The Pacific
Jonathan Pryke
Director, Pacific Islands Program

After COVID-19, the same challenges for the Pacific — only worse

Life for the average islander is a sharp juxtaposition of the idyllic and the oppressive. Diseases that are a distant memory in Australia — malaria, tuberculosis, dengue — are commonplace in the Pacific. Formal sector employment opportunities are limited, and people are used to going without. While public social welfare systems are thin, community welfare systems are robust. The Pacific’s greatest strength is the resilience of its people. The economic and political systems of the Pacific are far more fragile. Both will be tested to their limits by COVID-19.

Most Pacific countries walled themselves off early from the outside world, showing great foresight. This will contain the spread of the virus, and help the Pacific to dodge the worst of the immediate impact of COVID-19 — that of the virus itself. Considering the acute vulnerabilities of stretched — and in some cases broken — health systems, this will be looked back on as a remarkable achievement. Some countries, particularly Papua New Guinea with its porous land border with Indonesia, may not be so lucky, and will be dealing with outbreaks until a vaccine can be found.

No amount of foresight could help the Pacific dodge the economic fallout trailing COVID-19, however. All of the main threads of economic reliance that connect the Pacific to the outside world — tourism, migration, remittances, aid — will be affected. On average, the economies of the region may experience a contraction of as much as 10 per cent. Many industries, particularly tourism, will take many years to recover to their pre-COVID-19 levels.

Fortunately, Pacific governments and their friends are acting to avert complete economic and political collapse. Pacific governments will draw on every domestic resource available to them to stimulate their economies, largely rolling out small and medium business subsidies and mass employment programs. Donors, including China, will respond through a major regional financing program of at least A$5 billion — double what the Pacific normally receives in aid — coordinated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Most of this will come in the form of extremely concessional long-term loans. A debt crisis is looming but the crisis of today is more immediate. Australia and New Zealand will recognise this, and will lead the support efforts despite the gargantuan challenges at home.

At the end of this much of the Pacific will look as it did before, with the same challenges and opportunities. But some parts will have significantly changed. The regional lending mechanism will likely evolve into a development bank for the Pacific, which will improve coordination of efforts across all Pacific donors, including China. Health will become a flagship of donor engagement in the region and will become the new arena for big-power geopolitical competition. Pacific regional integration will take a hit, as the collapse of some national airlines will make it harder than it already is to get around the region. But the bonds between Pacific countries, and with Australia and New Zealand, will be stronger on the other side.