COVID-19

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Confronting the regional challenge of COVID-19

30 April 2020

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For the Pacific, COVID-19 is a crisis like no other, with long-term ramifications for the security challenges envisaged in the Biketawa and Boe declarations, Tuiloma Neroni Slade writes.

The COVID-19 crisis is the first ever of such proportions to confront all Pacific Forum countries at the same time. It will command the highest political leadership, significant effort and resources; and will test the efficacy of response measures like those in the ambit of the Biketawa and Boe declarations. This is a crisis like no other, with ramifications not simply for global health systems but for wider and expanded security challenges envisaged in these declarations.

Immediate, close and effective coordination of policy and requisite practical action would be needed, no doubt under Ministerial oversight and with the involvement of the Forum Secretariat and key Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific agencies like the Secretariat of the Pacific community, as well as the engagement of other international organisations and key development partners.

Other agencies of the region and of regional governments would also need to play their part, including regional research agencies, and civil society. It is also the opportunity to strengthen, or initiate, national security policies and to ensure the provision and functioning of needed equipment and support services, and to build on the experience and with the support of others.

Building on Regional Frameworks

In the Biketawa Declaration of 2000, Forum Leaders established a mechanism to strengthen collective action and the security of the Pacific countries, and the region overall, in times of crisis. The application of Biketawa principles successfully reversed serious deteriorations of security and national development efforts in the Solomon Islands (through the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands operation) and Nauru (through the Pacific Regional Assistance to Nauru intervention). The Biketawa Declaration is being invoked again in the face of COVID-19.

In 2018, building on the Biketawa experience, leaders proclaimed the Boe Declaration on Regional Security and, reaffirming the responsibility to sustain Pacific peoples and resources, agreed on measures to strengthen and enhance capacities to pursue collective security objectives. There was affirmation of climate change as the ‘single greatest threat to Pacific countries’, and recognition of an increasingly complex regional security environment driven by multifaceted security challenges.

It was accepted there was need for an expanded concept of security which addresses the wide range of security issues in the region, both traditional and non-traditional. Particular emphasis was given to human security, including humanitarian assistance, to protect the rights, health and prosperity of Pacific people.

The vision for Pacific regionalism and for that quality of peace and security so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy and productive lives is now being severely threatened by the coronavirus crisis.

Responding Collectively

COVID-19 is so utterly overwhelming in its reach, rapidity and lethality it stands apart from all other global pandemics. At the time of writing, and in a matter of just a few months, close to a million and a half people worldwide have been infected, with the global death toll unchecked and continuing at alarming levels.

There is no regard for borders and all countries and regions are in danger, whatever their size or power. Right now, there is no ready cure or effective protection for any community.

While emergency and desperate measures are now being taken in all parts of the world, it is clear that the time ahead will be one of widespread health risks and of social, financial and economic turmoil for the international community as a whole.

The Pacific is a region of extreme diversity, not least in capacities and resources. While some countries are highly developed and far better positioned in the struggle against such a crisis, the greater majority are not.

Many Pacific island countries are lacking in resources and the requisite health-system services to cope with a major crisis of this magnitude, and, alone, are unlikely to be able to deal with the globalised consequences which are certain to disrupt the normal functioning of national order, services, and economies.

Smaller island countries are especially vulnerable. The reality is that COVID-19 unchecked and in full fury is likely to be simply catastrophic for small Pacific island countries and their communities and economies.

On top of this, at the moment of this writing, the relentless Cyclone Harold is wreaking havoc in its path from the Solomon Islands, through Vanuatu and Fiji, and now heading towards Tonga.

The Boe Declaration stands for the solidarity of Pacific regionalism. There is little other feasible option for the small and vulnerable in the face of this type of universally impacting health crisis, certainly not one doubled with the disaster of a violent cyclone.

It is most timely, and welcomed, that Foreign Ministers of Forum countries are employing the power of technology for urgent discussions this week to explore ways for coordinated and needed regional action and response.

Pacific countries would welcome the early release of the United Nations Secretary General’s report, Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, giving emphasis to the urgency of needed support, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries.

This is an unprecedented human crisis calling for the clearest global cooperation and demanding, as the report underscores, maximum effort from the world’s leading economies in the form of coordinated, decisive, inclusive, and innovative policy action.

Most helpfully for the region, there are equally supportive responses from development partner countries, international organisations, and multilateral financial institutions. In all this there is need for a forward-looking fix on the 2030 Agenda to ensure that the recovery from COVID-19 must lead to global systems focused on building inclusive and sustainable economies for all countries that are more resilient in facing such pandemics in the future.

There is demand for global resolve and solidarity in the fight against COVID-19, rooted in humanitarian principles and the protection of lives. Resolve and solidarity which need not detract from global efforts to deal with the even more calamitous dangers of climate change.

Disasters do change history, in part because disasters disclose pitfalls for avoidance, and they provide essential reference-points for instruction on, for example, new and improved methodology for shared global interdependence, resilient health and financial systems and sustainable economies. There is much to learn and to build on for the future.

Tuiloma Neroni Slade is former Attorney General of Samoa, former Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, and member of the Australia Pacific Security College Advisory Board.

*This article originally appeared on Asia & The Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum on 30 April 2020.

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