The small nation of Kiribati sits in the central Pacific ocean. 32 atolls and one coral island stretch across both sides of the equator. Pre-COVID, New Zealanders traveling to Tarawa, the capital, would be warmly greeted by locals saying “Mauri”, meaning welcome and hello.
As the pandemic raced across the globe, Kiribati and other Pacific nations were forced to impose strict travel restrictions and border closures to protect their communities. Tarawa’s airport was quiet. This week, locals were able to celebrate a special international arrival. On May 25, a plane touched down in Tarawa with a very special delivery. Six airport crew wearing full PPE, carefully unloaded the plane and a box holding 24,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Kiribati is the eighth Pacific nation to receive their first batch of vaccines through the COVAX Facility, a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO with the goal to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally. Waqairapoa Tikoisuva, UNICEF Pacific’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist, watched the plane land and commented on the significance of this moment.
“Today is an exciting and historic moment for Kiribati,” says Tikoisuva. “24,000 vaccines have just landed and are now on their way to the Ministry of Health cold room. WHO and UNICEF have been supporting the Government of Kiribati and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services to put together their roll-out plan for the vaccination campaign.”
The following day, Dr Tabutoa Eric looped his stethoscope around his neck and wearing a black and white checked face mask, raised his fingers to form a V for the camera. Eric was the first person in Kiribati to get vaccinated and is proud to set an example for the community.
“This vaccine is so important as it will protect our communities and prevent further impact of this deadly virus. As health care workers, we are being vaccinated to protect our families and those who are most at risk,” says Eric.
Kiribati now joins Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Tuvalu Samoa and Vanuatu, in the Pacific islands, to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses shipped via the COVAX Facility, a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. This is a historic step towards achieving the goal to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally, in what will be part of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.
MPs Koraubati Remuera & Betero Ataninora, Dr Wendy Snowden (WHO), Dr Tinte Itinteang (MHMS), David Yardley (Australian HC), Paul Wallis (NZ HC), MP Ioteba Redfern (squatting), Waqairapoa Tikoisuva (UNICEF) & MP Batoromaio Kiritian.Kiribati Covid-19 vaccines arrive 25 May 2021 (L to R) MPs Koraubati Remuera & Betero Ataninora, Dr Wendy Snowden (WHO), Dr Tinte Itinteang (MHMS), David Yardley (Australian HC), Paul Wallis (NZ HC), MP Ioteba Redfern (squatting), Waqairapoa Tikoisuva (UNICEF) & MP Batoromaio Kiritian.
The global partnership’s effort is to deliver at least two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021, however the situation remains vastly uneven. In April, only 0.3% of vaccines administered around the world had gone to people in low-income countries.
Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccination Alliance, says that “COVAX's mission is to help end the acute phase of the pandemic as soon as possible, allowing global equitable access to vaccines against COVID-19.”
COVID-19 has caused global crisis and we need global solutions to curb the spread. In the weeks ahead, health care workers, border workers, and those at most risk of the severe effects of COVID-19 will be vaccinated. As Kiribati celebrates the safe arrival of the vaccines, it’s a reminder that we aren’t safe until everyone is and that includes remote communities like Kiribati.
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