Sheltering under lockdown: Pacific Island nations battle on two fronts – cyclones and coronavirus

With one third of the globe on some form of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Pacific Island people are rallying to rebuild homes, livelihoods and infrastructure after Harold left a week-long trail of destruction. Merewalesi Nailatikau’s family suffered the impact first hand.

Pacific Island nations impacted by Cyclone Harold are facing the double challenge of mobilising for recovery while maintaining efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Harold was deadly from the very start. Already while forming in the Coral Sea waters off the coast of Honiara (in the Solomon Islands), the cyclone claimed the lives of 27 ferry passengers. They were swept overboard in rough seas in the early hours of Friday 3 April, while traveling to Malaita Province as part of COVID-19 contingency plans.

It was to be a chilling harbinger of what was to come, heralding the clash of the existing reality of seasonal cyclones, with a new global phenomenon: the coronavirus pandemic.

Harold barreled across Vanuatu as a Category 5 storm, cutting a deadly swathe through the islands of Espiritu Santo, Malo and Pentecost. The cyclone destroyed homes, schools, crops and left scores of islanders without electricity.

Up to 90% of the inhabitants of the Sanma Province lost their homes and 70% of the buildings in Luganville were destroyed. Vanuatu’s current state of emergency, extended as a preventive measure against the pandemic, means that the island nation’s closed borders pose challenges to rebuilding efforts.  

On Wednesday 8 April, Harold hit Fiji. At category 4, it caused flooding, storm surges and winds that flattened homes and damaged crops, driving thousands to evacuation centres and leaving much of the country with power outages and downed communications.

My own home

Among the many homes destroyed on parts of the main island Viti Levu and the island groups of Kadavu and Southern Lau, was my own family’s home in the village of Rakiraki, in the district of Yale, in Kadavu. In the space of a day, a home to generations was leveled to the ground. 

Remains of a house and boats devastated by cyclone Harold, on a field.

Photo: Tumisi Uluinaceva/Facebook (posted with permission)

On Tuesday my eldest brother Epeli, who lives in Kadavu, called to check in with my mother in Suva. He was in high spirits, and assured her that he had made all the necessary preparations and would be sheltering near an evacuation centre with two of my uncles. We knew from weather reports that the cyclone would likely trek near Kadavu but we did what many families would do – we hoped for the best.

According to my mother, Epeli was more concerned about us, and as was his fashion, he made sure to sign off with a few jokes. We laughed about them on the family chat group – and again, we hoped for the best. When we woke on Wednesday morning to discover that the cyclone had changed course overnight, we hunkered down into a quiet state of worry. As strong winds whipped Suva, all we could do was hope that whatever the toll of destruction in the outer islands, that lives would be spared. Thankfully, for Rakiraki, they were.

The cyclone finally bore down on Tonga, but not before strengthening to a Category 5 on early Thursday morning, surprising meteorologists and forcing Tongans to take shelter against destructive winds and sea surges. Parts of Tonga lost power and three tourist resorts north of the capital of Nuku’alofa were destroyed. In total, Harold killed at least 30 people.

As damage assessments shed light on the extent of the destruction and countries count the costs of lost lives and livelihoods, Cyclone Harold brought an unsettling reminder of past storms – the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam which ravaged Vanuatu in 2015, and the record-setting Tropical Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji and Tonga in 2016. Winston remains the strongest cyclone on record to ever make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere.

Twin body blows   

Of all the island nations in Tropical Cyclone Harold’s wake, only Fiji has confirmed coronavirus cases, currently standing at 16. But the low count compared to other countries doesn’t mean Fijians can carry on with their lives as normal. Hundreds in the island nation are in isolation after being exposed to the virus or having recently returned from abroad. Thousands more are on lockdown in Suva,  the country’s capital. Soon after the first case was detected in March, the city of Lautoka was placed on a two-week lockdown. Suva soon followed by which time fever clinics had been set up countrywide, borders were closed and a national curfew put in place.

Fijians, all too familiar with cyclone preparation warnings, were faced with a new theme to preparedness messages – the importance of remaining vigilant against the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Cyclones can kill, and so can coronavirus,” said Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in a tweet. “So, as we combat these two life-threatening crises – #COVID19 and #TCHarold – it’s vital that every Fijian do exactly what authorities tell you to do.”

The Prime Minister assured citizens that evacuation centres were sanitised and would be monitored to ensure they did not surpass capacity or overlap with quarantined individuals. 

“Through this week we went to incredible lengths to ensure we did not lose an inch of ground in our war against coronavirus due to cyclone Harold. Because unlike the cyclone, the virus won’t disappear in a day,” he said in a post-cyclone statement on Friday 10 April. 

After the destruction wreaked by Harold, Fiji declared a 30-day State of Natural Disaster for its Eastern, Central and Western divisions. 

“We have had a particular challenge in trying to address Tropical Cyclone Harold because you know at the same time we have the pandemic of COVID19 with us. So in trying to address Tropical Cyclone Harold, we have had to keep the policies that have been put in place with respect to COVID-19 in mind,” Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Disaster Management and Meteorological Services, Jone Usamate, told the press on Monday 13 April. 

Relief efforts have been supplemented by measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including medically screening officials and sanitising supplies bound for affected islands. The Minister also confirmed that civil servants on these relief trips have been sourced from areas outside of the Suva lockdown area. 

Public health concerns are compounded by the pandemic. Health officials dispatched to the islands are both implementing preventive measures for vector-borne diseases in the wake of the cyclone and relieving their on-island colleagues, all while maintaining vigilance in the face of the virus outbreak. 

“[Health personnel] will be making sure that we reduce the sources of leptospirosis, typhoid, dengue and diarrheal diseases which are known to increase in number after any climatic event, especially after a cyclone,” confirmed Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete, Minister for Health and Medical Services.

Food concerns

Food security was also raised as a “major concern” by Minister for Defence, National Security and Foreign Affairs, Inia Seruiratu. With closed borders and restricted movements, vital supply chains grow more vulnerable. The immediate focus is on catering to the needs of Fijians requiring assistance for the next 14 days, followed by longer term support for the recovery of crops by the Ministry for Agriculture. 

A house nead floodwaters in Fiji, in the aftermath of cyclone Harold

Photo: Tumisi Uluinaceva/Facebook (posted with permission)

As the coronavirus wreaks its own devastating trail globally, there is also a reaffirmed commitment to another global issue that requires a coordinated response – climate change. 

“There’s a greater understanding now that things are global, and that climate change is a global issue, just as COVID-19. We have to address it together,” said Sylvie Goyet, director of the Climate Change division of the Pacific Community (SPC). 

“Climate change, like COVID-19, has to be treated in a systemic way, looking at job uncertainties as well as financial risk and food security,” Ms Goyet added. 

As communities rebuild and lead the way in their own recovery, there often isn’t time to dwell on loss. People mobilise to clear debris and ensure access for assistance, they share to ensure they have enough in the immediate term and set their sights on collective action for rebuilding in the long term. And all in all, lives saved are celebrated and lives lost are mourned and laid to rest. 

Island nations continue to battle the existential crises of the pandemic and climate change. It won’t be the first or the last time that we face seemingly insurmountable challenges. One thing is clear: we cannot afford to lose an inch on either front.