#17 Miniseries on COVID-19 and Inequality: Responses from the Pacific Ocean

“We need to go back to a model of society that places the human being at the centre of every economic, environment and societal structure. Some of us would even venture to state that our indigenous peoples around the world have the answer to this question about a model for the future,” says Fe’íloakitau Kaho Tevi, development entrepreneur and diplomat working in the Pacific Islands, in this interview with GRIP on COVID-19 and global inequality.

“We need to go back to a model of society that places the human being at the centre of every economic, environment and societal structure. Some of us would even venture to state that our indigenous peoples around the world have the answer to this question about a model for the future,” says Fe’íloakitau Kaho Tevi, development entrepreneur and diplomat working in the Pacific Islands, in this interview with GRIP on COVID-19 and global inequality.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands: A search for new technologies more appropriate for a post-COVID-19 future includes scenarios for maritime transport, of such central importance to the Pacific Islands. Here, in Avarua Harbour of Cook Islands, is a sailing inter-island freighter on a background of shipping containers. Photo: Edvard Hviding

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series, we provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.

 

Photo: Fe’íloakitau Kaho Tevi

Fe’íloakitau Kaho Tevi is trained as a development entrepreneur and as a diplomat, has worked as the GS of the Pacific Conference of Churches, for the IUCN’s Green Growth Initiative, as consultant and adviser to most Pacific Islands governments, and is a frequent convenor of think tanks and dialogue events at both high-level and grassroots, in the region and globally. Fei Tevi is also the Pacific Regional Advisor for the Mare Nullius programme based at the University of Bergen.

 

To what extent could we now see inequalities both between and within countries becoming accentuated as a result of the corona outbreak? How are such inequalities apparent in the Pacific region?

 

“Some people are so poor all they have is money”

– Bob Marley

 

There is no doubt that the initial herd response by Fijians to clearing out the shelves of supermarkets was one clear “off the hip” reaction by many wealthy Fijians. We made fun of the Australians and Americans hoarding toilet paper; we were no different here in Fiji with some of us having those same reactions. The Fijians living in the rural areas went about their lives without much concern until the lockdown of Suva, the capital of Fiji. Supplies of agricultural goods were purchased at the edge of the lockdown areas and whilst it took a few days to organize, the vendors were able to get their produce into the lockdown area here in Fiji.

 

Fiji’s economy is based mainly on tourism so many of the hotels have since closed and service providers to the hotels as well as hotel employees were at the front line of the economic ramifications of COVID-19. 85% of all hotels in Fiji have either closed or significantly reduced their staff as a result of COVID-19. This has had significant impact on the lower income bracket who live on a “paycheck to paycheck” basis. Many of those employed in the tourism industry have gone back to planting and living off the land, either from their “backyard gardens” or have gone back to the village to live and work their plantations. Once the State of Emergency was declared in the Solomon Islands, many of the islanders returned to their islands to live with their families and live off the land. So, the wealthy fell back on their savings, and the not too financially comfortable fell back on their families, extended families, villages and plantations.

 

An observation is made in the Pacific: many countries that were “better off” than others in the region prior to the pandemic, are the very countries that are more affected by COVID-19. So, what we see at present is that those Pacific Island Countries that were not too dependent on tourism, are going about their lives without too much disruption compared to those countries that have invested heavily in the tourism industry. One interesting reaction from the government of Samoa was to close down the bigger supermarkets earlier in the day so that the smaller “grandmother and grandfather shops” can benefit as well. This has led to a more equitable sharing of income in Samoa.

 

Surprisingly enough, many of the Pacific Island Countries have not been affected by the latest coronavirus pandemic. Tonga, Cook Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Palau are all COVID-19 free! Despite this positive situation, these countries have implemented many of the preventive measures including curfews, lockdowns etcetera. When economic activity has significantly decreased, many of these islanders would have reverted back to island diets and island dishes to help them through these difficult times. There is some envy towards those who are able to live off the land (low-middle income families) from the families who have the buying power now that their income is curtailed, significantly reduced or even halted.

 

Collective engagements to cater for the needs of the families of the clans have significantly increased. Families in Tonga have distributed their root crops freely in trying to help those in need; a barter trade market on internet is exploding in Fiji where individuals are exchanging goods and services in trying to help each other fare through these difficult times; stories of communities helping individuals in difficulty are surfacing in many of our Pacific Islands. In some sense, it is not surprising that Pacific Islanders react as such given our communal living and our sense of caring for the other.

 

How are the responses to the corona outbreak revealing the reverberations of colonial and postcolonial histories in terms of how pandemics are thought about?

 

In the 2019 – 2020 cyclone season, the Pacific went through 12 tropical cyclones, of which four of them were severe tropical cyclones. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the tropical cyclone Harold affected three Pacific Island countries and causing flooding and heavy rainstorms in a few others. This category 5 cyclone came and left destruction in its wake. There was a sense of “immunity” to the effects of the cyclone in comparison to dealing with the “unknown” factor of COVID-19. We know cyclones, but we do not know how to react to a pandemic.

 

If I was to associate colonial histories to the manner in which assistance is given and received in the islands, our reaction to the tropical cyclone Harold is a good example of “colonial reverberations” and our reactions to colonial presence and psyche:  we are dependent on assistance to recover and be better. The social psyche towards recovery of tropical cyclones are increasingly dependent on assistance given from overseas partners. We now have become so accustomed to assistance from overseas that we now wait for the assistance to come and help us recover, we wait on the government to assist in the recovery, we wait on the church to help us, and so on and so forth with “waiting”.

 

Our reactions to the pandemic, by far, has been more localized; falling back on our strengths as Pacific Islanders: our sense of reciprocity and community living; living off our land. It was a confirmation of some sort that the solutions to our “hardship” are to be found in our own plantations and villages.

 

In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the underlying environmental, economic or other drivers of heightening inequalities within a global or capitalist system?

 

Rather than add to the already profound reflections on identifying drivers that heighten inequalities, I would like to position the debate around the elements we find in our communities that will add layers to a solution and to an alternative to the current economic and social structures that are pushed and promoted by a capitalist-driven market economy and society.

 

In a recent Zoom discussion, a governor from Papua New Guinea noted how our Pacific communities are faring better than our sisters and brothers in developed countries, much to the surprise of many observers; our medical infrastructure in Fiji was able to cope very well with the pandemic; by and large, our communities followed instructions well; and the Pacific Island Countries are implementing state of emergency rules despite the absence of coronavirus patients in their own countries. Interestingly, Samoa had a dress rehearsal with the measles outbreak, so when action was taken to lock down Samoa, the reaction was generally more accepting and obedient to the imposition of emergency decrees. Perhaps we found ourselves relating to the developed world and looking with envy at the medical structures available and how they are coping with this pandemic. We are almost envious of the availability of technology and medical equipment at the disposal of these hospitals that we say that if I was to be sick, I would prefer to be there in Auckland, Los Angeles, or New York rather than in Honiara, Port Vila or Suva.

 

Perhaps we are trying to superimpose a developed world reality into our developing world reality. We may be imposing the reality of a human being in an environment that makes the human being be almost entirely dependent on the medical system to help the human being recover from the disease. In turn, our geographic isolation and our resilient nature as Pacific Islanders may be our saving grace in the face of this pandemic. It may be pure speculation…

 

Lastly, the current rescue packages for many of our Pacific Islands will only cater for the needs of the respective Pacific Islanders until June. The access to limited funding of Pacific Island Countries will most likely place them at the doors of the international financial institutions; further pushing Pacific Island Countries into debt. Given that latest estimates indicate a prolonged COVID-19 phase, it is only going to be a matter of time before funds are exhausted and that Pacific Island Countries will need to identify additional financial sources to cover the management costs of COVID-19. Fiji, to its credit, has adopted a two-pronged approach to addressing the medium to longer term economic stresses through the promotion of local gardening and the consumption of local produce to cover for the decrease in the purchasing power of the general public.

 

Recent news clippings from New Zealand point towards the resumption of New Zealand-Australia trans-Tasman flights once both countries have brought down their COVID-19 cases. To date, both Vanuatu and Fiji have officially lodged requests with the Australian and New Zealand authorities at the highest level that they are interested in being part of the trans-Tasman bubble. The questions that will need clear responses from the Pacific Island Countries would be an assurance that they would be able to cater for COVID-19 patients as the message from New Zealand suggests that they are concerned about the capacity of the Pacific region to adequately handle COVID-19 cases.

 

Our hope is that by the time our crops are ready for harvesting, we would have found a vaccine for COVID-19 and that we can attain some “normalcy” in our lives. The term is in brackets as we are not too sure what the “normal” will look like.  Is the “normal” for Hawai’i to be accepting the 30,000 odd tourists every day;  is it normal for Fiji to place practically all its eggs in the tourist industry when it is now clear that this sector will not build resilience in our countries; is it normal for our countries to not open borders for the free flow of goods and services when the flow seems to be going more in one direction than the other; is it normal that we continue to feed this economy that makes us a statistic on an import-export balance of trade in an economy that does not recognize our very deep attachment as a people to the environment that we live in and are part of?  Is that the “normal” we all want to get back to?

 

What might a global and equitable response to the outbreak look like?

 

There is an increasing choir of voices that call for change to happen that would bring the world we knew to a halt and replace it with another world and with a new dynamic that would place our environment and our people at the fore and then an economy that is at the service of this core focus. We need to go back to a model of society that places that human being at the centre of every economic, environment and societal structure. Some of us would even venture to state that our indigenous peoples around the world have the answer to this question about a model for the future. I would suggest that a global and equitable response model begins from the way in which indigenous communities have been able to live in sync with its surroundings, its environment, and its economy.

 

Are there experiences or alternatives from the Pacific context that global stakeholders or researchers concerned with inequality should be mindful of?

 

In a Zoom discussion over the last few weeks, there was a marked increase in the call for a change in approach to development and to the economic structure of many of our Pacific Island Countries. An increasing awareness of the inequalities of a capitalist-driven economy is a conversation that can be heard in the streets and other places more so than just in academic and NGOs circles. When we are free from COVID-19, are we going back to the same type of society?  What are the changes we need to see in our islands?

 

May I propose four tracks that the Pacific region may entertain in the future that researchers should be mindful of:

 

COVID-19 Free Pacific Economic Zone

Discussions in the Pacific region propose a resumption of flights from New Zealand to the Pacific Island Countries that are COVID-19 free. In this scenario, once again, we have to wait for Australia and New Zealand to create their bubble and then we are invited in to join. Whilst this may be driven by the need to address the dire state of the tourism sector in many of our Pacific Island Countries, there are untapped opportunities and potential mutual economic incomes that can be gained, opportunities nurtured and/or momentum created through a horizontal opening up of international flights between COVID-19 free Pacific Island Countries. Such flights can begin to move people, goods and services between Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji (when COVID-19 free), Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Cook Islands.  This will definitely create a windfall of income for airline companies that do not have to implement the social distancing policy on intra-COVID-19 free countries. There will be stringent medical certification needed prior to travel and at gates of departure to ensure that passengers are COVID-19 free and do not have any symptoms. This option ticks all boxes that align with the call for greater solidarity amongst Pacific Island Countries and for regional collaboration to beat COVID-19.

 

Social models that reflect our cultures and regions

In zoom discussions over the last few weeks, one of the main contentious issues around a future economic model is how it deals with the cultures of our region. Many prescribed economic models promoted by the international financial institutions have disregarded the contributions that culture makes to the coherence and stability of traditional indigenous economic models. It is proposed that a future economic model places culture at the core of its principle values so that people are aligned to the economic dynamics and processes. One clear example of this mechanism is the Facebook page from a few Fijian entrepreneurs looking at a way to build an economy on the principle of reciprocity, care and complementarity over pure monetary gain and profit. The Bartering for a Better Fiji (BBF) Facebook page now has more than 100,000 members exchanging and bartering on a regular basis with the aim of helping the neighbour as one of the key driving forces.

 

Revival of the agricultural sector in building food security for the Pacific region

In past years and during the nation-building period in the Pacific, many development plans based their economic stability on a robust agricultural sector. In subsequent development plans, many of our countries became focused on the economic efficiency much to the detriment of stability, food security and resilience. COVID-19 has laid bare that seemingly “robust economy” in terms of the fragility and the false sense of security given by an economic platform that is built, to a significant proportion, on a sector that is based on a service to an overseas market. As a consequence of COVID-19, our Pacific economies will need a pivotal and strategic rethink; a strategic pivot towards re-affirming those sustainable development pillars for growth. COVID-19 provides our Pacific Islands with the unique opportunity to put into action many of those policies that were adopted but were not implemented due to a lack of resources and also due to the development choices of governments led by the preferences of financing institutions and development partners. We are given the opportunity to secure our future, secure our food supplies, work on improving our health systems, provide incentives for our people to have their own backyard gardens, plantations and other food sources; we need to invest our financial resources into building up our resilience as a community to a future that will include such pandemics and increased extreme weather patterns. Such is our predicament, and such is our future as islands.

 

Platforms for greater engagement in the rethinking process of a post-COVID-19 Pacific region

When COVID-19 hit the Pacific Islands, many of the governments were in a reactionary mode and could not see beyond the prevention mechanisms to avoid the presence of COVID-19 in the islands. Murmurs around the region are calling for a rethink and as mentioned in the above paragraphs, this space is still an empty space. Current government policies note the need for change, yet all indications are that these governments are bent on getting back to normal. Therefore, there is a need for clarity on options for the future coupled with research-based information on what the future scenarios could be. Current reflections around the region point towards economic and social resilience-based policies that have the stewardship of the environment at its core; and that promote the principles of reciprocity, social equity and justice. Most importantly, these models revolve around the critical core element of culture that is the basis for any model for a post-COVID-19 Pacific region. It is towards this “empty space” that the Mare Nullius programme may need to pivot towards and begin to offer research and analysis that would give our Pacific Island governments and leaders the tools, and a research-based response to the calls for change, for a new normal. This process could be strengthened not only through research but also accompanied by virtual discussion series that would socialize the building blocks of what is the “new normal”. These spaces are much needed for the Pacific Island Countries and much appreciated by leaders of our Pacific Islands.

 

Honiara, Solomon Islands: Pacific capital towns are notable for their vibrant markets, which directly connect the rural and urban economies, such as here in Honiara of Solomon Islands. Immediate Pacific responses to COVID-19 lockdown include the rapid transformation of markets to forms of barter trade grounded in traditional mechanisms. Photo: Edvard Hviding