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In terms of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vanuatu has been a success story. By late May, the country still had no confirmed cases of the disease.
And that’s a blessing to this small developing nation of more than 80 islands, because it already has quite enough on its plate. While declaring a state of emergency to keep out the pandemic, it has also been dealing with tropical cyclone Harold, which struck on April 7, causing devastation in the northern islands; and the eruption of Mt Yasur on the southern island of Tanna, which has devastated crops and contaminated water.
On top of that, Vanuatu held elections in the same period and is still waiting for the national government to form.
New Zealand police officers stationed in the country have been on hand to help. Team leader of the Vanuatu policing programme Justin Rogers pays tribute to the local people dealing with these multiple crises. He and his team have been amazed at their resilience and adaptability. “The locals just go about their daily business with minimal fuss or complaint.”
“The vast majority of people who live on the outer islands already live without electricity or running water, in very basic housing. These were the worst hit areas during the cyclone and volcanic ash fall.
“When we visited those affected areas and saw the devastating conditions the locals were dealing with as a result of the cyclone, it really hit home to us how lucky we are in New Zealand,” Justin says.
The key to Vanuatu’s success in keeping out Covid-19, he says, has been the communities’ willingness to adhere to restrictions at a very early stage, even though there were no cases.
“The people here followed all directions without any complaint. International borders and local businesses were closed, all public gatherings of more than five people were banned, and strict hygiene protocols put in place very early on.”
New Zealand Police’s Vanuatu policing programme team consists of Justin and his two senior advisers Matt Emery and Chris Wallace. Justin says Chris was “hugely disappointed” to be stranded in New Zealand by border closures.
Justin and Matt have helped local police adapt New Zealand’s Covid-19 standard operating procedures to suit local frontline staff. And when the category five tropical cyclone struck in early April, Matt helped Vanuatu police set up an emergency operations centre on the island of Santo.
The three New Zealand police advisors are the first to be deployed full time to Vanuatu, for a two-year term, and have been working with the Vanuatu Police Force (VPF) to help establish community policing.
Other Pacific nations
Most Pacific nations closed their borders early and declared states of emergency, with Covid-19-related restrictions.
New Zealand Police’s Pacific Islands Prevention Policing programme, which works with the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Samoa and Niue, has broadened its support to help these nation’s cope with fall-out from the pandemic.
Programme team leader inspector Marianne Whitfield says officers are helping local police prepare for an increase in problems involving alcohol, family violence and young people, brought about by social distancing and isolation.
In Tonga, the focus has been on getting communication technology up and running – including 120 new computers, printers and telephone and video-conferencing technology.
In the Solomon Islands, 27 people died after being swept off a ferry during tropical cyclone Harold. The New Zealand team from the Solomon Islands Police Support Programme helped coordinate search and rescue from the police maritime base.
Overseas staff recalled
New Zealand Police recalled more than half of its 42 staff serving overseas as the Covid-19 pandemic closed in. Normally 28 are serving in Pacific nations, helping develop local police forces, and the rest work as liaison officers around the world.
Police national manager for the International Service Group (ISG), Brett Kane, says a “skeleton staff” of 12 were left behind in the Pacific for essential work dealing with Covid-19 and the aftermath of tropical cyclone Harold.
Repatriated staff, and those who were caught in New Zealand on leave when the lockdown started, were disappointed they weren’t able to support their Pacific colleagues, Brett says.
The ISG is always looking for officers to serve overseas, including, at the moment, team leaders (at inspector level) in Fiji and Tonga, and team members.
“We’re looking for people with a range of technical skills, who can also show cultural awareness, resilience and leadership,” he says. The environments can be challenging as these developing countries have limited resources. The terms are for one or two years.
Police family care extends to dad in Honiara
Early in the level 4 lockdown, Christchurch constable Sam Quan learnt some distressing news. His father, John, who lives in the Solomon Islands, was in hospital having part of one leg amputated.
“He was cutting grass on his property with a machete, and accidentally cut his left toe. He cleaned it up, but a week or so later it got infected. Initially I was told it was a flesh-eating bacteria, but was later told it was because of diabetes which he did not know he had,” Sam says. John was rushed to Honiara’s National Hospital to have the leg amputated below the knee.
Services at the hospital are much more rudimentary than those in New Zealand, Sam says. Family members rallied round and donated blood in case it was needed for the operation.
Sam was worried about his father after the operation, and found it difficult to get through to the Solomons by phone. Police welfare stepped in to help. Christchurch Police wellness adviser Phil Manhire contacted two New Zealand officers deployed in Honiara, Mike Woods and Mark Crawford.
Mike and Mark visited John Quan at home after he was discharged, and were able to reassure Sam by email that his father was coping. “They said he was in good spirits, he was happy, and slowly getting over the pain of the surgery.”
However they thought he needed a wheelchair but the hospital had none. Police and family in New Zealand were investigating how it might be possible to get one to him during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“My family here really appreciate the efforts of Police to check up on my dad,” Sam says.
He and his brother and sister grew up in the Solomons, but their father sent them to New Zealand for a better life. He and his siblings, who all live in Christchurch, have now managed to reach their father by phone. “He misses us,” Sam says.
He doesn’t think even an amputation will completely slow down his father – who is 64 and retired – as he has always been active. John Quan already copes with losing an eye 10 years ago, in a confrontation with a burglar. “It will be interesting to see how things go with one leg.”
Mike and Mark have now visited John a second time, to check up on him and ensure he had enough food and other supplies before a 36-hour lockdown of the capital in late May. They say he now has crutches and a walking frame to get around.