I write this on a laptop propped up in a hastily-cleared space on the kitchen table, during that small window of opportunity that is a two-year-old’s afternoon nap. Only just a fortnight ago, rapidly rising infection rates of the coronavirus made a country-wide lockdown essential and upended the working world as we knew it.
Everyday life has been turned upside down here and around the world, and while sheltering mostly at home, Kiwis across the country are quietly worrying about the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis on the future of work and exactly how we’re going to pay the bills, if and when this is all over. Given the unprecedented disruption and the evident health risks, it’s hard not to focus our concern on those closest to us.
Through my work as an international humanitarian, the focus of my attention is often jolted far from my immediate situation to places where the need is the greatest. For people already living in poverty or crisis situations, any spread of this coronavirus will be far deadlier than what we’ve seen already, elsewhere in the world. And some of these people living in crisis are closer to our shores than we think.
It’s hard enough here in New Zealand getting ahead of this tricky new disease – where water is free, we have space to distance from each other, and soap is cheap and plentiful. Imagine being a parent of young children in the world’s slums or refugee camps, where dwellings are crowded and soap, or even water, is a scarce commodity. In refugee camps where Oxfam works, hundreds of people share a single water tap.
Or right now in the Pacific, where Cyclone Harold has raced through the region as a monster Category 5 storm – that means big and mean – and carved a high-velocity path of destruction through the heart of Vanuatu, before hitting Fiji and Tonga. When it comes to cyclones, the slow-moving ones like Harold are the worst kind, causing mayhem in the way of landslides, significant flooding and storm surges, and leaving behind smashed buildings, torn-up gardens and broken power and water systems.
Meanwhile families face the terrible choice of staying home to face the storm, or cramming into over-crowded evacuation centres along with thousands of others, where they are vulnerable to infectious diseases like Covid-19.
Pacific Islanders know if coronavirus gets a foothold, the impacts could be especially bad. For now, island communities are keeping the global pandemic at bay, but coronavirus represents an ominous new threat for many of our Pacific neighbours living in already at-risk communities. The basic tools and protections we take for granted in our fight against this pandemic – healthcare, handwashing and physical isolation – are simply out of reach for many people living in extreme poverty or grappling with the devastation of a disaster such as Cyclone Harold.
Many Pacific communities are using this time to do what they can to prepare, though any such preparations are blown out the window when a cyclone sweeps through the village. For starters, disasters such as Cyclone Harold sabotage any preventative measures such as lockdown or distancing. It also totally undermines a country’s ability to fund their already thinly-stretched public health services. Economically, the cyclone is a double disaster for Vanuatu, as almost half of this island nation’s economy is reliant on the tourism and hospitality that was just stopped in its tracks by the recent border restrictions.
A coronavirus outbreak in the Pacific may also disproportionately affect women and girls. Women are the primary care givers in the family and are key health care frontline responders placing them at increased risk and exposure to infection. Coronavirus risks increasing women’s workloads, as they care for children as schools close and the sick. There is a risk of increased family violence when families facing huge economic and mental stress are forced into isolation, especially in a region where pre-existing rates of violence against women are already very high.
In most Pacific countries, access to quality health services including intensive care is limited. In PNG for example, there is 0.5 doctors for every 10,000 people; by contrast, New Zealand has 30. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases, represent the single largest cause of premature mortality in the Pacific. These are some of the conditions for which this coronavirus presents the greatest risk.
The challenges are real, but the situation is not without hope. A pandemic of this size and speed is not something we have seen in recent times, but the world has plenty of experience fighting disease. And Oxfam, alongside other NGOs and local agencies have much experience to draw on in supporting Pacific communities to deal with the devastation and aftermath of cyclones. While at-risk communities in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world lack access to even the most basic coronavirus-fighting tools, it’s one problem that humanitarian organisations like mine can help fix.
There are basic things that save lives. We can distribute emergency sanitation and water kits, locally-sourced soap and other hygiene supplies from local markets; we can build hand washing points; we can install water purification plants in vulnerable communities to make contaminated water safe. We can build emergency toilets to improve sanitation conditions; we can use local water committees to share hygiene messages and identify people who may be at risk or infected. We know we can, because we do it every day, for millions of people around the world.
Despite the many challenges, Oxfam is right now supporting community health workers to help the people worst hit by this crisis. Today, like every day, teams are working hard to channel life-saving resources into some of the world’s toughest places, helping to save and change lives. The people living in these places desperately need help from all of us.
This global pandemic suggests a new era of solidarity and care for strangers. Troubling times remind us how much we love our friends and family – it’s also a moment to respond in a loving way to people we haven’t yet met.
– Darren Brunk works as a Humanitarian Specialist with Oxfam New Zealand.
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