BRISTOL, United Kingdom — The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed cracks in the healthcare systems in the Pacific islands. With a population dispersed across small islands, there are many logistical and financial challenges in delivering a healthcare system that is accessible for everyone. Most of the specialty and hospital-based care is limited to areas that are densely populated where they can be staffed and have easy access to resources. This means that those living in rural locations have limited access to services and, in health crises, they have to travel long distances at a great cost to receive healthcare. When they get to hospitals, the hospitals often are already at, or near, full capacity during pre-pandemic times. Now hospitals face being overwhelmed if cases suddenly spike.
COVID-19 and the Pacific Islands’ Health Systems
In many of the Pacific islands, which are still developing, the indirect effects of COVID-19 are far worse than the direct effects. Despite a low number of cases, fears over the virus spreading have led to a diversion of health resources to preventative measures.
This means that efforts to combat endemic diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and malaria, have less attention, leading to more deaths and a spike in these illnesses. One study found that deaths due to malaria could increase by up to 36% in five years because of the interruptions to new campaigns and other interventions. HIV deaths could rise by 10% because of less access to antiretroviral drugs, and tuberculosis deaths could rise by 20% due to interrupted treatment. More broadly than these specific diseases, there have been widespread reports across the islands of a decline in sexual and reproductive health services, child and maternal health services and treatment for gender-based and family violence.
The fragility of the healthcare systems of the Pacific islands has alarmed many across the world. The situation has attracted global support to the region to strengthen the capacity to respond to the COVID-19 health crisis and provide continuous healthcare for those suffering unrelated health issues.
As a close neighbor and ally to the Pacific islands, Australia has been one of the largest donors of assistance and aid to mitigate the potentially detrimental long-term health effects of the pandemic. As of June 2020, Australia had disbursed approximately $70 million from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s development budget to the Pacific region at large, as well as deploying health experts to Fiji and the Solomon Islands to assist in long-term planning and implementation of a stronger and more resilient healthcare system.
After global praise for its domestic efforts at managing the pandemic, New Zealand — another close neighbor to the Pacific islands —also provided generous assistance. By the end of March 2020, New Zealand had approved packages of financial support to 12 Pacific island countries and provided medical equipment, including ventilators and isolation facilities.
The European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme and the Pacific Community signed an agreement in early 2021 seeking to strengthen the existing partnership to support health sector responses to COVID-19 across the Pacific. The aim is not simply to provide financial support but to provide guidance and physical support to increase readiness, strengthen testing capacities, reduce the risk of spread and create an efficient response mechanism. The aims are long-term to ensure sustainable, efficient and accessible healthcare across the Pacific islands.
Together these efforts will help the Pacific islands’ healthcare systems to respond adequately to COVID-19 cases. Such efforts will as well target the indirect effects the pandemic had on the treatment of other diseases.
– Lizzie Alexander