Australia

Vanuatu needs aid after Cyclone Harold, but there are fears it could cause a coronavirus emergency

Badly damaged buildings are pictured near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on April 7, 2020, after Tropical Cyclone Harold swept past. Source: AFP

Aid organisations are under pressure to coordinate a disaster response in cyclone-hit Vanuatu, but concerns have been raised about the possible importation of COVID-19 into a country with no known cases.

Tropical Cyclone Harold has battered Vanuatu, bringing with it concerns the natural disaster could prevent the Pacific nation from remaining one of the few countries without any confirmed cases of coronavirus. 

Aerial footage from Tuesday showed the Category 5 storm had devastated entire villages, many of which are expected to require international aid.

But in order to ensure Vanuatu remains free from COVID-19, urgent relief supplies being shipped to the country will have to be quarantined for seven days.

Aid organisations say they are aware of the potential danger of accepting goods from overseas during a pandemic but remain confident they can manage the risk.

"It is likely that the cyclone recovery will require international aid in the form of funds or goods, but we have confidence we can do this in a way that's locally-led and which minimises the risk of COVID-19," Julia Marango, resilience manager for CARE in Vanuatu, told SBS News.

Aerial view of destruction in Vanuatu, where Cyclone Harold first made landfall.
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While the brunt of Cyclone Harold has passed many areas, damaging gale force winds of up to 75 kilometres per hour were expected to loiter in the Malampa, Penama and Sanma provinces, Oxfam Vanuatu country director Elizabeth Faerua said.

“Heavy rainfall and flooding is also expected in low-lying areas and close to river banks, as well as coastal flooding,” she added.

Vanuatu has virtually sealed its borders but bans on public meetings have been temporarily suspended to allow people to gather in evacuation centres.

'Serious logistical challenges'

A major international relief effort was needed the last time a category-five system, Cyclone Pam, hit Vanuatu in 2015.

If a similar operation was needed in the wake of Cyclone Harold it would run the risk of importing the coronavirus to a nation that lacks the health infrastructure to deal with even a mild outbreak, Ms Faerua said.

"There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vanuatu, but a significant disaster at this time could present serious logistical challenges to delivering life-saving aid," she said.

Cyclone Pam flattened Port Vila, killing 11 people and leaving a swath of destruction that the World Bank estimated wiped out almost two-thirds of Vanuatu's economic capacity.

Australia committed $50 million in 2015 to help communities rebuild in the wake of Cyclone Pam and is expected to have some role to play in the recovery from Cyclone Harold.

Before the disaster, the Australian government projected it would provide an estimated $66.2 million in total Official Development Assistance to Vanuatu in 2019-20. This included an estimated $41.9 million in bilateral funding to Vanuatu managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Cyclone Harold comes as six of Australia’s leading international aid agencies urge the federal government to include specific measures for charities in their COVID-19 economic support package.

The organisations – CARE Australia, ChildFund Australia, Oxfam Australia, Plan International Australia, Save the Children Australia and World Vision Australia – said the not-for-profit sector was facing falling revenue and unprecedented demand for their services fuelled by the pandemic.

Additional reporting by Camille Bianchi, AFP.

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