Pacific Nations Hit By Strongest Cyclone in Years During COVID-19 Pandemic
The region is battling a significant weather event and global pandemic simultaneously.
Tropical Cyclone Harold has left a trail of destruction across many Pacific Island nations.
The Category 5 cyclone — the most powerful weather event so far this year — made landfall across Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Fiji earlier this week, causing widespread flooding, infrastructural damage, injuries, and 27 fatalities.
The cyclone’s impact has been particularly dire in Vanuatu.
To make matters worse, its arrival comes less than two weeks after the country declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic — in which flights in and out of the nation were suspended, social gatherings of more than five prohibited, and restrictions placed on restaurants, shops, and bars.
The Vanuatu government now has been left with no other choice but to suspend social distancing rules for those needing to evacuate.
Climate and humanitarian organizations have highlighted how the natural disaster and pandemic will duly impact already vulnerable and marginalized people throughout the region.
Experts added they fear the region’s poor infrastructure and health care systems could now be inundated.
"We, the Pacific, are at the frontlines of any global crisis. We face the effects of inequality, greed and profit instead of accessing our human rights and justice, within and between states. Presently dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific Small Island states don’t have that much in the way of resources, be it human resources, material, and finance,” Vika Kalokalo, a member at Fiji’s DIVA for Equality, wrote. “Global pandemics and catastrophes bring about more risks to all Pacific people, particularly women and children and marginalized and diverse communities. There’s an increase in sexual and gender-based violence, poverty, and food scarcity. [The] category 5 cyclone ... has affected Vanuatu and its people as a whole."
Fenton Lutunatabua, a regional managing director at climate organization 350 Pacific, echoed Kalokalo’s comments.
"These already stressful situations, combined with the onslaught of a severe natural disaster, will no doubt create another layer of injustice towards already marginalized groups within our society," he said in a statement.
The catastrophic event has seen an outpouring of support from the region’s neighbors.
New Zealand’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said New Zealand’s defense forces would be deployed and would take every step possible to ensure they didn't inadvertently bring added cases of coronavirus to the Pacific.
"They'll be tested, of course," Peters said, according to 7news. "They've had to suspend their social distancing rules. They can't help each other in a crisis like this without acting much more physically adjacently. When you've got outsiders coming in like in our case, we've got to be ultra-careful that we've done all we can to make sure that what we're bringing in is coronavirus-free."
Peters added that New Zealand has also committed $2.5 million NZ ($1.5 million USD) in support.
Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne likewise announced Thursday that Australia had already provided tents and water containers and was "ready to provide what further help we can to our Pacific family in whatever ways we can.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to Twitter to reiterate to the Pacific that “Australia is with you.”
“Thinking of our Pacific family today, especially Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, as Tropical Cyclone Harold moves through the region,” he said. “Australia is with you. We will continue to support our friends as they recover from this disaster, and as we battle coronavirus together.”