What will COVID-19 mean for the Pacific?

"It's even more important that we continue to support children in these communities."

Coronavirus is bringing the world to a standstill as countries scramble to respond to the deadly pandemic. Even countries with well-developed health systems are grappling with how to provide medical care for an overwhelming number of critically ill patients, should worst-case projections prove true.   The reality is, even the most prepared countries may not be able to cope. If the virus spreads rapidly in developing countries, with health systems that are already weak or under-resourced, the outbreak could be even more devastating.

UNICEF NZ Programmes Coordinator Hamish Lindsay has worked in the Pacific for many years. He talks about the risks coronavirus (COVID-19) poses to the Pacific region.

How might coronavirus (COVID-19) affect communities in the Pacific?

Our neighbours in the Pacific are mainly collectivist cultures. A family of ten might share a small house, often they might sleep in the same room. Community members spend a lot of time together in close quarters. The potential for spreading COVID-19 is high in those situations.

As an example, Betio in Kiribati has a population density of 11,000 people per square kilometre – higher than Hong Kong. An outbreak there could be deadly.

Just the idea of social isolation would be quite difficult for most of these communities. It would be such a change from their normal lifestyle. It's a big change for us in New Zealand, of course. But I think these cultures who are so used to living in collective village settings would find the change even tougher, if not impossible.

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How is UNICEF helping countries in the Pacific prepare?

It's almost like an emergency response. The urgency right now has that kind of feel about it. There are a lot of preparations being made in schools, extra vigilance around hand washing. As part of our Vanuatu WASH In Schools project, students have been doing additional hand washing exercises.

Guidance around supervised daily hand washing in schools was an important part of the projects already. Children are being taught to cough into their elbows. It's all about educating children how not to spread germs.

What are the challenges children in the Pacific face in order to wash their hands?

Most of the schools I've worked in initially had no toilets or hand washing facilities at all. Or they had very rudimentary ones which might have broken down. If you don't have those facilities, you can't wash your hands or practise safe sanitation behaviours.

Vanuatu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands have some of the lowest indicators in the Pacific when it comes to education and health. That's why UNICEF NZ works in these countries to reach the most vulnerable children with water and sanitation facilities. We're used to working in the most remote areas, where public services might not be as good as in more urban areas.

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Why is hand washing so important?

Hand washing is critical for good health. The key message we normally give children is to wash their hands before they eat, and also after they go to the toilet. If every child washed their hands with soap at those two critical times, we'd see a huge decline in rates of diarrhoea, for example, and other illnesses. 

As part of our projects in the Pacific, every child participates in daily supervised hand washing at school. It becomes part of the routine, part of the curriculum almost. It soon becomes a habit. Children bring that knowledge home. They explain to their families why they need to wash their hands. This creates a knock-on effect from schools to communities. 

The risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) underlines the importance of hand washing as a first defence.

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How do you speak to your own children about coronavirus (COVID-19)?

We're really careful about how we explain to our children what's happening. It's a scary time but we always try to end on a positive note.

Our children are ten and twelve. That doesn't mean that being on lockdown isn't hard. But because they're a bit older – they can plan their own days. We know our children like to have a routine.

On the first day, they actually wrote out a daily routine for themselves. That included some playtime of course. Some housework. Their teachers have given them homework to do during the four-week lockdown period. And then some fun and games. Some time with mum and dad. They've actually mapped it out.

And at the end of the day I join them for netball and frisbee in the backyard. I love doing that, too. It actually helps me cut off from my work day.

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Why is the support of our donors so important for projects in the Pacific?

I'd like to thank everyone who supports our WASH In Schools projects in the Pacific. Your support makes a lifesaving difference. Especially at this time. The fact is that a lot of schools, because of our projects, already have hand washing stations and drinking water stations in place. If we hadn't been active in these schools, then they those facilities wouldn't be there. It'd be really difficult for them to prepare for a potential outbreak.

The support of our donors is important now more than ever. The communities we work in are especially vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19). The risk of the virus spreading in these communities is so high. It's even more important that we continue to support children in these communities.

UNICEF is working to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. We're providing urgently needed hygiene and medical supplies including gloves and masks. We urgently need your help to reach communities that need us most.