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Jane McAdam
Director, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Sydney

As Cyclone Harold devasted parts of the Pacific in mid-April, social distancing measures put in place for COVID-19 had to go by the wayside. In Vanuatu, which was the hardest hit, people fled to crowded evacuation centres or bunkered down together to try to shelter from the category 5 storm – the second of its kind to hit the country in five years.

But scrapping social distancing measures was not the only problem. Border closures and strict quarantine measures to stop the spread of the virus have hampered the delivery of external humanitarian aid. Even when planes from Australia, China and New Zealand were allowed to land with supplies, quarantine requirements slowed distribution. Rebuilding efforts will also be heavily impacted, as supplies and technical assistance cannot get through. According to UNICEF’s representative for the Pacific islands, it’s ‘a disaster wrapped in a catastrophe inside a calamity.’

There are estimates that a third of Vanuatu’s population has been left homeless, with up to 90 per cent of homes damaged in some areas. While some fruit and vegetables have been retrieved from ravaged gardens, they can’t be preserved and there’s no prospect of a new crop anytime soon. As one woman said: ‘In rural areas, we depend on food crops, cash crops, we sell to earn money. And now it’s all gone.’ 

While there are no reported cases of coronavirus in Vanuatu, the consequences of it spreading in the current circumstances would be dire. Even in the best conditions, it would overburden the country’s weak medical facilities. The Pacific region as a whole has only a handful of ventilators available. On top of this, geographical, transport and logistic difficulties mean that providing medical care to outer islands and remote regions is inherently challenging. A state of emergency has already been formally declared in Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, as well as in some parts of Australia. 

We already know that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’, amplifying existing challenges and making responses all the more difficult. The intersection of Cyclone Harold – a high-intensity extreme weather event, consistent with climate change – with a global pandemic is an example of the perfect storm. However resilient people may be, there is a tipping point when capacity becomes overwhelmed.   

As Dame Meg Taylor, the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, wrote in its aftermath: ‘In the Pacific we aspire to endurance and sustainability. But progress is difficult to sustain when we face multiple threats that reverse decades of development gains in a matter of hours or days.’

In a pandemic context, protective measures to move people out of harm’s way – such as evacuations – may create public health risks. Longer-term measures to save lives and livelihoods – rebuilding quickly so that people can return home – may be obstructed because financial and technical help cannot get through. Pre-existing problems – such as water shortages, overcrowding and poor sanitation – may contribute to the spread of COVID-19. And they are not just pressing issues in the present context, but equally so over the longer term, as the impacts of climate change threaten the fresh water lens, shelter and infrastructure.

As Dame Meg explained so powerfully: ‘The COVID-19 public health emergency and its ensuing humanitarian and economic fallout offers us a glimpse of what the global climate change emergency can become – if it is left unchecked and if we do not act now.’ 

Both COVID-19 and climate change are cross-cutting issues that require a holistic response, including partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. As a first step, the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers has established the ‘Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 (PHP-C)’ to respond collectively to the pandemic. This regional plan, created under the Biketawa Declaration, is intended to facilitate timely responses to government requests for medical and humanitarian assistance.


Professor Jane McAdam is Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney 


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