Cargo restrictions hamper Vanuatu cyclone recovery

n Vanuatu's north, whole villages still lie devastated three weeks after Cyclone Harold tore through on that terrifying Monday, 6 April.

In some villages, every building was destroyed by the winds. Today, whole families crowd beneath whatever shelter they could build from scraps.

Meanwhile, some 200 kilometres away in the capital, Port Vila, cyclone relief aid is taking days to be cleared, part of strict quarantine controls brought in to keep Covid-19 out of Vanuatu.

As Vanuatu deals with the aftermath of a cyclone which has affected at least two thirds of the country's population, frustration is growing with a response which is widely perceived as devastatingly slow.

After three weeks, assessments have been completed in 80 percent of affected areas, according to the National Disaster Management Office, while there are reports of other villages who are yet to see any kind of official assessment, let alone relief.

Glen Craig, who heads the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council, said the recovery effort is being hampered by restrictions on cargo and relief items, as well as fear of foreign products in affected communities.

Current restrictions on inbound cargo - including foreign aid which has been flown in on French, New Zealand and Australian military planes - require it to be decontaminated at Port Vila Airport, and then quarantined for 72 hours.

"Now what that means is that there has been delays in the cargo going out. So we've got air freight that has come in from Australia, for example, Australian Aid and it has taken six days to go from the day it was offloaded at the airport to actually getting it to the wharf to be distributed out into the outer islands," Mr Craig said.

Questions have also been asked about why the relief supplies are being delivered to, and quarantined, in Port Vila, when Santo - in the heart of the damaged area - also has an international airport.

The chief executive of Airports Vanuatu Ltd, Jason Rakau, said the restrictions on flights, passengers and cargo are directives from the National Disaster Management Office under the country's State of Emergency.

Mr Rakau said he has not received any official complaints about cargo delays. He said his organisation was following the government's orders, including having all aid delivered and held in Port Vila, where it is then often shipped to affected areas.

"So things like flight approvals get approved through the NDMO and it gets communicated to us through the director of the civil aviation authority and any other directives as well that relate to aviation, same thing," Mr Rakau said.

But the strict cargo handling protocols appear to go against the advice of the director of public health, Len Tarivonda, who has said that no decontamination is needed for cargo, because there is no risk of the coronavirus being transmitted that way.

This is supported by the head of the World Health Organisation's country office, Jacob Kool, who said the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by cargo handlers was taking limited resources away from those who needed it most.

Mr Craig's council was established after Cyclone Pam five years ago, which wrought significant damage to the country's south. It is the focal point for private sector involvement in disaster response in Vanuatu.

He added that they were also causing problems for day-to-day supplies in Vanuatu, with hundreds of tonnes of food and medicine held up in Sydney, Nadi and Auckland because importers are unable to meet the requirements.

"Covid-19 restrictions for cargo should be removed. They are not required, they shouldn't be there," Mr Craig said.

He said it feels like the government is adamant on keeping up the "public perception" that it is doing something about Covid-19 regardless of whether its actions are justified.

Attempts to get a comment from the director of the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office, Abraham Nasak, are ongoing.