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COVID-19 And The Intersection Of Public Health Emergency And Disaster Law In The Pacific 

26 May 2022
By James Nichols
Vanuatu Red Cross volunteers registering individuals for Health Ministry vaccination campaign.
Source: ICRC

Many Pacific Islands escaped the worst of COVID-19 through isolation and elimination. But the pandemic has had another impact in the form of outdating laws, overwhelming healthcare systems, and stunting economies.

It has been seven years since the adoption of the Sendai Framework and over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (GPDRR) in Bali this May is a key forum for countries to assess how to better prepare for and prevent new and existing risks, including how to better understand disaster risk and improve risk governance. The pandemic exposed the critical need to align national and international systems to support a whole-of-country response, especially when health, disaster, and other crises combine and threaten to overwhelm national resources and capacity.

In the lead-up to the GPDRR, a regional study investigated how countries managed the pandemic through a legal and disaster response lens. The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) report, Law, Disasters and Public Health Emergencies in the Pacific , looked at the intersection of public health emergencies and conventional disaster risk management approaches in the Pacific. Critically, it revealed that many Pacific Island nations have struggled, despite avoiding large outbreaks, because their laws and national plans aren’t fit for purpose. Its findings offer governments attending the GPDRR a chance to redress the gaps between disaster-risk governance and to strive towards more coherent approaches, preparedness, and response to health emergencies and disasters.

In April this year the researchers of the report ‒ including Ms. Finau Leveni, the IFRC Disaster Law Coordinator and Professor John Hopkins from the University of Canterbury ‒ organised a webinar to share their findings and insights. They were joined by disaster response leaders from Fiji, Samoa, and Tuvalu.

“In terms of the resounding success and lessons learned my reflection would be let’s not stop here. How do we turn the Pacific Humanitarian Partnership for COVID-19 into a ‘PHP-C’ for all hazards; whether its COVID-19, the Measles, cyclones, floods, a tsunami?” said Ms. Leveni.

Ms. Leveni’s assessment speaks to how the quality and speed of response to all aspects of COVID-19 across the world is conditioned and reflected in law and policy frameworks. Laws and policies have enabled states of emergencies or disasters to be declared, lockdowns to be imposed, and expedited vaccine approval.

States across the Pacific largely adopted a strategy of isolation and elimination. The policy of isolation failed only twice when put to the test — in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In the two cases, the study found that the public health emergency frameworks proved problematic, and the virus spread more quickly. Since the time of the research, the Solomon Islands have also been hit by COVID-19.

“Domestically speaking, the ability to keep the region COVID free and or at least at bay across the region for the best part of two years, was not inevitable. Despite the fact that external actors often made this claim, it was driven by policy decisions,” said Professor Hopkins.

The pressures exerted on public health frameworks were not isolated to Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In many nations around the world, old laws and contingencies sometimes proved outdated or inadequate, requiring the rapid development of new laws and regulations. In part, this is a reflection on the ageing nature of these countries’ health legislation, but it also speaks to attitudes and practices that treat health as separate and distinct from other emergencies.

“The lack of integration at the national level between public health emergency laws with disaster law frameworks created an obstacle to a coherent response and an overuse of emergency powers,” said Professor Hopkins. “In some cases, the worst excesses of that siloisation of disaster law frameworks was resolved by informal relationships between the two sectors but it didn’t always work,” he said.

The report also found that, outside of Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the states studied did not experience a health crisis as a result of the adopted strategy of isolation and elimination but did experience other consequences beyond health due to the virus. These have included severe economic hardship, populations stranded outside the state, severely limited internal movement, lack of basic supplies, and an inability of citizens of these states to undertake their usual work overseas (with the subsequent loss of remittances).

“COVID-19 brought a lot of challenges: the state of emergency that was declared which meant shutting off all borders, shutting off people and goods like food, fuel, building materials coming into Tuvalu caused a lot of problems. We even had the problem of people panic buying,” said Mr. Tusi Finikaso, of Tuvalu’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO).

Ultimately, the Pacific’s response to COVID-19 was resilient, with a sense of solidarity and ingenuity.

“For the response however, it was a collaborative effort, everybody contributed. At the ministerial level our Minister for Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs really advocated for the Pacific Humanitarian Partnership for COVID-19, highlighting typical regional concepts such as ‘Fale Pili’, neighbours who look after one another, for cooperation’ said Mr. Finikaso.

Despite excellent regional cooperation, these experiences also exposed significant weaknesses and gaps domestically, both in terms of policy and practice. “A lack of integration between health and disaster risk management frameworks means that we are also operating under different administrative frameworks,” said Samoa Red Cross Secretary General, Mrs. Tautala Mauala.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of being ready for the challenges a pandemic creates.  “The COVID-19 pandemic showed the need for existing disaster law frameworks that incorporate health and allow for a joined-up response with the NDMO at its heart – as the core of all disaster responses, including health,” added Professor Hopkins.

As governments come together for the GPDRR this week, many would do well to draw on the shared experiences of COVID-19, and review and strengthen their legal frameworks.  At a time when the international community is considering important reforms to the frameworks which govern epidemic and pandemic preparedness and response, the lessons from the Pacific point strongly to the importance of aligning rather than siloing disaster and health legislation and policy.

James Nichols is the Adviser, International Communications & Knowledge Brokering for the Influence & Advocacy team at Australian Red Cross. James previously held senior communications roles at Médecins Sans Frontières Australia, UNICEF Australia, and many other international and local NGOs over the past 25 years, including stints in Africa, Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. He has also previously worked as a journalist in Australia and Southeast Asia. His current role works closely with the IFRC Disaster Law Asia Pacific team on research and communications.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.