Opinion

Pandemics, Cyclones Beyond Our Control; Going Forward Is

The heartbreaking news of the maritime disaster that had happened in the Solomons last week, with at least two vessels washed ashore and some 28 passengers washed off an inter-island ferry (MV Taimareho), overcrowded with 738 villagers fleeing COVID-19.
08 Apr 2020 15:29
Pandemics, Cyclones Beyond Our Control; Going Forward Is
MV Taimareho.

By the time this goes to print, severe Tropical Cyclone Harold is hopefully situated well to the south of Fiji. But TC Harold has already taken a toll in human life and structural damage in the Solomon Islands and, as I write, is poised to strengthen to Category 5 as it slams into Vanuatu.

The heartbreaking news of the maritime disaster that had happened in the Solomons last week, with at least two vessels washed ashore and some 28 passengers washed off an inter-island ferry (MV Taimareho), overcrowded with 738 villagers fleeing COVID-19.

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This is a stark reminder of how vulnerable our aged and over-stretched domestic shipping services are in the Pacific. It also highlights how quickly stretched our national capacity is when countries are suddenly faced with not one, but two simultaneous national disasters.

Like most countries of the Pacific, the government of the Solomon Islands has declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency.

Given the country’s limited and overstretched medical capacity to respond in the event the virus breaches the national borders, the government has advised all non-essential residents of the capital Honiara to return to their home islands and villages.

This is the only available and logical response for a heavily pressured government in this situation.

The result was an overcrowded ship full of panicked citizens putting to sea despite a cyclone and warning to mariners being posted. As the ship hit the resulting heavy seas, some 28 passengers were swept overboard. But the disaster didn’t end there. The emergency helicopter was unable to respond as its co-pilot was already in quarantine for Coronavirus.

Our domestic shipping has always been the critical lifeline of our island countries. This is never truer than in times of disaster. Global pandemics and tropical cyclones are beyond the control of any Pacific country.

But when the two combine to serve up a double whammy as they have just done for the Solomon Islands, it exposes just how vulnerable we are, and the potential for human tragedy as a consequence of this vulnerability.

With the Coronavirus pandemic, there are no short term solutions for the situation Pacific countries are in. There are no guarantees that TC Harold is the last natural disaster that will befall the Pacific as we struggle to deal with this virus over the coming months.

In both the international and the domestic scenarios, we will be increasingly dependent on shipping links to maintain basic connectivity and food, fuel, and medical security to our countries –especially our maritime communities.

The freeze on passenger movements, as Fiji has correctly implemented, means even greater strain on income revenues for commercial operators and will continue to affect their capacity to respond to the national emergency. The looming global economic recession is not going to make the situation any more optimistic.

Ensuring the survival of our shipping services and delivery of essential cargoes will become ever more challenging as the pandemic deepens.

It is, in turn, going to be essential for the survival for many communities and will put ever increasing pressure on the governments, shipping operators and the general public. Close collaboration and clear communication across all stakeholders in the shipping sector is going to be even more essential going forward.

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