Identity and well-being – Pacific

Containing COVID-19 through cultural practices and a rights-based approach

Joshua Cooper

In the early months of the pandemic, as countries across the world contended with the ravages of a new and unpredictable virus, the Pacific offered a rare success story. While much of the world took a wait-and-see approach to the pandemic, not wanting to halt the global economic engine, governments in the Pacific acted swiftly with proactive policies to save their populations from the pandemic.

Six months after it began, there were just 10 countries (excluding two dictatorships whose claims to be Covid-free were not credible) that had yet to experience a single reported case of the virus – and all of them were in the Pacific.

While some of the world’s richest countries suffered unimaginable upheaval, with mounting deaths and full lockdowns, the Pacific Islands focused on sustainable practices rooted in ancestral wisdom and traditional livelihoods, drawing on their cultural knowledge to counter the pandemic. Oceania had lessons from previous health crises and was determined to be decisive to save lives. This approach encouraged a proactive, preventive policy approach to COVID-19 that kept communities sealed off from the spread of the virus.

Aotearoa (New Zealand) has, throughout the pandemic, been spared major outbreaks of the virus due in part to its strong precautionary approach through strict enforcement of measures such as quarantine to prevent widespread transmission. Borders were also closed to international travel as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, noting the country’s role as a key departure hub, took responsibility to protect its Pacific neighbours through early action. By the end of April 2020, Aotearoa concluded five weeks of strict level-four lockdown, with three-quarters of the country’s economy returning to operation.

Aotearoa was also one of the first nations to successfully eliminate COVID-19 from its country. Female leadership has generated growing support for a holistic strategy to manage the pandemic, but Ardern has also acknowledged the important role of Māori ancestral wisdom in guiding not only the government but also grassroots action. A key element in this was manaakitanga, a central concept of the Māori worldview honouring connections among communities and an obligation to organize beyond one’s own good. At its core, manaakitanga maintains that other members of one’s community have importance equal to, and even greater, than one’s own. Its principles are not only an ancestral pillar in the cosmology of the host culture, but also widely known among the general population as they are now taught in Aotearoa schools.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, prompt and decisive efforts rooted in education were also essential in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Following a successful information campaign in the initial stages of the pandemic that focused on the science around the virus and the necessary steps to protect against it, August 2020 saw the launch of a unique United Nations (UN) initiative, ‘Pacific Unite: Saving Lives Together’, partnering with Pacific Islands advocates, activists, athletes and artists. This was a first-of-its-kind televised and digitally streamed concert rippling across Oceania, strengthening the human rights and public health movement around containing the pandemic in the Pacific.

The virtual concert was hosted by Aunty Tala from the Laughing Samoans, featuring messages delivered by high-level advocates from the UN, heads of state of Pacific Island countries, celebrities and artists, including music with a message from Te Vaka and Poly Flavour. All entertained while educating audiences about the best ways to continue the positive public policies of prevention and protection of all Pacific islanders. The Pacific Unite concert was the first-ever virtual concert by artists from Oceania that was accessible to all audiences across the Pacific Islands and around the planet, highlighting the strength of a rights-based approach to managing the pandemic and honouring the contribution of essential workers to the fight against COVID-19. It was also a call to remain vigilant, as the threat for many vulnerable communities in the Pacific still remained.

The quick action to close borders in the Pacific was also rooted in an awareness that, if the virus did spread, it could prove disastrous in many states where health facilities were chronically under-resourced and unable to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. In the Solomon Islands and Nauru, for instance, there were no intensive-care unit beds available and the Cook Islands had just two respirators.

Tragically, 2021 has been a brutal reminder of COVID-19’s capacity to surge rapidly from a handful of cases, even in areas previously spared from the worst of its impacts. At the beginning of March 2021, while the nation mourned the passing of founding father Michael Somare and the pandemic had just entered its second year, Papua New Guinea faced a sharp rise in infections as the virus spread to 19 of the country’s 22 provinces. With limited testing capacity, it is likely that only a fraction of infections were traced. In a context where the health infrastructure is already understaffed, the country’s public health system could face collapse without effective action. The knock-on effects for other areas of health – for example, in curtailed gynaecological and natal care for women and girls – have already been felt.

While a vaccination programme prioritizing frontline health workers was initiated in Papua New Guinea in May 2021, other countries such as Fiji have had to implement drastic measures to contain the virus. The Fiji authorities closed the second-largest hospital and quarantined hundreds of patients and staff after a patient who later died was found to have infected a doctor. It is to be hoped that the prudent policies that have spared Pacific populations during the first year of the pandemic will continue to prevent the spread of the virus. Given the poor state of infrastructure and services across the region, however, the Pacific governments must prepare for worst-case possibilities. In this scenario, it is vital that other countries – who learnt so much from the positive practices of the Pacific and now, after a year of battling the virus, have lessons of their own to share – provide adequate assistance to Oceania should it be needed.


Photo: Scenes from the ‘Pacific Unite: Saving Lives Together’ concert, televised and digitally streamed across Oceania. Source: ABC iview.