Remote Pacific Islands Escaped the Coronavirus But Devastated Their Economies: Adam Taylor

GEORGE TOWN, Dec 18, 2020:: You might expect the incoming president of one of the only countries with no recorded coronavirus cases to see cause for optimism. But Palau’s president-elect, Surangel Whipps Jr., set to take office next month, said that, in fact, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on his shores. “You could say our world has been turned upside down,” he told The Washington Post. “Last year at this time, Palau was looking toward a growing economy and stability,” he said, adding that the tiny island nation had been planning to host the Our Ocean conference on international marine conservation.

That’s all changed. Palau’s economy is set to shrink by 11.4 percent in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund — well beyond twice the percentage decline expected in the United States. The conference, once scheduled for this month, has been pushed back a year. To keep the government running and people employed, Palau has had to take out burdensome loans. “For our small economy, it’s huge,” he said. “And it’s something that we will have to pay for a long time.”

Palau, which is spread over hundreds of islands 500 miles east of the Philippines, has a population of about 18,000 — smaller than that of many U.S. towns. The archipelago’s isolation has conferred obvious benefits during a pandemic spread by travel and interaction. But it has also been a weakness for Palau and others places in the region. 2020 has been a year of soul searching for countries across the Pacific, home to almost all of the remaining virus-free nations, blessed and cursed by geography.

Some Pacific island nations are leaning into their isolation as the pandemic rages, looking to family farming and even cash-free bartering systems to survive the downturn. Others, like Palau, are wondering if they need to push in a new direction. “We have to understand that we are an island,” Whipps said. “We can’t survive on our own.” Tourism helped Palau become one of the wealthiest Pacific island countries. It was so confident in its trajectory that it banned fishing in most of its waters last year, citing conservation concerns.

But the tourism revenue dried up across the Pacific this year. IMF estimates suggest that Fiji, an island nation that has recorded just 44 cases, will see its economic output fall by 21 percent in 2020 — a decline rivaled only by troubled countries such as Libya and Venezuela. The list of countries without recorded covid-19 cases is short. Claims by larger, authoritarian nations — North Korea and Turkmenistan — are viewed with deep skepticism. Small, remote Pacific island nations such as Palau, a former U.S. trust territory, make up most of the list.

As the virus began to spread, Pacific islands with limited medical infrastructure knew that if it hit, it would hit hard. “In Vanuatu, they had two ventilators before this,” in a country of more than 290,000 people, said Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific analyst at Griffith University in Australia. Last year, Samoa saw scores of cases of measles, a fast-spreading virus preventable with a vaccine. The outbreak overwhelmed the country’s health-care system, leading to the deaths of more than 80 people, many of them young.

Some Pacific islands went into preemptive lockdown. By March, Micronesia had installed what one observer called the “most drastic anti-coronavirus travel ban in the world.” “On this occasion, the geography and the limited flights into the islands have helped,” said Colin Tukuitonga, former director general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. Acceptance of border closures and lockdowns grew. But as the pandemic raged on, resorts were forced to close down and fire employees. Remittances sent home from workers abroad declined, cutting a major revenue source.

During a remote appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Palau’s outgoing President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. (and Whipps’s brother-in-law — it’s a small country) said life in the archipelago had changed. “A national economy is not money. It is the system that determines quality of life,” he said. “It is food on the table.”