Australia needs to step up medical aid for Pacific Island nations

April 2, 2020: Australia’s policy to the Pacific Island nations has been erratic over the last decade. The focus from 2009 was to impose the PACER-Plus free trade agreement onto the region. Negotiations dragged through to 2017, but three years later it has still not been ratified by most Pacific Island Countries and is not in force. The COVID-19 pandemic underlines the need for a profound re-think of the relationship.

This “free trade” focus shifted to a security focus as increased Chinese aid to the region was defined as a security threat to Australia. In October 2018, Australia announced the Pacific Step-up policy to respond to “the broad-ranging challenges of our region, identified by Pacific leaders and communities themselves, including: strengthening climate and disaster resilience; sustained economic growth; and support to promote healthy, educated, inclusive populations”. The funding for the Step-up came from other parts of the aid budget, which is itself shrinking overall.

All the while the Pacific Island nations insisted that climate change was their biggest concern, closely followed by a demand for more seasonal migrant labour into Australia and New Zealand.

Australia rebuffed the climate concerns, and the seasonal migrant labour programs remained small, but very troubled by problems of exploitation. Between 2014 and 2018, the Australian government cut total health funding to the Pacific by 33%, hampering the ability of already weak health systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has arrived in the region, and will overwhelm its medical systems, transport systems and economic resources.

The Pacific Partnership Calling, based at the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney, is focussed on the threat of climate change and has produced a briefing paper on the COVID-19 pandemic in the region and Australia’s response.

There has already been a big economic hit from the pandemic as tourism and fish export markets have closed, and remittances from overseas workers are in jeopardy. The region’s health services just cannot cope without significant help. The Marshall Islands has only six ventilators and 100 sets of medical Personal Protective Equipment. PNG has no isolation facilities for any people who test positive to COVID-19.

The high rate of non-communicable diseases in the Pacific, particularly diabetes and heart disease, also puts many more people at higher risk from COVID-19.

International travel limitations and Australia’s border closure has left approximately 7000 Pacific seasonal workers facing immense uncertainty regarding their visa status, their access to healthcare, their financial security and employment prospects, and when they might be able to return home.

As Pacific Calling Partnership stated: “Given the devastating impacts coronavirus will likely have on vulnerable Pacific economies Australia should consider bolstering aid to Pacific nations, particularly focusing on the health sector. This may be part of a longer-term rethinking of the direction of Australian aid to the Pacific and working in partnership with Pacific nations. As a key partner to the region, Australia will also have a key role in supporting the Pacific tourism sector to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.”