Regional response to pandemics, disasters and climate change: What can we learn from the Pacific?

Tuvalu Red Cross volunteers in Funafuti put up protective tarpaulins around a shelter in March 2019.

Tuvalu Red Cross volunteers in Funafuti put up protective tarpaulins around a shelter in March 2019.

Photo: Tuvalu Red Cross

The Pacific region has weathered many storms and bears the brunt of the harsh reality of climate change. Despite this, Pacific people remain resilient and face new and emerging challenges with a sense of solidarity and ingenuity.

So, when COVID-19 started knocking on the region’s door, the Pacific community knew they had to mobilise quickly and collectively to minimise and contain the threat caused by the virus. Like in other parts of the world, borders were closed, commercial travel all but ceased, and tourism dried up. As a collection of small island states dotted across a vast ocean, many highly dependent on imported food and with weak local health systems, the region was acutely aware that simply shutting its borders to the outside world was not going to be an option.

In mid-April, Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers agreed to establish the “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 “(PHP-C)’. The pathway is a high-level, political mechanism to ensure regional coordination and will be available to member countries on request. It will expedite assistance and cooperation between Pacific countries in preparing for and responding to COVID-19. This includes facilitating the provision of timely and safe medical and humanitarian assistance from regional and international development partners, across the region. It may also be used for response to other emergencies that may arise during COVID-19. 

Although this arrangement was urgently developed due to COVID-19, initiatives in support of a Pacific mechanism for regional disaster and humanitarian response is not new. In fact, National Red Cross Societies and the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have been advocating for a formalised regional approach and supporting efforts towards this goal for the past five years. 

Through its recognised disaster law expertise, Red Cross has supported governments in the revision of disaster laws and policies in over half of all Pacific countries. This has included strengthening provisions for the coordination and facilitation of international humanitarian assistance in accordance with the international disaster response law (IDRL) guidelines. Earlier this year, the Pacific IDRL Online Platform was established, providing easily accessible information on the domestic rules and provisions for fast tracking international humanitarian aid across the 16 English-speaking Pacific Island countries. In addition, Red Cross also supported the development of draft Pacific guidelines for the coordination of regional and international assistance in 2015. 

These efforts have not gone unnoticed by Pacific governments and regional partners and can inform the governance arrangements in the roll-out of the Pacific humanitarian pathway. 

More importantly, Pacific Red Cross Societies are working around the clock in partnership with their governments to prevent transmission of the virus, help communities already affected by the outbreak to maintain access to basic social services, and reduce the economic, social and psychological impact on people. 

As witnessed recently when Cyclone Harold tore a destructive and deadly path through the region impacting multiple Pacific countries, climate-induced hazards will not wait for the pandemic to pass. Dame Meg Taylor, Head of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, has recognised the interconnectivity between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change and made a rallying call to the global community to not become complacent about climate change as their attention shifts to the pandemic response. She points out that: “the COVID-19 public health emergency and its ensuing humanitarian and economic fallout offers us a glimpse of what the global climate change emergency can become - if it’s left unchecked and if we do not act now.”

No country can tackle these complex issues alone. Regional and global solidarity is a must. However, solidarity alone is not enough – it needs to be backed by political will, strong leadership and clear rules of the road. The Pacific Humanitarian Pathway is a great example of this and provides an innovative regional model for countries to provide humanitarian support to each other in these unprecedented times. Red Cross is proud to play its part in such efforts and ensure that communities across the Pacific continue to remain resilient in the face of crisis.

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