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“Morrison’s Pacific vuvale and COVID-19” (ed. in FT 11/4/2020)

11/04/2020

Morrison’s Pacific vuvale and COVID-19 (FT 11/4/2020)

When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on his last visit to Fiji used the term vuvale (family) to describe the restored Australia-Fiji relations, some Fijians cynics all too aware of the cumbersome visa requirements for Australia, scoffed at the vuvale metaphor as mere political hyperbole.

But Australia promised a big Pacific Step-Up (currently being revised) in aid and development cooperation including military assistance and increased emphasis on seasonal employment of Pacific Island labor in areas of Australian need, such as fruit picking, a WIN WIN opportunity.

Since then, there have also been other promising developments at the margins, perhaps small in impact, such as Fijian assistance to Australia for fire fighting during the Australian bushfire crisis. but promising of bigger things to come.

One  WIN-WIN situation resulting from the COVID-19 crisis in Australia has already made the news here – the extension of temporary work  visas for Pacific Island labor already in Australia, vital for picking the apple crop ready for the market.

While not immediately actionable perhaps,  the COVID-19 crisis presents another area of co-operation of much greater potential to bind the vuvale together more strongly than purely aid which has some paternalistic connotations or military cooperation of dubious value to Pacific people.

If the COVID-19 crisis exacerbates in Australia, as some worst case scenarios envisage, then Australia will face a severe shortage of nurses, which can be alleviated by the use of Pacific nurses, assuming that the COVID-19 has not equally hit the Pacific.

This would have the additional advantage of exposing a reasonable group of Pacific nurses to Australian best practice in managing a health crisis which Pacific Island communities have not had any experience of, potentially of great benefit if COVID-19 does hit the Pacific in a big way.

Perhaps to be also investigated is the possibility of using the top end of garment manufacturers in Fiji, such as Mark One Apparel, to manufacture quality health masks, if they are able to acquire the appropriate technical specifications and materials,

If COVID-19 does hit the ill-prepared Pacific countries, AND Australia by that time has succeeded in containing the virus here, as some data indicates, then Australia may well in a position to send “Rapid Deployment” health personnel and equipment (such as ICUs) to the badly affected Pacific countries,  in the same way that they have been prepared to send military personnel and equipment.

With the Australian Government’s DFAT currently reviewing its overseas aid program, including to the Pacific, it might want to consider widening the scope of PACER Plus to include Pacific cooperation in matters of health with labor mobility of nurses as one essential part, in addition to fruit pickers.

I suspect that Pacific people would be far more appreciate the assistance in health than military matters which have come and gone over the years, with no creation of a genuine Pacific vuvale.

The Pacific and COVID-19.

The Pacific have so far been spared any widespread infections, despite not putting strict measures to stop entry of the virus from abroad when the crisis hit China and Europe.

At the onset of the coronavirus in China and eventually Australia, the Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama adopted a laid-back approach stating that Fiji residents could return from abroad for weddings and that Fiji civil servants could travel abroad for personal reasons.

This was pretty similar to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese declaring to media that would be going to the footy that weekend.

But even they toughened up on national restrictions when the severity of the COVID-19 in Italy, UK and US became starkly clear, and Australian health experts expressed great public alarm that Australia was not taking seriously the importance of social distancing and self-isolation of travellers from abroad.

Fiji similarly paid dearly when a Fiji Airways flight attendant arrived back and despite having some symptoms was not forced into self-isolation by the Airline or Fiji authorities. Fiji now has 12 COVID-19 cases and will no doubt see far more once testing becomes more widespread.

Health authorities in Fiji fear that with the public health system already stretched with very few ICUs and hospital beds, any significant increase in infections will not be manageable and there could be a large number of casualties.

The same would be true of all the other Pacific countries like Vanuatu (about to be hit by a massive Hurricane Harold), Solomon Islands (already battered  by the same hurricane) and Papua New Guinea.

Remember that countries like Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have very large family sizes and the houses in towns ad villages are in very close proximity. If the COVID-19 takes hold, the spread would be far more rapid than in Australia, which has faced some difficulty in enforcing social distancing.

Australia can help

Australia already has a strong record in helping the Pacific after disasters like cyclone Winston or civil unrest as with Australian military personnel in RAMSI in Solomon Islands working alongside military personnel from Fiji and other Pacific countries.

Should COVID-19 hit the Pacific as seriously as some fear, the economic impact will be far more serious than in Australia, given that they have virtually no welfare system of the kind that exists in Australia, even before the massive boost of $130 billion that the Australian Government is going to give this week, to support employment and reduce the impact of widespread unemployment.

It is absolutely critical that Fiji and the Pacific be helped to deal efficiently with the COVID-19 health crisis when it emerges, as it probably will.

A cadre of Fiji nurses, trained with best practice in Australia with the appropriate equipment would be absolutely beneficial in helping the Pacific authorities.

Australia might wish to consider developing a “Rapid Deployment Force” comprising Pacific nurses by giving further training to a select number of already trained nurses in Australia over the next two months.

But getting a small number of Pacific nurses over to Australia for training (of course after stringent testing in their home countries to ensure that they are free of the virus), like the fruit pickers, could be of great use to Australia should COVID-19 reach crisis proportions here.

It would also be of immense benefit to the Pacific Islands in having a soundly trained group of nurses capable of treating any COVID-19 outbreak in their home country when they return, with hopefully some earnings also, to boost the local Pacific economies.

Who knows how long this COVID-19 crisis will last or when another global pandemic might come along.

The Pacific vuvale would be strengthened far more through cooperation in health than in military matters.

Even if the numbers of nurses involved may be small at this stage, the symbolism of this to the Pacific peoples, like sending firefighters to help in Australian bush fires, can be of immense political value,  not to be sniffed at.

DFAT might also appreciate that most nurse training schools in the Pacific have the capacity to turn out far more qualified graduates than they do currently, because of the limitations of employment within the Pacific countries themselves.

They would be more than happy to beef up their intakes for training and export to Australia and elsewhere, especially if Australian nurse training institutions (such as at James Cook University) were to provide quality enhancing assistance through Australian aid.

Keep in mind also that Australian demographic projections indicate that with a rapidly ageing population, there will be a dearth of trained carers here in Australia within a decade.

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