US, Australia to co-ordinate coronavirus response in the Pacific

US, Australia to co-ordinate coronavirus response in the Pacific

Indonesia has recorded the highest number of deaths and fatality rate from the coronavirus in south-east Asia.

Fears for Pacific Islands

So far, Pacific nations have reported more than 200 cases and six deaths but there are fears the virus would devastate communities if it took root.

“The health systems of most Pacific Island countries are not equipped to handle treatment. They don’t have the intensive care beds, they don’t have the ventilators to keep people alive,” Lowy Institute Pacific Islands program director Jonathan Pryke said.

Mr Pryke said the priority for Pacific nations was to test and isolate coronavirus carriers. He said many countries had been proactive and closed their borders to travellers.

“Papua New Guinea is the real worry. While the rest of the region can wall themselves off, PNG has that porous boundary with Indonesia,” he said.

Mr Pryke said what was universal across the Pacific was the economic damage the region faced, with tourism, migration for work, aid budgets and commodity prices all taking a hit or set to do so.

He expected Pacific nations would need an injection of $5 billion to keep their economies going – by comparison Australia’s aid spending on the region is $1.4 billion.

With Australia and the US locked in battle with China for regional clout, Mr Pryke warned coronavirus could help Beijing boost its presence, particularly as it tried to shift the narrative from it being the source of the virus to saviour.

China had already offered financial and medical support, albeit in a piecemeal way.

“Australia wants to be the partner of choice for the Pacific. If China does start to get involved in more than a tokenistic way, it is going to put pressure on us to lift our game,” Mr Pryke said.

Pacific Island foreign ministers resolved on Tuesday to establish a “humanitarian pathway” in response to the coronavirus, which could involve expediting medical assistance and customs clearance of medical supplies and fast-tracking diplomatic approval for chartered flights and commercial shipping.

Mr Morrison also spoke to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, indicating Australia would like to buy medical supplies from South Korea.

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