Media Centre - Media release - 15 April 2020

Plan International Australia ramps up aid efforts as Pacific nations hit hard by ‘double whammy’ of Tropical Cyclone Harold and COVID-19

Girls from the Solomon Islands learn handwashing at school

Plan International Australia has scaled up its relief efforts to assist Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands, which have all been left reeling after Tropical Cyclone Harold pummelled the Pacific island nations last week.

The Category 5 cyclone has left more than two dozen people dead, according to media reports, while thousands of homes have been destroyed. Government buildings, schools, food crops, water supplies and phone and power lines have also been ripped apart by the week-long storm, alarming aid workers who say the cyclone has significantly hampered important COVID-19 relief efforts.

Around 90% of homes in Vanuatu’s second-biggest city of Luganville were affected while more than 160,000 people country-wide are now without shelter. Fiji and Tonga suffered severe flooding, landslides and power outages while in Fiji, 69 evacuation centres have now been opened, housing approximately 1,770 people. With 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Fijian hospitals have now taken additional measures to further isolate patients from anticipated casualties of Tropical Cyclone Harold. In the Solomon Islands, where the cyclone first made landfall, reports are filtering in from rural Guadalcanal that water supplies, crops and homes have been severely damaged or completely destroyed.

“The Pacific is three to four weeks behind other countries like Australia with the impacts of COVID-19. Many countries are still coming to terms with the threat and don’t fully understand how significant the risk is,” said Plan International Australia Humanitarian Advisor Tukatara Tangi.

While the numbers of reported COVID-19 cases in the Pacific are relatively low, aid organisations and health workers fear the virus has the potential to decimate the region if it spreads. The widespread destruction of homes across Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands – already countries at heightened risk of the pandemic due to under-resourced healthcare infrastructure plus a lack of access to strong communications networks and sanitation and hygiene facilities – have forced governments to relax critical social distancing measures as thousands seek shelter in emergency evacuation centres.

“The impact this crisis will have in lower-income countries with fragile health systems – like those in our own Pacific backyard – could be devastating. Worryingly, the WHO reported that at least half of the world’s 7.6 billion people could not access the essential healthcare they needed even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr Tangi added.

“Tropical Cyclone Harold is one of the worst storms to have hit the Pacific in five years, causing widespread destruction. The risk to lives and property – and COVID-19 relief efforts – is amplified. Many people once employed in the tourism sector are now jobless. Recovery could take more than a year. More assistance for the Pacific is urgently required.”

Meanwhile, Plan International Solomon Islands’ Emergency Programs Coordinator AngellaAnisi said the cyclone – which formed off the Solomon Islands and led to the deaths of 27 people who were swept off a ferry in wild seas – has come at one of the worst times for the country as it rapidly scales up its response to COVID-19.

“Whilst the Solomon Islands was not as hard hit by the cyclone as Vanuatu, it has had a huge and devastating impact on our response to the global pandemic. We are particularly concerned about the effect the coronavirus could have on our remote communities, and our WASH [water and sanitation hygiene] teams had been working around the clock to distribute sanitation kits, food supplies and important communication materials to them. Roads and bridges that had provided us access to these areas have now been destroyed by the cyclone, and we will now have to assess how we will reach them.”

“On top of this, we are hearing worrying reports that entire crop harvests have been flattened or washed away, leaving entire communities with scarce food supplies for the coming months,” she said.

A sluggish dissemination of COVID-19 information around the country had exacerbated anxieties in rural areas, she added, with many villagers fearful of people returning to their home provinces from Honiara, worried that they would bring the virus with them. “More people in the villages also means more pressure on food supplies and health facilities,” she added.

Plan International Australia’s response:

Together with the Australian Government (DFAT), which is providing $4 million to relief efforts in Vanuatu, and local partners, Plan International Australia (PIA) is responding to this catastrophe in the following ways:

  • In Fiji, PIA is partnering with Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation (FDPF) to issue mobile recharge cards to Disabled Peoples Organisations (DPOs) around the country as part of its COVID-19 relief efforts. These DPOs have provided regular updates during the storm and confirmed all people with disabilities in communities are safe. FDPF has also distributed food rations and toiletries to people with disabilities in several communities near the capital, Suva. PIA’s local partner, Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF), are distributing hygiene kits and COVID-19 communications material to Tailevu, Kadavu and Southern Lau, using COVID-19 funding from PIA via the Australian Humanitarian Partnership.
  • In Vanuatu, PIA’s local partners Actionaid and Women I Tok TokTugether (WITTT) assisted the evacuation of elderly residents in Eton. Actionaid and WITTT will set up information centres for women and girls in some affected areas, and develop activities to address rural livelihood, in particular for women.
  • In the Solomon Islands, PIA is providing sanitation and hygiene kits, inclusive communication materials and products, and action plans to remote areas including Guadalcanal. Teams are also setting up WASH interventions with an emphasis on women and girls.

With more than 80 years of experience, Plan International is expertly placed to respond to this crisis. We are drawing on our experience of responding in medical emergencies such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We are working to support and protect the most vulnerable children around the world, including girls who are at risk of increased rights violations due to this crisis. Each of us can help support those around the world who will be hit the hardest. Let’s stand together as a global community and make sure no one is left behind. Help lessen the effects of COVID-19 on these communities by making a donation, now.

About Plan International Australia

Put simply, we’re the charity for girls’ equality. We tackle the root causes of poverty, support communities through crisis, campaign for gender equality, and help governments do what’s right for children and particularly for girls. We believe a better world is possible. An equal world; a world where all children can live happy and healthy lives, and where girls can take their rightful place as equals.

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