'Job-killer of the century': economies of Pacific islands face collapse over Covid-19

The region is largely coronavirus-free, but pandemic shutdowns and loss of tourism dollars are devastating its economies

The Covid-19 pandemic is the “job-killer of the century”, Fiji’s prime minister has said, as economies across the Pacific face collapse from economic and travel shutdowns, exacerbating existing illnesses, and potentially driving people into hunger.

While the number of cases across the Pacific remains low – several countries across the Pacific remain Covid-free and continue to enforce strict border closures – the economic impacts have devastated tourism- and import-dependent economies.

“Covid-19 is clearly the job-killer of the century,” Fiji PM Frank Bainimarama said.

Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama
Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama says the high human cost of the pandemic mounts by the day. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“You can’t suddenly work from home when you earn your paycheque as a scuba instructor, or in a garment factory dependent on regional supply chains, or as a handicraft maker who usually sells to tourists.

“These are the faces behind the dismal figures for employment, the high human cost of this pandemic, which mounts by the day.”

Fiji’s attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, warned of a “coronavirus cyclone … a perfect storm of climate and Covid-19” that could take Pacific states decades to recover from.

“Today, if you were to ask any small island/developing state’s finance or economy minister, they’ll tell you that – when compounded by the global pandemic – our usual climate-induced anxiety has escalated into a sense of impending dread. We’re all bracing for a ‘coronavirus cyclone’ of the century,” he wrote on Twitter.

In Polynesia, Cook Islands deputy prime minister Mark Brown said the pandemic lockdowns were an “economic tsunami” for the archipelagic nation: the country’s finance ministry estimates tourism makes up 65% of the Cooks’ economic activity.

A report published by the Hawaii Journal of Health and Social Welfare, argues some measures taken to fight Covid-19 are likely to increase the long-term risk of non-communicable diseases common across the Pacific, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

“For example, trade and movement restrictions within and between countries has reduced availability and accessibility to healthier foods, and increased reliance on unhealthy processed foods,” the report, led by Dr Si Thu Win Tin from the University of Sydney, said.

Pacific nations are acutely dependent on food imports, many of which have been cut off, or dramatically reduced, because of Covid-19 shutdowns. Small Pacific island states typically produce less than 65% of their country’s dietary energy supply domestically.

In parts of Kiribati, the price of rice has risen by 50%. In Fiji, reports to police of thefts from food gardens have skyrocketed.

“In addition, there is potential for individuals becoming less physically active as a result of curfews and restricted movement; abuse of tobacco and alcohol while being isolated at home; and increase in domestic violence compounded by further isolation due to quarantine, social disengagement and unemployment. All these impact individuals’ mental wellbeing and overall risks of non-communicable diseases.”

The UN’s food and agriculture organisation has warned the Covid-19 poses a serious threat to food security and nutrition across Asia and the Pacific.

“Declining incomes may make food, particularly nutritious food, less affordable for some, especially the poor. Disruptions to and possible breakdowns of marketing, logistics and trading systems could make food unavailable in some locations at some times. Hunger and malnutrition could rise.”

Australia and New Zealand, key Pacific rim states and donors to the region, have committed to keeping their international food trade open during the pandemic.


Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pacific states face instability, hunger and slow road to Covid recovery: Dame Meg Taylor
While the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has so far spared the Pacific, its economies are in free-fall, the region’s chief diplomat warns

Sheldon Chanel in Suva

10, Aug, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Deserted islands: Pacific resorts struggle to survive a year without tourists
Algae-filled pools and shuttered hotel windows are a reminder that Covid-19 is not just a public health problem

Dan McGarry in Port Vila, Sheldon Chanel in Suva, Emmanuel Samoglou in Rarotonga

02, Apr, 2021 @9:30 PM

Article image
Sea of resilience: how the Pacific fought against Covid
A new documentary shows that while the health impacts of the pandemic have - so far - been largely avoided, the effects of isolation on families, communities, and livelihoods has been profound

Ben Doherty, Pacific Editor

12, Mar, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
'Superbugs' a far greater risk than Covid in Pacific, scientist warns
Antimicrobial resistance ‘biggest human health threat, bar none’, says Australian research director ahead of three-year study in Fiji

Sheldon Chanel in Suva and Ben Doherty Pacific editor

10, Sep, 2020 @3:34 AM

Article image
How conspiracy theories led to Covid vaccine hesitancy in the Pacific
Social media has been flooded with falsehoods about fertility, birth control and surveillance as nations struggle to administer enough doses

Hugh McClure

12, May, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Hundreds of sailors fear being stranded for Pacific storm season amid Covid border closures
Australia and New Zealand, the usual safe havens for yachts during the Pacific cyclone season, are closed because of Covid-19 restrictions

Phil Taylor in Auckland and Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

07, Sep, 2020 @6:51 AM

Article image
Trans-Tasman travel bubble 'on pause' amid new Covid outbreaks across Pacific
Australia and New Zealand committed to plan, Australian minister says, but it may be delayed until after NZ election

Sheldon Chanel in Suva and Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

13, Aug, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
Zoomed to fail? Cracks appear in Pacific Islands Forum as Covid pulls nations apart
Pacific diplomacy hinges on in-person greeting and discussion but web-only meetings have fed a growing dispute over the forum’s very existence

Ben Doherty Pacific editor

01, Feb, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Coronavirus in the Pacific: weekly briefing
Covid-19-related developments throughout the Pacific Islands

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Tess Newton Cain

09, Jun, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Coronavirus in the Pacific: weekly briefing
Covid-19-related developments throughout the Pacific Islands

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Tess Newton Cain

05, May, 2020 @10:00 PM