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The Pacific Islands have succeeded by and large in keeping out Covid-19. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be included in an Oceania-wide bubble with New Zealand and Australia. It could be a win-win for all concerned –on several fronts.

As New Zealand enters Alert Level 3 in its fight against Covid-19 today, it is the cynosure of the world’s eyes. Media around the world have waxed eloquent on how New Zealand has “eliminated” the bug – at least for now, even as the authorities rightly call for vigilance to avoid a spike, as has happened in several other nations.

Australia is close on the heels of New Zealand in containing the spread of the virus. An announcement similar to New Zealand’s “elimination” may be just weeks if not days away.

New Zealand and Australia have both done exceedingly well flattening the curve in dealing with the pandemic that has spread its tentacles across the globe to more than 180 countries and territories.

In fact, all of Oceania has done well, with 8092 cases (as of 27 April) including 1122 in New Zealand, 6713 in Australia, 57 in French Polynesia, 18 in Fiji and 142 in Guam. There have been 109 deaths in the entire continent, all in all, making Oceania the least affected continent.

While the preoccupation with keeping a tight control on the pandemic will continue, the New Zealand and Australian governments will now begin addressing the effects of the economic fallout of weeks upon weeks of lockdown. Jobs and restarting and boosting economic activity will be the prime focus over the coming 12-18 months – or even longer.

New Zealand and Australian prime ministers have already begun talking about a ‘Trans-Tasman bubble’ in anticipation of restarting travel between the two countries as soon as official medical advice from both countries permits it – though neither have indicated any timeframes. As things stand, even if this travel is permitted, there will be few takers as long as the 14-day self-isolation/quarantine regime stays in place.

However, as they go about reviving their Anzac economies, it is important that the two Anzac leaders adopt an inclusive approach toward the entire region. The Pacific islands, historically referred to as the Anzac nations’ “backyard” have been taken for granted and neglected in recent decades – long enough for distant nations to have filled the vacuum.

Though they have been spared of the disease, the islands have been economically ravaged. Almost every island nation depends on the tourism industry for financial inflows and jobs and with borders closed, the entire industry has come to a grinding halt – not unlike what has happened to that industry the world over.

But the islands depend almost entirely on the travel and tourism sector. Fiji alone is estimated to have lost 40,000 hospitality jobs. In much of the developing world, there is little welfare, if any. The flow on effects on the economy can only boggle the mind. Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue –all popular holiday destinations are equally hurting.

New Zealand and Australia need to seriously factor in the Pacific Islands, even if it is one-at-a-time, into what can grow into an Oceania Bubble – not just a Trans-Tasman one.

And, why not? The island nations have closed their borders for at least as long as New Zealand and Australia have been in lockdown – well past double the accepted incubation period. And they have managed to keep a tight lid on the pandemic, with no new cases.

There is little risk, if any at all, especially since the islands (with the possible exception of Papua New Guinea because of its land border with West Papua) are surrounded by vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

So, there is no reason why they cannot be included in an Oceania-wide bubble, when it becomes practicable, especially with additional checks and balances in place.

If such a strategy is in place, it would also help the islands send in seasonal workers, so vital to the New Zealand and Australian horticulture sector, as they have been doing for more than a decade.

Geopolitically, too, this would be a great opportunity for the Anzac nations to regain lost ground in rebuilding the centuries-old relationship with the islands, frayed in recent times.

This is a great opportunity for all organisations working in the Pacific and for the Pacific in New Zealand and Australia to come together to propose an inclusive Oceania Bubble, not unlike the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat’s ‘Pacific Humanitarian Pathway’ that is now in place mainly to facilitate the movement of medical equipment and supplies for the prevention of Covid-19 in the Pacific.

The advantages for everybody involved are far too many to be ignored.

First published on 28 April 2020