COVID-19 in the Pacific

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By Sheenal Sharma

A little over two years ago, countries were announcing border closures and lockdowns as COVID-19 cases started surging around the globe.

In the Pacific, one of the most remote regions in the world, there was just one country that had recorded community transmission: Fiji, and even then, there were very few cases.

While the rest of the world grappled with a rapidly changing pandemic landscape, many countries in the Pacific were taking prevention measures and preparing to respond when the time came.

Many Pacific countries shut their borders, and commercial flights were rapidly canceled. This part of the world was already remote, so the challenge that lay ahead was ensuring the delivery and use of essential life-saving supplies reach not just their main islands and cities, but also to their outer islands and remote rural communities.

How did UNICEF do it then?

UNICEF and partners got right to work, mobilizing local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground to support each government’s response. Together, we delivered emergency health supplies by utilising every flight available, including repatriation flights for citizens, cargo flights arranged by governments, and humanitarian flights arranged by the World Food Programme and the Government of Australia.

We also pre-positioned emergency supplies in strategic hubs such as in Fiji, in UNICEF’s five field offices, and in the Australian Government’s humanitarian warehouse in Brisbane, enabling immediate deployment of life-saving supplies to where they needed to be.

And while it wasn’t always possible to be physically there ourselves, we provided technical support and training, remotely wherever needed.

How did UNICEF respond?

The COVID-19 pandemic was the first time UNICEF Pacific concurrently responded to the emergency needs of all Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs).

Procuring and delivering essential health supplies

As health workers responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was essential they had access to medical supplies to keep themselves safe and protected.

To figure out where everything needed to be, UNICEF mapped health capacities in 14 PICTs and identified needs including personal protective equipment (PPEs) for frontline health workers, oxygen, and other medical equipment, as well as testing equipment and supplies.

In 2020, UNICEF procured and delivered 135 tons of PPEs, including masks, gowns, face shields, gloves, and boots for over 8,000 frontline health workers in the 14 PICTs.

UNICEF also provided 70,000 molecular testing cartridges, 83,750 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test cartridges, 150,000 swab kits, 318 oxygen concentrators and 22 ventilators to ensure PICTs had testing capacity for the virus.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, 13 of the PICTs were preparing for the inevitable influx of cases, but Fiji was the only country in the Pacific dealing with community transmission of COVID-19. UNICEF procured over 300 high-performance tents to support the nation-wide response, for use as temporary screening and testing clinics in remote and densely populated areas.

In addition, UNICEF, together with WHO, GAVI, and CEPI, continues to lead the procurement and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility, also playing a leading role in building country readiness for vaccination roll-out, including cold chain strengthening through provision of equipment and training of technicians.

Reaching communities with life-saving information on COVID-19 preventive measures

As co-lead of the Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) regional working group, UNICEF supported a widespread campaign to promote COVID-19-safe and preventive behaviours and COVID-19 vaccination. Based on evidence, and tailored to each socio-cultural context, the campaign used mass media, social media, information, education, and communication (IEC) materials combined with SMS blasts, social mobilisation and interpersonal communication interventions with religious leaders, elected representatives, youth, women, and frontline workers to reach over 2 million people in the PICTs.

One of the unique aspects of the response was how we listened to the hotline queries, social media trends and feedback from community volunteers to help us continually hone and tailor our messaging to what we knew people were most concerned about. Using digital tools to help analyse the data, we were able to guide the overall strategic approach to specially address safety and importance of vaccines to boost vaccine confidence and increase vaccination coverage.

Training health workers

UNICEF partnered with the Pacific governments and the Governments of United States, New Zealand, and Japan, among others to launch the ‘Health Care on Air’ distance education programme. More than 4,400 nurses and midwives in 12 Pacific Island countries tuned in to this programme. Using radio as the main delivery platform and the internet for interactive discussion, the programme was introduced to reach health workers in remote locations with the training and support they would need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNICEF also provided technical support to train over 4,000 health facility staff and community health workers in the detection, referral, and management of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Providing the skills and supplies needed to make sure that handwashing is second nature

But as the worldwide pandemic response has proven, it is not just about health care – a crucial element to preventing the spread of COVID-19 is ensuring that washing hands becomes second nature to all. As well as hygiene promotion activities, UNICEF supported this by making handwashing facilities more accessible, and providing critical services and supplies wherever needed. In some contexts, this meant supply and distribution of WASH kits, hygiene and cleaning materials, and soap. In others it was the installation of foot-operated handwashing stations and rainwater tanks, training, and awareness on good hygiene practices. With this support, UNICEF reached approximately one million people throughout the 14 PICTs.

Keeping education at the forefront

Fiji, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, and Tonga were all supported by UNICEF to develop national education COVID-19 contingency and response plans, covering learning continuity, system strengthening and safe school operations. In the immediate response, UNICEF also supported home-based learning approaches.

In 2021, UNICEF helped the ministries of education in Fiji, FSM, Kiribati, RMI and Vanuatu to develop home-learning resources in print, radio, television, and online formats, including support materials for parents. In three of these countries (Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Samoa), teachers also took part in workshops to learn how to develop remote-learning materials. With UNICEF support, the resulting safe schools training programmes were developed and implemented in Fiji and Solomon Islands, covering COVID-19 safety protocols, disaster risk reduction, psychosocial support, WASH, and learning continuity.

Child protection and mental health

With such an unprecedented pandemic, it is not just children’s physical health that we need to take care of. With extended lockdowns and school closures happening worldwide, children faced losing their regular contact with others, and child protection risks increased. Protecting children from all forms of violence and looking out for their mental health became even more important.

In the Pacific, UNICEF focused on strengthening existing child protection services to respond to the increase in the number of child protection cases, and on sharing mental health and psychosocial support messages with children, parents, and caregivers.

UNICEF also supported training for social welfare officers on child protection, for police officers on child justice and for teachers, church volunteers and frontline service providers on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), including psychological first aid.

In Fiji, UNICEF partnered with Empower Pacific, a local NGO, which provided counselling services to 361 children and families affected by COVID-19.

2022, it’s over two years since the world grappled with COVID-19, and many of the Pacific Island countries have only recently seen their first community transmission. Less than a handful of countries remain without reported cases. Thanks to the prepositioning of supplies, the training of key staff, the vaccination of communities, and the lessons learnt from across the world, these countries and territories of the Pacific are now better equipped to respond to the challenge.

UNICEF Pacific would like to thank the Governments of Australia, Japan, India, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States of America, the Asian Development Bank, Global Partnership for Education, the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation, the Pacific Community, and the Australian and New Zealand Committees for UNICEF for supporting its COVID-19 response efforts in the PICTs.

Special thanks are extended towards all donors who contributed flexible funding to UNICEF’s Core Resources as well as through UNICEF’s Global Thematic Funds, which allowed for taking swift action and prioritizing interventions of strategic importance.

SOURCE: UNICEF/PACNEWS