Cyclone Harold struck parts of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and the Solomon Islands last week. It is the first category five cyclone of the year, leaving widespread destruction in its wake. The worst-affected areas are in Vanuatu, where the storm made landfall on a number of populated islands, including Santo, the location of the country’s second-largest city, Luganville. 70% of the buildings Luganville were damaged, according to preliminary reports; in certain provinces, 80-90% of people lost their homes. The United Nations estimates that in Vanuatu alone, 160,000 were impacted and in need of assistance.
On average, the South Pacific hurricane basin sees nine tropical cyclones annually. About half of them become severe tropical cyclones. Many residents in Vanuatu are still recovering from Hurricane Pam, which struck in 2015. Pam displaced 3,300 people, costing over $600 million USD in damages (two-thirds of Vanuatu’s GDP). Now, the nation must face another uphill struggle to rebuild. However, it must face this crisis while trying to prevent another.
In the Solomon Islands, coronavirus preparations had already fatally combined with the cyclone. A ferry, the MV Taimareho, was sent to Honaria (the largest city) to repatriate residents to the Malaita province. On the night of April 2nd, the boat met the brewing Cyclone Harold in the Iron Bottom Bay, causing 27 of its 738 passengers to be swept overboard. Although boats were sent to look for the passengers the next day, the country’s one rescue helicopter could not assist in the search because its pilot was in quarantine. All victims are presumed dead.
Vanuatu closed its national borders in March. It also halted travel between its archipelago of 80 islands, stretching over some 800 miles. Foreign aid workers are among those barred from entering the country. Aid that has been sent from China, Australia and New Zealand is being quarantined for three days, in fear of COVID-19 living on the surfaces. “This is an internally run response. We need to work together,” the country’s National Disaster Management Office said on its Facebook Page.
Fiji is the only affected nation with confirmed coronavirus cases so far. Nonetheless, the fear of COVID-19 hitting these countries not misplaced. The virus would spread easily in the densely-populated urban centres, where social distancing is difficult. Most of these nations have weak public health services, with the population spread out over many islands. Dr Lynda Sirigoi, a physician in Papua New Guinea, told Al Jazeera that “the major concern for most of us is that we don’t and will not have the capacity to deal with an outbreak of the magnitudes that we are witnessing globally, which will have the potential to cripple our struggling health system and the country as a whole”.
Pacific island nations also have very high rates of obesity and diabetes, underlying conditions which worsen coronavirus outcomes. 25% of Vanuatu’s population has diabetes. Out of the top ten most obese countries per capita, nine are Pacific island nations. Moreover, the steep drop in tourist arrivals is likely to hurt populations already vulnerable; the tourism sector employs around 150,000 in Fiji, a little under a sixth of the population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has captured global attention, but unrelated natural disasters are still occurring. Nations facing non-coronavirus crises will do this alone, with most governments looking inwards to manage the chaos caused by the pandemic. Yet, the need for unity has never been stronger; this is a test and its true trials are yet to occur.