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'Threat and blessing': how one of the few countries without coronavirus lives

The Pacific state of Vanuatu is one of the few places where there is no coronavirus, but efforts to prevent its spread were difficult due to the fifth category cyclone. Writes about this The Guardian.

Photo: Shutterstock

Vanuatu, a country with a population of just under 300 people, whose 000 islands stretch across the ocean 80 km east of Australia, remains one of the few countries in the world to have no confirmed cases of coronavirus. There are several countries in Africa that still do not have cases, but the majority of these Covid-free countries are in the Pacific.

Countries such as Palau, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Samoa were protected by their remoteness, but their remoteness, low incomes, and poor healthcare infrastructure would make them incredibly vulnerable if the virus reached them.

But even here, in this remote archipelago that feels as far away as possible from Wuhan’s prohibitions and terrible scenes in Italy and New York, the shadow of a coronavirus hangs over the whole country.

Two children of Ariitaymai Salmon were quarantined at the hotel on their return from Sydney, where one is studying at school and the other at university.

“For my children, returning home was a relief, even if it meant being in quarantine here for two weeks. They did a great job, ”said the mother. “They were just happy to be home in Vanuatu.”

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Salmon is the managing and client manager of Au Bon Marche, the largest supermarket chain in the country. Over the past few weeks, she has informed Vanuatu citizens that there is enough food to feed the population, even when borders are closed.

Au Bon Marche is one of the few companies that will survive the effects of the reaction to coronavirus.

Those who work in the hospitality and tourism sectors, which account for more than 40% of Vanuatu's GDP, are concerned about how they will recover without regular tourists.

Cruise ships stopped completely, and the national airline Air Vanuatu suspended all flights to and from the country indefinitely. Many restaurants and hotels have closed voluntarily, while others are trying to act within government restrictions, closing at 19:30 until the curfew, which prohibits anyone from staying outside their homes from 21:00 to 4:00.

Hand washing stations were opened along Port Vila's main street near shops, banks and restaurants, most of which consisted of large plastic containers and a portable crane. In accordance with the rules of the state of emergency, all enterprises must, at their own expense, install hand-washing products to promote hygiene.

This includes kava-bars, also known as nakamals, which are facing radical changes in their practice due to hygiene reasons. In cava bars serving a traditional psychoactive drink, people share the same cava bowl immersed in a cloudy brown liquid and drink all night.

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After Covid-19, all kava bars now only offer takeaway food. In Nakamal, at the Bladinier estate on the outskirts of Port Vila, Kelsey Java puts on disposable gloves to fill plastic bottles with your favorite beverage for sale to customers.

“Usually we are open until midnight. But now we open at 16:30 and should close at 19:30, and we can only work on takeaway, ”says Java. “Some of my clients wanted them to be able to drink cava here at the bar, but I must explain that this is not possible.” “The police are checking that we follow the rules, and our customers respect that.”

Other enterprises were forced to close altogether. Christoph Tahumpir, a local businessman who exports sandalwood to China, was forced to close. Although he is concerned about rising unemployment, he agrees that borders should be closed.

“If the virus comes here, I think it will affect someone in my family. That would be very sad, ”says Tahumpir.

Kalfau Moli, a former member of Parliament, managed to make the final voyage from his home island of Malo to Port Vila before all movement between the islands was suspended.

“As a father and a citizen of this country, I am very worried. “We don’t have the means to fight the virus,” says Moli. - We don’t even have water to wash our hands. Tell me, where can we get water in the east of Malo? Or in the White Sands on Tann? ”

Russell Tamata, lead representative of the government advisory group on the Covid-19 fight, advocates tough government action.

“We know how the virus spreads, and when we look at our culture and how we live, it’s all in favor of the virus. If the virus gets here, it will be a disaster. At the moment, we must be strict with our borders - we are afraid that if the virus enters Vanuatu, it will spread very quickly, and we simply will not have the resources and capabilities to manage it. The slightest mistake will greatly affect us, ”says Tamata.

The Chinese government has pledged to supply equipment and materials for Vanuatu by late April to build an intensive care unit (ICU) in Port Vila, including the provision of necessary ventilation devices.

The country's main hospital, Vila Central Hospital, is currently turning the tuberculosis ward into an isolation ward, but there are still only 20 beds in the entire hospital.

“If a patient has complications, we only have two ventilators in the whole country,” says Tamata.

“We have about 60 doctors, but most of them have recently graduated, a third batch of nurses from the Solomon Islands has recently been sent to us to work in six provinces due to a lack of human resources,” says Tamata.

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Due to a lack of local nurses, Vanuatu has been hiring them from the Solomon Islands since mid-2019.

Tamata says one of the biggest challenges is disinformation management. When a two-week emergency was declared on March 26 in Vanuatu, one of the orders included a ban on all media from publishing articles about Covid-19 unless they received permission from the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMO).

“There are many scientific words that cannot be translated into bislama, and they can easily be misinterpreted,” says Tamata.

Vanuatu's vulnerability increased this week as the tropical cyclone Harold hit the country. On Monday, April 6, in the morning, a category 5 storm affected the northern islands of Vanuatu.

The overall extent of the destruction is not yet clear, but the images from the islands of Espiritu Santo and Malo show villages destroyed by a storm to ruins.

The tough measures taken to respond to the Covid-19 were suddenly canceled by the disaster. The rules, which forbade the gathering of more than five people at a time, should have been relaxed, as people gathered in large groups to take refuge in centers of mass evacuation.

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Vanuatu is accustomed to natural disasters - it is considered the most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters - and only last week NDMO struggled with floods and falling volcanic ash. But there are concerns that the dual emergencies associated with Harold and the coronavirus might be too serious for a vulnerable island nation.

Other leaders in the Pacific, including Fiji’s prime minister, where 16 cases of coronavirus are currently reported and where Harold’s storm is expected in the coming days, have warned that the Pacific will need international recovery assistance.

“Harold chose the worst time. Flights are prohibited, foreign aid workers are recalled, and medical supplies are limited. The world must be prepared to respond to this disaster, ”he wrote.

Tamata is more optimistic about Vanuatu's chances of resisting an outbreak of coronavirus, despite other problems the country is facing.

“We see Covid-19 as a threat, but it's also a blessing,” Tamata says. - We tried to propagate the basic rules of hygiene to people for years, and now they themselves understand the importance of all this. We recognized the gaps in our laws, especially between public health acts and immigration, and we have matured to make tough decisions. Although the Covid-19 will still pose a huge threat to Vanuatu, we are ready. ”

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