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UNICEF Education COVID-19 Case Study Fiji and Vanuatu – Responding to overlapping emergencies (18 November 2020)

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The Pacific island nations of Fiji and Vanuatu are no stranger to emergencies: the countries are among the most exposed to the risks and adverse effects of climate change and natural disasters globally, including cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and tsunamis.

COVID-19 presented a new type of disaster for both countries. Following the first case of COVID-19 in March, the Government of Fiji closed its borders and implemented stringent public health measures, including the closure of all 1,778 schools across its 332 islands, disrupting the education of more than 230,000 students. While not reporting any cases of its own, the Government of Vanuatu followed suit and implemented similar precautionary measures, closing all its 1,453 schools, affecting more than 90,000 students.

Just one month later, as students and teachers were still adjusting to distance learning in both countries, Cyclone Harold slammed Vanuatu and Fiji as a category 5 cyclone with winds that reached 270 km/h (165 mph) affecting 180,000 and 160,000 people across the two countries and causing widespread destruction, including severe damage to more than 120 schools in Fiji and more than 1,000 schools in Vanuatu, severely compounding the challenges faced by education systems in both countries as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

The global COVID-19 pandemic made the response to Cyclone Harold especially challenging. Governments in the Pacific continue to enforce strict control measures like border closures, travel restrictions and lockdowns to prevent introduction of the virus to Vanuatu and community transmission in Fiji. Humanitarian supplies faced added challenges securing transport, quarantines before being offloaded, and restrictions for inter-island transport within each country. Home-based learning ceased for many students whose homes and communities were damaged by Cyclone Harold, and many found it difficult to return to learning as they recovered.

Despite these overlapping emergencies, only two months later, Fiji and Vanuatu successfully reopened all schools adhering to comprehensive guidance on the safe operations of schools and welcoming back all students.