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Australia should spearhead a “Pacific jobkeeper” programme to assist households across a region where, in some countries, three-quarters of families are struggling to buy food, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.
Save the Children surveyed 25,000 parents and children across 37 countries on the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on their health, education, security and financial situation.
In the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, 77 percent of families reported recently having trouble paying for food, while 40 percent had lost income due to Covid-19.
Save the Children’s Australian deputy chief executive, Mat Tinkler, said the closure of tourism and key export industries, the interruption of remittances, and low commodity prices had wreaked havoc on Pacific economies.
“Early estimates indicate the number of people living in extreme poverty in the four poorest Pacific countries will increase to 30 percent in Papua New Guinea, 30 percent in Timor-Leste, 27 percent in the Solomon Islands and 17 percent in Vanuatu,” he said.
“We hold grave fears for the impact of poverty on this scale, especially in relation to stunting as families cut back on nutritious food, already a significant problem in the Pacific.”
Save the Children’s submission to parliament’s joint standing committee on defence, foreign affairs and trade urged Australia to help establish social safety nets for families left without income, either through local jobs or remittances from overseas.
Australia should “partner with the Pacific governments and international donors to develop a ‘Pacific jobkeeper’ – a child-focused social safety net payment available across the region to assist the Pacific to recover from Covid-19”.
Tinkler told the committee “the lack of a functioning social protection system in most countries in the Pacific is a serious barrier to providing the kind of household payments necessary for families to weather this storm”.
“Australia and the Pacific should look to create a social protection system which reaches the poorest children and families not engaged in formal employment sector – the vast majority.”
Covid lockdowns have also interrupted education across the region, and led to an increase in family violence. In the Pacific, 22 percent of families reported there had recently been violence in the home, Save the Children found.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs(DFAT) has redirected more than $280m(US$204 million) in existing development programmes to support medical and humanitarian needs in the Pacific and south-east Asia.
Australia has also committed $80m to a global effort to ensure any future Covid-19 vaccine – if and when created – is distributed cheaply in poorer countries around the world.
But the committee heard that beyond accessing vaccines, Pacific countries will need external assistance to get vaccines delivered to their populations, often spread across vast distances, with fragile government health systems.
Danielle Heinecke, a senior DFAT official, told the same hearing Australia was tailoring its economic and health assistance to each country based on its needs. “In countries like Papua New Guinea, health will be at the forefront, in others such as Fiji we’re very focused on the economic response side and the jobs side.”
DFAT told the committee the economic disruption caused by Covid-19 was undermining livelihoods and risked exacerbating food insecurity, poverty and inequality.
The pandemic “could also have significant implications for regional security”, DFAT said.
“The pandemic potentially increases existing threats such as transnational crime, cybercrime, terrorism, weapons proliferation, people smuggling and human trafficking. In some regional flashpoints, actors could see an opportunity to make gains while governments are preoccupied with domestic imperatives.”.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
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