Through isolation and elimination, many Pacific Islands avoided the worst of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has had an additional impact in the form of out-of-date laws, overburdened healthcare systems, and economic stagnation.
It has been seven years since the Sendai Framework was adopted, and more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR), which will be held in Bali in May, is an important forum for countries to assess how to better prepare for and prevent new and existing risks, including how to better understand disaster risk and improve risk governance. The pandemic highlighted the critical need to align national and international systems to support a whole-of-country response, particularly when health, disaster, and other crises combine to threaten national resources and capacity.
In the run-up to the GPDRR, a regional study looked at how countries dealt with the pandemic from a legal and disaster response standpoint. The International Red Cross (IFRC) report, Law, Disasters, and Public Health Emergencies in the Pacific investigated the intersection of public health emergencies and traditional disaster risk management approaches in the Pacific. Critically, it revealed that, despite avoiding large outbreaks, many Pacific Island nations have struggled because their laws and national plans are inadequate. Its findings provide governments attending the GPDRR with an opportunity to close gaps in disaster-risk governance and strive for more cohesive approaches, preparedness, and response to health emergencies and disasters.
Ms. Finau Leveni, the IFRC Disaster Law Coordinator, and Professor John Hopkins from the University of Canterbury organised a webinar in April this year to share their findings and insights. Disaster response leaders from Fiji, Samoa, and Tuvalu joined them.
“In terms of the resounding success and lessons learned, my reflection is that we should not stop here. “How do we transform the Pacific Humanitarian Partnership for COVID-19 into a ‘PHP-C’ for all hazards, whether it’s COVID-19, Measles, cyclones, floods, or a tsunami?” Ms. Leveni asked.
Ms. Leveni’s assessment speaks to how the quality and speed of response to all aspects of COVID-19 is conditioned and reflected in legal and policy frameworks around the world. Laws and policies have made it possible to declare states of emergency or disaster, impose lockdowns, and expedite vaccine approval.
States across the Pacific largely pursued an isolation and elimination strategy. When tested, the isolation policy failed only twice: in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. The study discovered that in both cases, public health emergency frameworks proved problematic, and the virus spread more quickly. The Solomon Islands have also been hit by COVID-19 since the research was conducted.
“From a domestic standpoint, the ability to keep the region COVID-free or at least at bay for the better part of two years was not unavoidable.” Even though external actors frequently claimed this, it was driven by policy decisions,” Professor Hopkins explained.
The strains on public health frameworks were not limited to Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In many countries around the world, old laws and contingencies have become obsolete or insufficient, necessitating the rapid development of new laws and regulations. This is due, in part, to the ageing nature of these countries’ health legislation, but it also speaks to attitudes and practises that regard health as distinct from other emergencies.