Humanitarian Aid In The Age Of COVID-19: Vanuatu Devastated By Cyclone Harold

The South-Pacific island state of Vanuatu was hit by a category 5 cyclone earlier this month. Harold made landfall on Espiritu Santo, the country’s largest island on the 6th of April. With winds topping 145mph, it was the strongest cyclone to ever make landfall on this island, resulting in widespread destruction, with Vanuatu’s Red Cross stating that most people in the disaster zone had lost their homes. Whilst total immediate casualties have remained low, the country’s relief efforts have been hampered by current measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the country.

Currently, the country has not yet officially recorded any infections. Its remote location and quick reaction to COVID-19 gave it a chance to evade a spread for now. Dr Colin Tukuitonga, head of Pacific and International Health at the University of Auckland, speaking to the BBC noted how the nation has been proactive in its approach to the virus, going into a prompt lockdown, closing borders and quarantining citizens, with the key goal of keeping the virus out of the country before it can spread. Yet, he warned how ill equipped the country is for any spread; “there are nowhere near the number of ventilators and intensive care beds [needed for COVID-19] and they can’t test for the virus in many of these places”.

Charlot Saiwai, the nation’s caretaker prime minister has also recognized that international aid to deal with COVID-19, including a Chinese dispatch of medical equipment, has helped. However, he resonated with Tukuitonga’s concern that developing countries, including his own have “significant issues with health systems, facilities, lack of sufficient medical staff and drugs to manage the pandemic” and that “any outbreak of COVID-19 in Vanuatu will be a major disaster for the country”. Coupled with a category five cyclone, the disastrous impact will only be accentuated.

It is the cyclone’s impact that provides rife fostering ground for the virus. The country’s National Disaster Management Agency stated that there would be a loosening of lockdown rules as people move to shelters and evacuation centres. The delivery of emergency supplies to those most in need have also faced delays as all packaging has required a three day wait due to quarantining measures. The aid available for those affected by the cyclone has also fallen, with the World Vision country manager Kendra Gates Derousseau noting how “within 72 hours of [2015 Cyclone] Pam, we had AU$7m [in donations] … If we crest $1m at the end of this week, we’ll have done a good job”.

Ultimately, both threats have a reinforcing effect on one another. Measures against the spread of COVID-19 are hindered by the administration of aid to deal with the impacts of cyclone Harold. This reflects the plight facing organizations helping in highly vulnerable locations worldwide as a result of war or other disasters, and now, COVID-19. For example, as the UNHCR reports, West and Central Africa is home to nine million refugees, with a total confirmed 5,000 cases and over 100 deaths of COVID-19 [as of the 17th April]. Overcrowded shelters have made it near impossible in implementing social distancing rules, and a lack of general sanitation has left the region ever more vulnerable to the virus that is already spreading.

For now, Vanuatu seems to be evading the virus. This has however, badly affected the administration of aid for a cyclone, the result of which is increasing the likelihood for the virus’ spread. Both mutually reinforcing threats present very worrying implications for aid agencies in contexts that are already testing enough.