‘Island nations struggle to manage deadly Cyclone Harold while trying to stave off pandemic’

‘Island nations struggle to manage deadly Cyclone Harold while trying to stave off pandemic’
9 April 2020

(This story first ran yesterday on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation; it has been edited slightly here for time references. The IFRC issued an imminent-crisis cash grant of just over 50,000 Swiss francs to help the Vanuatu Red Cross Society issue early-warning messages and mobilize relief stocks as Tropical Cyclone Harold transited its area of responsibility.)

As deadly Cyclone Harold churns through the South Pacific, small island nations in its path are struggling to balance responses to the disaster with maintaining efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, officials warned yesterday.

Cyclone Harold ripped through Vanuatu and Fiji as a deadly top-strength storm this week, causing injuries and damage to property, and severing communications.

Before that, it left 27 people missing and presumed dead in the Solomon Islands after they were swept off a ferry in rough seas.

The storm is now headed toward Tonga and was expected to land there on Thursday or Friday, emergency officials said.

The cyclone forced Vanuatu, which has yet to report a case of the COVID-19 infection, to suspend social distancing rules intended to combat the virus, the Red Cross said.

The island state’s leaders also are rethinking new border restrictions imposed to head off a virus outbreak, they said.

“It’s an incredibly challenging time right across the globe, and it’s hard to imagine a worse time for a mega-storm like this to hit,” Luke Ebbs, Vanuatu director for charity Save the Children, said in a statement.

‘Perfect storm’

Josephine Latu-Sanft, a Tongan-born communications director for the Commonwealth – whose members include more than 20 small-island states – said the storm had thrown the islands’ pandemic preparations into question, and left nations that have few resources struggling to deal with two crises at once.

Fiji, for instance, has about 15 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths yet, but will find it hard to maintain a lockdown to tame the disease's spread while dealing with the storm's aftermath, she said. In many islands in the South Pacific, “that’s where the worry is”, she added.

“If they have to lift that [lockdown] to put everybody in a church or evacuate a rural area, that’s a problem.”

Tonga has just “a handful” of intensive care beds for a population of 100,000, to treat both storm injuries and potential cases of the novel coronavirus, Latu-Sanft said.

Many people also fear that visitors bringing in storm aid or other supplies from abroad could unwittingly introduce the virus in places where it has yet to take hold.

For small islands, working to prevent a COVID-19 crisis “doesn’t mean all the other issues you’re dealing with go away”, Latu-Sanft told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and a native of the Caribbean island of Dominica, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, said lessons learned in the South Pacific may soon have wider implications.

Both the Atlantic hurricane season and South Asia monsoon, for example, begin in June, and could bring flooding and other threats even as countries are likely to be still grappling with COVID-19.

“If we’re not careful we may have the perfect storm,” Scotland warned in a telephone interview.

Multiple crises

Economic shutdowns associated with efforts to control the virus also will make it harder for many people to cope with potential climate-related disasters at the same time.

Communities that rely on fishing, for instance, can no longer sell to restaurants or broader markets, and tourism is on hold as travel bans are put in place.

“If no one’s flying and there’s no tourism and no one is buying your fish, you’re really looking at an economic disaster as well,” Scotland said.

Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said aid agencies and climate change experts have long been concerned about more countries and communities facing multiple crises – from health emergencies to conflict outbreaks or weather disasters – all at once.

The current pandemic is now expanding that risk to many parts of the world beyond the poorest and most conflict-affected countries, he said.

“Are we going to see a lot more of this? Absolutely,” he added.

Vanuatu Red Cross volunteers have been helping people evacuate and are now conducting needs assessments; before the storm hit they prepositioned essential relief supplies in branches. The IFRC’s Fiji-based Communications Manager for the Pacific, Carl Gustav Lorentzen, today tweeted that the Fiji Red Cross “worked around the clock with BOTH disaster response and COVID-19 messaging and assisted the government with a helicopter-borne survey of affected communities.” (Photo: Jerethy Nalin/VRCS via IFRC)