emerging priorities”. Inevitably, Covid-19 will have an impact on those priorities.

The announcement came soon after the government greenlighted the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). The $2 billion initiative is focused on boosting infrastructure developments through grant funding and loans in the Pacific.

Analysts have framed the AIFFP through a geostrategic lens, seeing the AIFFP as a counter to the rise of the easy-access lending practices for infrastructure projects offered by China in the Pacific, which have provoked questions about transparency, military influence, and economic coercion.

Now more than ever, Australia’s aid and support in the Pacific region require strategic reprioritisation, with an increased emphasis on high standards and transparency in both infrastructure and humanitarian goals. The repercussions of Covid-19 will disproportionately burden our immediate Pacific neighbours, whose capacity to manage a crisis of this scale is severely limited.

Unfortunately, outside of AIFFP, Australia’s aid contribution has had few flag bearers in the federal government’s Expenditure Review Committee. Neither former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop nor current Foreign Minister Marise Payne have sat on the exclusive and male-dominated committee.

Without a strong advocate to protect it from the swinging axes, the aid budget has also suffered as its palatability in some electorates has soured with the rise of populist rhetoric and misinformation – which in turn has leveraged a general misunderstanding among Australians about the real size of the budget and the influence and effectiveness of the programs it funds. 

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne (The Commonwealth/Flickr)

The 2019 Lowy Institute Poll found that Australia’s foreign aid contribution was the only policy area in which more Australians said spending should be decreased rather than increased. However, it also found respondents to be greatly misinformed about aid spending. Earlier polling found that on average, it was believed by Australians that 14% of the national budget was spent on aid, and that it should be at 10%.

In reality, it sits at 0.8%.

This comes at a time when like-minded nations of similar size and influence have stepped up their aid spending – including the United Kingdom.

The toxicity of the political debate surrounding Australia’s aid budget, instigated by political fringe parties, has served only to increase the potential political cost of making any substantive changes. One Nation, for example, have called it their “moral duty to redirect the foreign aid budget”, while banging the populist drum with misinformed facts and figures.

The eventual outcome of the aid review will importantly need to “convince Australians that our investment overseas is money spent for them, not money taken from them”, as outlined by former Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific Senator Anne Ruston.

Very few Australians would change their vote due to changes to the foreign aid budget, but even fewer in such testing times. Therein lies the problem. The government is acutely aware that it stands to gain or lose very little politically by either increasing or cutting the aid the budget.

As a result, it has suffered from year-on-year cuts, forcing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to attempt to achieve more with less for the best part of the last decade.

Australia has a strong history of coming to support our Pacific neighbours in times of need. As Australians have begun to come to grips with the new challenges Covid-19 forces on us at home, we must not lose sight of our Pacific neighbours.


Philippines: Covid-19 will devastate the poor

Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Flaviano Villanueva was in tears last Thursday. It was day five of the “enhanced community quarantine” in Metro Manila, where the priest runs a homeless centre. The sprawling Philippine capital of 13 million people had been sealed off, and police and army troopers were guarding municipal boundaries to prevent entry and exit. Businesses were shuttered, and public transport was scarce.

Early that morning, dozens of homeless people lined up on the street outside the Kalinga (Care) Center, waiting for the doors to open. They stood 1.5 metres apart, in line with the government’s guidance for the quarantine at that time. But the head of the barangay, or village council, who had not been happy having the centre there, ordered the it shut and drove the homeless away.

“The barangay captain said they were just following the law, no mass gatherings,” Villanueva said. “But the first law is to save lives. These are among the first people who are going to die.”

Shacks no bigger than a flatbed truck house large families whose members sleep side-by-side on wooden or cement floors. In the slums, where people are packed like bees in a hive, there is no such thing as social distancing.

In Manila, as in many other places, the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting the poor the hardest and exposing the gaping inequities in access to food, shelter, and health care. On 15 March, after a surge of new Covid-19 cases, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a month-long quarantine in the capital. He also mandated an 8pm to 5am curfew, deployed the police and the army to man checkpoints, and ordered the arrest of those who violated the law. Two days later, the quarantine was expanded to include the whole of Luzon island, home to 60 million people.

Whether fighting crime, tamping down Islamic extremism, or battling a pandemic, Duterte rules with a heavy hand, and with little care for the consequences. His repertoire is narrow – the iron fist, not the velvet glove. 

To be sure, few disagree that restrictions are needed to deal with the pandemic. But they took the country by surprise. With little warning, millions who eke out a hardscrabble existence in the city’s underground economy were left without any means of support as businesses closed and people were ordered off the streets. The government focused on enforcing the quarantine; little thought was given to mitigating its impact on the most vulnerable. While cops and soldiers were out on the streets, social workers were told to stay home.

It’s classic Duterte. On day one of his presidency in 2016, he ordered the police to conduct raids that killed thousands of suspected drug users and sellers in the shantytowns in Manila and other big cities. Little heed was paid to drug rehabilitation or to alleviating the misery and joblessness that drove the poor to the drug trade.

In 2017, the Army’s siege of the southern city of Marawi, then held by Islamic militants, killed nearly 1200 and displaced more than 350,000. Today, thousands are still in unsanitary refugee camps as government efforts to rebuild the ravaged city have sputtered.

Back in Manila, the pandemic threatens to break the already frayed fabric of families and communities that had not yet recovered from the war on drugs. Danny Pilario is a priest who has been ministering to the poor near the Payatas garbage dump in the northern part of the capital. Last week, he was busy trying to organize food and supplies for the widows of drug war victims and their neighbours.

Payatas is in the “red zone”, as there was a Covid-19 outbreak nearby. Policemen and village watchmen were manning checkpoints there, and only those with a quarantine pass were allowed in, making it difficult for non-residents to bring in supplies. Pilario sent money instead, so the families could buy rice and other goods in the markets nearby.

Pilario hopes he can keep these subsidies going. Even in the best of times, he said, the poor of Payatas earned barely enough for three meals. Now unable to work, they had no savings to tide them over. Many had already lost breadwinners to the anti-drug campaign.

Shacks along a waterway in Manila (Andy Maluche/Flickr)

Manila’s poor live in crowded settlements near government offices, shopping malls, or wealthy gated enclaves, yet they receive scant attention and support. When the drug war started, many Filipinos were oblivious to the carnage. Pilario said he found out about the killings only because of the stench of a rotting corpse in a shanty near the chapel where he said mass. The family did not have enough money to bury the dead man who had been lying in a wooden casket for weeks.

Those who work among the poor fear the havoc the coronavirus will likely wreak in Manila’s shantytowns. Many there don’t have running water, said Pilario. How can they even wash their hands? They can barely afford to eat, much less buy hand sanitisers. Shacks no bigger than a flatbed truck house large families whose members sleep side-by-side on wooden or cement floors. In the slums, where people are packed like bees in a hive, there is no such thing as social distancing.

For now, there’s a patchwork of efforts by local governments, churches, civic groups, and ordinary citizens trying to do what they can. Companies are donating food and supplies. An actress has called for donations for street vendors who can no longer peddle their wares.  A restaurant has opened its doors to the homeless, as have some churches and Catholic schools. Many groups are organizing donations, braving checkpoints, and overcoming government limits on food purchases to help the neediest as the government scrambles for a response. Filipinos are used to natural disasters and have pre-existing networks that are able to respond quickly to emergencies.

But time may be running out. In February, the first confirmed coronavirus cases surfaced, all of them traced to travellers from Wuhan. Duterte played down the threat of contagion, saying Filipinos had natural antibodies that would shield them from infection. Now he is buckling down and on Monday asked Congress for emergency powers to deal with the pandemic.

Five years ago, Villanueva opened the homeless centre in an unused office next to where his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, had a shop selling crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary. He envisioned a place where the poor would be treated with dignity and respect. The centre served 200 to 300 each time it opened its doors, as the homeless from around the city streamed in from early morning to mid-afternoon to get a hot meal, a shower, and fresh change of clothes. The centre also arranged for some of them to get access to alternative schooling while drug users were provided counselling and offered rehabilitation.

“I went all around Manila to buy oranges for them, and we were ready to give them vitamin C, a litre of water and N95 masks after they showered,” Villanueva recounted with regret in a phone call on Thursday evening. “We cooked adobo (chicken and pork stew), ukoy (fried shrimp and grated papaya), and sinandomeng (good quality rice) for them.”

On Saturday, he tried to reopen the centre but was again barred from doing so. Instead, two Catholic universities agreed to house the homeless. Some of the reformed drug users are now helping run these sanctuaries. They are good for now, but for how much longer?

“If the poor go hungry”, Villanueva warned, “chaos would follow”.