Keeping our commitments to our Pacific island family in the shadow of Covid-19

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a point of emphasising Australia’s commitment to ‘our Pacific island family’ in his remarks at last week’s virtual special G20 summit. In addition to the support already provided for healthcare, information campaigns, medical equipment and laboratories, Morrison assured the G20 leaders that Canberra was reconfiguring development assistance to advance more effective health and economic support to the region.

Being both small and developing, our Pacific neighbours are facing incredible health and economic challenges with the Covid-19 threat. Our capacity to meet the needs of our neighbours will be tested, given the demands the Covid-19 pandemic is making on our financial and physical resources.

One of the more immediate tests is occurring right now here in Australia. Pacific islanders working in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme are not eligible under the government’s new ‘JobKeeper’ initiative. This oversight in Australia’s fight against Covid-19 needs to be addressed quickly.

These workers are caught in a double bind. They can’t return home or even move easily around Australia to follow the work here because of internal travel restrictions. Meanwhile, for the same reason, workers across the Pacific will lose income since they won’t be able to take up expected jobs.

The isolation that guest workers in Australia are feeling is intensified by concerns over housing and uncertainty about whether they’ll benefit from Canberra’s economic stimulus packages and even, it seems, whether they’ll be granted visa extensions.

Yet island workers who are here now may have no income to sustain themselves, much less to send home.

Another potentially large effect of Covid-19 on our Pacific family relates to remittances. The earnings of guest workers under labour mobility arrangements—a major feature in Australia’s Pacific step-up policy—have long been an important source of external income in a number of island states. Migrant workers in Australia are now subject to the same straitened economic circumstances as the rest of the country. That means the Pacific island diaspora will have less (if any) disposable income to send back to families in the Pacific for the immediate foreseeable future.

While we should help because we care, we should not try so hard to help that we neglect to listen to our Pacific family. It’s vital that islanders retain ownership of their priorities and feel confident about the solutions while everyone is scrambling for answers. Strengthening the regional architecture should be as a critical part of building this confidence as well as promoting resilience in response to the pandemic.

The Pacific Community (SPC) has had medical cooperation and coordination in its mandate since 1947. It is the regional partner for the World Health Organization for the Pacific Public Health Surveillance Network, which has responsibilities to respond to epidemics.

The SPC’s technical expertise and regional network are particularly important to Australia’s response to Covid-19 in the Pacific. The organisation has enormous credibility with the medical community across the region and has the widest access to this community. Importantly, the SPC also includes France, the UK and the US in its membership.

The breadth of its membership and technical expertise has long made the SPC a significant enabler for local resilience by ensuring the Pacific island states have national confidence in sharing scarce health resources to meet present and future challenges. Projects such as the SPC’s Strengthening Health Interventions in the Pacific, or SHIP, program, in particular, need greater support to develop and strengthen regional epidemiological competencies.

The pandemic has produced the unedifying spectacle (and questionable morality) of the US government and many of the American states competitively combing the globe for life-saving medical supplies. Those actions expose a key vulnerability of the Pacific region. The small Pacific states cannot compete internationally for the critical medical resources that are in such short supply globally.

The worldwide impacts of the pandemic distinguish it from localised natural disasters like tropical cyclones. In the case of Cyclone Winston, which battered Fiji, Vanuatu and other islands in 2016, the shortfall in medical services and supplies locally could be made up from the reserves of larger neighbours like Australia that were able to share their resilience.

As the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates, even a sophisticated and large economy like the US may not have all the resilience needed to cope with a pandemic, let alone share with others.

In the face of this crisis, the small Pacific states may have no choice but to rely on kindness and some affordable altruism by their traditional friends such as Australia. However, the pandemic throws down the challenge to be creative in our thinking about how to deal better with the inevitable future tests of national resilience.

One possibility is to find a way to allow the Pacific states to pool their purchasing power to be more competitive collectively in international markets. This is not a new idea—it existed through the crown agency service in the colonial period and has been suggested more recently to fund public–private partnerships to purchase resources such as oil in bulk.

While our neighbours are unlikely to want Australia to directly fulfil their needs, a regional service managed by and for the islands and funded by Australia could be acceptable. This might look something like the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser, which was set up to manage the negotiation of the PACER Plus free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand and was exclusively owned and controlled by its island members.

This proposal wouldn’t fully address the current scarcity and national needs of the larger states, but greater regional purchasing power could improve the priority of access to essential goods. More significantly, it would provide the architecture to promote post-pandemic recovery while also building long-term resilience against natural disasters.

A regional purchasing service would do more than build the region’s medical resilience economically and efficiently; it would help with the economic recovery more broadly. Buying common supplies and services collectively could give the regional governments greater competitive influence in the international marketplace.

As much as Australia is preoccupied by its own challenges, we must not forget our Pacific family. We cannot call our neighbours ‘family’ if they are forgotten or neglected. Clearly, the prime minister does not intend to do this. However, omission can have the same effect as neglect if we lack imagination in dealing with the unimaginable threat posed to our Pacific family by Covid-19 as it also threatens us.