An opinion piece by Michael Shoebridge director of the defence, strategy and national security programme at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with Australia’s national cabinet was a great step towards working out how travel between our two countries might resume. Done carefully, this will be a boon to our economies and to the New Zealand and Australian people by expanding our horizons as we live with Covid-19.
Let’s think bigger, though, and start planning now to expand the trans-Tasman bubble to include the small island states of the South Pacific. A South Pacific bubble can open up possibilities for all our peoples in the post-Covid-19 world.
It turns out Pacific leaders were right in setting priorities in the 2018 Boe Declaration that expanded the concept of security to provide a greater emphasis on human, environmental and resource security.
At the time, Australia argued with its Pacific neighbours and resisted this broader framework. Looking at the issue now, in May 2020, the central role of human and environmental security is manifest.
Traditional security cannot be provided without it. With Covid-19, it’s also obvious that economies and livelihoods depend on human and environmental security.
Now that Australia and New Zealand are moving out of the acute crisis phase of the pandemic, we’re both thinking about how to restart our national lives and economies in a way that, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison puts it, is ‘Covid-safe’.
That means understanding that we probably won’t be able to eradicate Covid-19. But with continued social distancing and other measures, we should be able to suppress hot spots and manage the disease in a way that doesn’t overload our health systems.
Monitoring, testing and contact tracing are the keys to being Covid-safe because, together with observing safety protocols across our societies and in businesses, schools and other institutions, they are how we’ll minimise the impact of the virus.
This approach will let us open up many things, including people movement between New Zealand and Australia. But we’ll still be unable to reopen broader international travel without risking severe coronavirus outbreaks in our two nations.
This is where the South Pacific comes in. Given where we are in managing Covid-19 in our own countries, between us, Australia and New Zealand have the capacity to expand our Covid-safe protective bubble to the smaller Pacific states. We have a ‘Covid management dividend’ available in the now excess capacity in our healthcare systems, and the South Pacific is where we should invest it.
Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the two French territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, and the smaller Pacific island nations have a combined population of about 11.5 million.
Until treatment and management of the virus improve considerably, a population that size presents a potential problem that’s probably too big even for Australia and New Zealand’s combined capacity to deal with in a way that would let us treat the entire Pacific Islands Forum membership as an extension of the trans-Tasman bubble.
That means we’ll need a separate partnership with PNG, Fiji and the two French territories.
Tuvalu, Nauru and Palau, for example, have populations the size of regional towns in New Zealand and Australia. The total population of these smaller Pacific island states is about 1.6 million. Their remoteness and the fact that their populations are scattered across isolated small islands makes suppression and management of Covid-19 in their territories feasible in ways that are simply not possible in much of the rest of the world.
Extending our health surveillance systems to each of these small Pacific island states so that they too can be Covid-safe is possible because the numbers of people involved are reasonably modest and the island states have already taken measures like closing borders to contain the virus in their own territories.
There are very few reported Covid-19 cases in the South Pacific, with only Fiji, PNG and the two French territories reporting any infections. Just as in Australia and almost every other country, however, there are probably unreported cases and asymptomatic infections.
We can expect Pacific states’ health systems and health workforces to be deeply challenged by Covid-19, even with the international donor assistance we have already seen.
Left unchanged, their support systems will probably be insufficient to prevent avoidable deaths, and the resulting economic damage across the South Pacific will be high.
Australia and New Zealand can change that by investing some of our Covid management dividend in and with our Pacific partners. That’s not just health system capacity (although Samoa’s recent measles outbreak shows the power of shared capacity).
Our approach must include sharing our Covid-safe roadmaps and business protocols with our Pacific partners and working with them so that we can all make our societies and economies Covid-safe. It will also involve harmonising border control and travel ban protocols.
This isn’t a risk-free proposition either for our Pacific partners or for Australia and New Zealand, given that, without a vaccine, we can only suppress and manage the virus, not eradicate it. So, we will all be testing and sampling, and monitoring and managing hot spots, to prevent broader outbreaks. And it will take resources and continued work with partners like France, the US, China, the EU, Japan, Taiwan and the World Health Organisation, all of which make important contributions to health system capacity across the Pacific.
We know the risks of second and third waves of infection are significant and our approaches must be cautious as a result.
The advantages to our peoples and economies are obvious and larger, however. Freedom of movement is something we took for granted before the pandemic, and it’s now something we value much more highly. We also now understand the degree to which it underpins many livelihoods across the region.
Re-establishing the movement of people between Australia, New Zealand and the smaller Pacific island states will reduce the cabin fever we’re all experiencing by opening up tourism and people-based trade.
It will also open up international sport and art exchanges and potentially also labour mobility. This strategy would also lay out a path to restarting the cruise business, an industry that brings vital tourism revenue to many of our neighbours.
Australia, New Zealand and the broader Pacific family can be a model for the international community in re-establishing people-to-people connections in the post-pandemic world.
There is nowhere else on the globe that has such an advantageous set of circumstances as Oceania for reopening our borders and economies in the Covid-safe way our health environment requires.
So, let’s use our geography and the strength of our governmental, business and personal links to help get the Pacific family together again.
- The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra and a recognised Australian voice in international discussion of strategic issues, especially in the Asia–Pacific.