Addressing COVID-19’s impacts and structural crisis in the Pacific

Eriko Hibi, FAO Sub-Regional Coordinator for the Pacific and Representative to thirteen Pacific States discusses COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in the Pacific, and plans to rebuild.

First of all, what sets the Pacific islands apart from the rest of the world?

They are geographically isolated, have limited land mass and arable land, fragile natural environments, and fewer resources. And, increasingly, they are more vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change.

They rely heavily on food imports and a few economic sectors such as tourism, remittances, and revenue from fisheries licensing.

Also, you have to keep in mind that most things cost more here. Energy, infrastructure, transportation, communication and servicing costs are high. This means reduced opportunities for private sector development, which is essential for stimulating domestic food production, and continued reliance on imports. 

On top of this, investments in agriculture are low, unemployment rates high, particularly among youth, and labour skills insufficient.

All this has an enormous impact on Pacific communities.

Globally, the ten countries with the highest obesity rate are Pacific Islands. Populations here suffer from the triple burden of malnutrition – a situation where undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity co-exist.

Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death and morbidity as islanders have mostly moved away from eating fresh seafood and traditional crops in favour of imported, processed foods high in energy, sugar, salt and fat. 

And despite growing political commitments in the past decade, these challenges remain.  

Could you tell us how measures in response to COVID-19 might have made these challenges worse or more evident?

It is not just the measures put in place by the Pacific islands, but the structural impact of the pandemic emanating from decisions and responses from other countries far away that is affecting the region’s food security and nutrition.

This is why I call this crisis a “structural” one. 

To date, there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the thirteen Pacific countries where FAO works except for a small number earlier in Fiji. However, all islands issued a state of emergency and closed borders.  

Whether there are cases or not, however, the pandemic’s impact here is immense.

In many Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), imported foods constitute half of a person’s food intake. If the pandemic continues, and the global and local supply chain – from production, processing, export, transportation to import – is affected, it will disrupt the region’s food systems.

Pacific SIDS rely on cargo shipment for food imports, and the shipping industry has been experiencing slowdowns due to port closures and logistics disruptions. The impact of this can be long lasting.

Food prices have also been affected. Whilst some islands such as Fiji have a price control mechanism for foods considered essential – such as rice, vegetable oil, milk, salt, canned tuna, sugar – the prices of other, non-controlled foods, for example fruits and vegetables, have increased due to domestic supply chain disruptions. A few days after the lockdown in Fiji’s capital, Suva, the costs of the most consumed vegetables increased between 11 to 36 percent, in some cases up to 75 percent.

Most rural populations produce and consume their own food. But as some of the fertilizers and livestock feed are imported, domestic production may be affected in the long run.

Also domestic travel restrictions, low demand for fresh produces from tourism and market restrictions are affecting smallholders as they can’t sell their produces.    

Tourism is key to islands’ economies. In Cook Islands, tourism represents 70 percent of the overall GDP and accounts for almost 35 percent of employment.

Tourism-dependent economies will face major economic losses this year and possibly next year.

In some SIDS, remittances contribute greatly to the national economy. For instance, in 2018, about 41 percent of Tonga’s GDP came from remittances. These enable receiving populations to meet basic needs, including food. In Tuvalu, half of the remittances are spent on food.

These remittances have been falling during the pandemic, weakening families’ purchasing power, and possibly increasing demand for cheaper and unhealthier imported foods.

Revenues from the licensing of tuna fishing vessels have also fallen. Measures including airport and port closures, and quarantining of crews have delayed operations, costing fishing companies $50,000 – $60,000 per day per vessel and island nations $130,000 per day per vessel in lost revenues.

Pacific islands are often hit by cyclones. Could you tell us about the impact of the latest one?

Cyclone Harold struck Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga in early April, damaging homes, water supplies and crops.

In Vanuatu, the cyclone affected well over half of the population, causing significant damage to croplands and at the worst time possible – when the growing season has just started. It devastated avocado, mango and citrus trees, destroyed taro gardens, and smashed fishing boats. In Fiji, the damage to fields and crops is estimated to be over $12 million. 

As the cyclone hit during fears of COVID-19 spreading, the flow of external food and other aid relief was seriously hampered.

FAO is providing seeds, fertilizers and tools to the heaviest-hit communities in Vanuatu and Fiji, and supporting farmers to prepare their land for planting.

We expect, however, the combined effects of the Cyclone and COVID-19 to have a lasting negative impact on the region’s food security, value chains and livelihoods.

What has the region learnt from the pandemic? What has changed?

Never before has the importance of land and ocean resources been so evident as well as FAO’s and partners’ ongoing work to protect and sustainably manage them more relevant.

We are seeing more small-scale fishing activities by local communities, likely due to reduced access to imported foods, and atolls, in particular, have introduced plans to increase small-scale fishing.

It’s also likely for communities living in urban and peri-urban areas to turn to growing food, for example, by setting up vegetable gardens where possible, and buy more local foods.  

The need to keep diseases and pests at bay has also emerged more strongly during this period, with heightened interest across the region to stop the spread of the African Swine Fever, recently confirmed in Papua New Guinea.

Another realization has been the importance of quality and real-time data to respond to the structural effects of the pandemic.

What will FAO’s role be in bringing about positive change post-COVID-19?

FAO will continue supporting SIDS to strengthen their food systems and make it more nutrition-sensitive and disaster-resilient, be that through boosting local food production, or scaling up climate-smart activities, such as agroforestry, promoting climate-resilient, local plant species. 

Other initiatives include: supporting coastal fisheries communities to better access high value fish and saving their lives at sea; training young farmers and linking them to markets; assisting livestock farms and biosecurity authorities to prevent animal diseases; collecting data relating to agriculture and food insecurity to help shape better policies; strengthening the capacity of national food safety authorities through labs and training; supporting fast food vendors to make their foods healthier; and creating consumer awareness – all of which would lead to improving access to healthier and more nutritious food.

This is an opportunity to rebuild and improve food systems and livelihoods in a sustainable way.

Ultimately, FAO and Pacific SIDS share a common vision – that of access to safe, sufficient and nutritious foods for all.

Source : Fao