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Pacific Aftershocks: Unmasking the impact of COVID-19 on lives and livelihoods in the Pacific and Timor-Leste

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The aftershocks of COVID-19 threaten to undo decades of development gains across the Pacific region.
World Vision surveyed 752 households in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu between July and December 2020 to gather first-hand accounts of the impacts of COVID-19 and its aftershocks on communities, families and their children. The findings highlight the human cost of the severe economic recession that has befallen the broader Pacific region since the pandemic, laying bare the region’s vulnerability to future shocks, stresses, and uncertainties.

The health impacts of COVID-19 are well known and are (rightly) front of mind for policymakers in Pacific national governments and donor governments such as Australia and New Zealand. However, our collective response to managing the health issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic must not be at the expense of addressing the secondary and ongoing impacts of the pandemic on lives and livelihoods.

The physical isolation of the Pacific islands, coupled with their swift response in the early stages of the pandemic, means that they have been able to minimise COVID-19 infections and transmissions. However, the physical isolation of the Pacific islands has been a double-edged sword throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Limiting freedom of travel is undoubtedly an effective public health response, but the economic fallout from these measures has been severe.

World Vision’s rapid assessment, buttressed by secondary research, shows the pandemic’s knock-on effects – its impacts on livelihoods, food security, and access to healthcare and safe water – are devastating communities just as much as the virus itself, and sometimes in greater measure.

As this timely report shows, the aftershocks of COVID-19 in the region are deep and wide-ranging, devastating communities on a massive scale. World Vision’s rapid assessment shows:

  • Almost 60% of households have either lost jobs, lost income, or resorted to alternative sources of income.

  • One in five households are skipping meals or eating cheaper meals because they can’t afford a healthy diet.

  • 14% of families have sent their children to work to make up for lost income.

  • Access to every form of healthcare has decreased since the pandemic.

  • Violence against children is increasing, with 80% of parents or caregivers using physical punishment and/ or psychological aggression against their children during this period of increased stress.

These are the ‘Pacific Aftershocks’ of COVID-19. They paint a picture of pervasive insecurity – insecure work, insecure access to food and water, insecure access to health care, and an insecure sense of physical and emotional safety. The Pacific’s expanded notion of security (encompassing human security, food security and climate security) provides a holistic framework to address these wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic.

These aftershocks would have been even worse if it were not for a suite of welcome measures from national governments and donor governments to address COVID-19 and its impacts. This includes Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery aid strategy, New Zealand’s development assistance, and a range of economic recovery and welfare packages being implemented by Pacific governments. Despite these efforts, the aftershocks of COVID-19 are still devastating households. More needs to be done.

A regional crisis like this requires a regional response. A once-in-a-generation, multi-sector, multi-country response and recovery effort is vital to rebuild livelihoods and lives across the region. No single country can do this alone – it requires a collective effort from national and donor governments, faithbased organisations, civil society and the private sector.

The report recommends that the Pacific region’s national and donor governments work together to implement five key actions:

  1. Develop a joint COVID-19 Inclusive, Green Economic Recovery Compact to rebuild the regional economy in a way that leaves no-one behind and builds resilience to future shocks, stresses and uncertainty.

  2. Implement a flagship initiative to address child stunting, undernutrition and food insecurity in the Pacific region.

  3. Follow Papua New Guinea’s lead and join the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children as Pathfinder Countries, committing to comprehensive action to end all forms of violence.

  4. Commit to achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all communities across the Pacific region by 2030, as well as access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

  5. Address the secondary impacts of the pandemic on longstanding infectious diseases and primary health care challenges such as HIV, TB and malaria, maternal and neonatal health, and child immunisations.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our economic, social, environmental and health systems are deeply interconnected and, so too, is our recovery. The prosperity of the entire Pacific region depends on the prosperity and recovery of each nation within it. In this sense, investing in the region’s recovery is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Only by rebuilding and recovering together, can the Pacific region recover from these aftershocks and thrive on the other side of this pandemic, building resilient societies where no-one is left behind.