Life is on hold in one of the last coronavirus-free places on Earth

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While Krunal and Pooja Tandel Ramteke were celebrating their marriage with swims in turquoise lagoons and sunsets by the beach, a crisis was unfolding. The newlyweds arrived from Gujarat in India on March 16 for a week-long honeymoon on the Pacific island nation Vanuatu. It wasn’t until Krunal Ramteke’s parents called on March 22 that they heard the news: India had just announced a nationwide lockdown and their departing flight was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Everybody suggested it was good that we were at least in a safer place,” says Ramteke.
The couple, both critical care doctors, have been stuck in Vanuatu since. “It’s actually very draining. We still don’t have any concrete plans for our departure and are worried [about] how to sustain this,” says Ramteke. With no indication of when borders might reopen, and with time on their hands, the Ramtekes have reached out to the local health authorities to volunteer and help build an intensive care unit in the capital of Port Vila as the country prepares for a possible coronavirus outbreak. Vanuatu has only two fully-functioning ventilators in Vila Central Hospital with three additional ones, recently donated by China, on standby.


Vanuatu is one of the last places on Earth with no confirmed cases of Covid-19. It may be its isolated location in the South Pacific that spared the pristine archipelago from a devastating outbreak. Situated some 1,750 kilometres east of Australia, Vanuatu’s 300,000-strong population is spread over 65 of its 83 islands. To make sure the island group remains coronavirus-free, the government declared a state of emergency from March 26, closing all airports and cruise ports and banning travel between its islands – just three days after the last international flight left for Australia. A difficult call for an economy that depends heavily on tourism.
The constant media coverage of the increasing number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide has left Vanuatu’s citizens worried about a disease with no proven treatment. “I am very glad Vanuatu is distanced from the world right now during this pandemic. I must say we are all in this together and there seems to be no running away from it,” says Luc Cokataki, a resident of Port Vila. But while coronavirus has yet to reach its shores, misinformation about the disease has already leaked into the island through Facebook. In a popular group with more than 40,000 members, numerous residents are suggesting the lack of 5G mobile networks may have spared the island from a coronavirus outbreak and are appealing against the installation of cell towers, some even calling for arson attacks.
Andrew Kenneth is a government advisor who has seen his friends and neighbours in the tourism industry go without work. The nation’s tourism industry has seen a 70 per cent drop in full-time employment because of coronavirus. Despite this, Kenneth would like to see the borders remain closed until the pandemic has passed. “On the other hand, we could allow tourists to enter but with strict regulations and in close supervision since it’s our country’s main source of income,” he says.
The small country, which has just a handful of ICU beds and 320 test cartridges for Covid-19, would not be able to cope with a major outbreak. “Their health system is fragile and even a few cases of Covid-19 will overwhelm their health system,” says Colin Tukuitonga, head of Pacific and international health at New Zealand’s University of Auckland and the former director-general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, a regional intergovernmental organisation. He says the situation is compounded by the fact that Australia and New Zealand, which have strong economic ties and are the largest aid donors to Vanuatu, have to deal with their own Covid-19 outbreaks.


Due to its under-resourced health system and few other industries to fall back on now that tourists are staying away, the country was quick to lock down. However, just over a week after closing its borders, Vanuatu found itself wrestling with even bigger problems: a new government was about to be formed when a tropical storm, one of the strongest ever recorded in the Southeast Pacific, left a trail of destruction. With at least three killed and more than 200,000 residents affected, the damage caused is feared worse than Cyclone Pam, which hit in 2015 and cost around 48.5 billion vatu (£324 million) – two-thirds of Vanuatu’s GDP.
Christopher Bartlett, an American climate change scientist who has been living and working in Vanuatu since 2002, was carrying out biodiversity research on the island of Espiritu Santo when Cyclone Harold made landfall on April 6. The category 5 storm has decimated hundreds of palm-thatched homes and plantations along the coast and rugged mountains of western Espiritu Santo, and cut off 2,600 villagers from clean water supplies and the only unpaved road leading to Luganville, the main city of the country’s largest island. People are surviving on what is left of the crops and drinking contaminated water, which has led to diarrhoea outbreaks.
Cyclone Harold could not have come at a worse time for a country already in a state of emergency, and it soon became apparent that Vanuatu’s tough measures to prevent the arrival of coronavirus had hampered its response to the emerging humanitarian crisis. Despite the devastation, Vanuatu has banned foreign aid workers from entering the country fearing they could bring in coronavirus. Australia, New Zealand and China are flying in aid, but any supplies have to be quarantined for three days to ensure there is no virus remaining. The only way for Bartlett and a disaster response team to reach the hard-hit remote villages of Santo island is by open, fibreglass “banana” boats. “My work basically evolved into the humanitarian response,” he says.
Since the cyclone, the government has lifted restrictions on domestic air and sea travel to facilitate the movement of aid supplies. “Even though [Santo is] one of the main islands, the west coast is practically cut off because roads are so bad and on the west coast itself there are no roads at all, only boats,” says Bartlett. His team has been on three separate missions so far to deliver food, water filters, soap and blankets provided by the government, local NGOs and businesses.


Malekula, the country’s second largest island, is among the worst hit by Cyclone Harold. It was placed in a temporary lockdown on April 27 amid coronavirus contamination fears when a Filipino boat stopped to load dried coconut for export without approval and exchanged oranges for a box of cigarettes with two local boys while docked, according to the Vanuatu Daily Post.
Vanuatu suffers from severe weather events every year. In fact, it is ranked the most disaster-prone country in the world due to its exposure and societal vulnerability, according to the annual World Risk Report published by the humanitarian alliance Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft and Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. But when the country was battered by the cyclone and heavy flooding, a volcano on another island blanketed a large area in ash and contaminated food and water supplies. This left the newly-formed government with a lot to juggle since April. “The combination of those four factors – the geographical issues, the virus issues, the multiple disasters at once, and lack of international human resource support – all make it a perfect storm. They have really shown, particularly in the context of climate change, how the capacities of small developing countries are absolutely overwhelmed. Sadly, this is the new normal that we’re dealing with in the developing world,” says Bartlett.
It has been eight weeks since Cyclone Harold hit, and the residents of Santo are still in desperate need for food, water and shelter. The Natangura palms they traditionally use to thatch roofs have been completely destroyed by the cyclone and take at least three years to grow. All that is left are coconut fronds scattered across plantations that, until now, were not of much use to the villagers and considered waste material. On May 11, Bartlett’s team brought in nine women from the southern island of Tanna by boat to teach 550 Santo women how to weave housing material using the downed coconut leaves. “It’s critical because to date, there have been no shelter relief deliveries. No tarps, no roofing materials have been delivered so people are still living in cobbled together shelters,” he says.
Despite being spared a direct hit from Cyclone Harold, the people of Tanna are also suffering food shortages because the constant volcanic ash fall from Mount Yasur has contaminated their crops and water sources. The 361-metre high volcano sits on the “Ring of Fire”, a path along the Pacific Ocean characterised by active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. It is believed to have been erupting since before 1774, when the British explorer Captain James Cook observed “a volcano which threw up vast quantities of fire and smoak and made a rumbling noise which was heard at a good distance.” Today, the active volcano is considered sacred to the traditional kastom villagers living near the base, and is a famous tourist attraction.
Tourism is the mainstay of Vanuatu’s economy, bringing in 21 billion vatu (£141 million) per year, or the equivalent of 19.3 per cent of the country’s GDP. In a normal May, tour guides would be taking international travellers to secluded beaches, turtle sanctuaries and waterfalls. But the halt in tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic has left up to 21,000 residents out of work. Sakari Toara, who runs the Vila Hope Tours company on the main island of Efate, is one of them. “We went from being extremely busy every day to having no business, which affected our entire staff,” he says. “With no tourism the staff have had to attempt to find other work. There is very little employment at the moment in any area.”
One new client has allowed Toara to keep four employees on the payroll: the Ministry of Health, which needs workers and aid supplies transported across the island to then be ferried to the outer islands that were affected by the cyclone. “My team and I work together depending on how many vehicles are required at the time. We have picked up stock and supplies from the airport when the [cargo] flights have arrived,” he says.
With tourists staying away for the foreseeable future, Vanuatu’s economy is expected to decline 13.5 per cent in 2020, according to an analysis by the Australia and New Zealand Banking (ANZ) Group. And with a country already reeling from the effects of natural disasters and at risk of falling into a debt trap, the case for easing travel restrictions is strong.
Opening the borders to travellers from Australia, Vanuatu’s major tourism market, as well as its closer neighbours – Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands – will be key. “All of these countries have had, or still have, active cases, so the Vanuatu government will likely proceed with caution,” says Jonathan Pryke, who heads the Pacific Islands programme at the Lowy Institute, a think tank located in Sydney, Australia. The first to enter the country since the borders closed were Ni-Vanuatu citizens stranded on the Solomon Islands that were flown in on May 27. Like Vanuatu, the Solomons Islands have had no confirmed cases of coronavirus. Nonetheless, all arriving passengers will spend 14 days in quarantine at a government-designated hotel or facility and be tested if they show symptoms of disease.
Earlier in May, Australia and New Zealand agreed to form a “travel bubble” as soon as it is safe to allow flights, a concept which could be extended to the Pacific islands provided they can continue to keep coronavirus infections under control. “I expect Vanuatu will sign up to this initiative, provided certain health conditions are put in place, to get their tourism-dependent economy back on track,” says Pryke. The neighbouring islands of Fiji and New Caledonia both had just 18 confirmed cases, with no new infections in the last month.
Two months after being marooned, the prospect of Vanuatu joining the Australia and New Zealand “travel bubble” might be the only chance for Krunal Ramteke and his wife to get out of the country and one step closer to home where thousands of Covid-19 patients are in critical care. “We want to go back and at least do what we can for patients in our hospital back there in our region,” says Ramteke. India began repatriating citizens stranded in Australia on May 21, but the newlyweds have yet to be granted permission to pass through Australia in transit. “There are no signs of borders opening soon,” says Ramteke. “We are unable to understand how we will reach home. It’s been more than two months now and there have been no positive turns yet.”
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