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Time is running out

The Village Explainer
Time is running out
By Dan McGarry • Issue #42 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Global COVID-19 vaccinations - source: Bloomberg
Global COVID-19 vaccinations - source: Bloomberg
What’s wrong with this picture? Lots.
First, there’s the bias of GMT-centrism. Every map has got to have a middle, and the Greenwich meridian is as good a place as any. But making that map flat skews perspectives. For Pacific islanders, it literally marginalises us.
So to editors, I say: JavaScript is your friend. You don’t need static images any more. It takes little to no additional effort to make that map respond to the touch, allowing readers to centre it to suit their whim. In fact, a few lines of geolocation code could do it automatically.
But the colour gradations are more troubling. Zero to one per cent is one colour, and all the others are in multiples of 10, reaching a maximum of 40 percent of the population. This paints the globe (if it were a globe) greener than strict proportionality would reflect.
In terms of the actual impact of vaccines on viral infection rates, this map should be far, far paler than it is.
When we look at the Oceania in particular, the gaps are more glaring.
Percentage of population with at least one dose - source: Our World in Data
Percentage of population with at least one dose - source: Our World in Data
But this chart’s misleading too. It lists only countries that have active vaccination programmes, and who are sharing data. Missing are Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu, states freely associated with New Zealand, the French Territories and those from the northern Pacific, whose data appears to be missing from the dataset.
The northern states that have benefited from inclusion in Operation Warp Speed are further along in reaching localised herd immunity than most others. New Caledonia has already given at least one shot to more than a quarter of its population.
The data does offer a few key insights, though. First is the kickoff date, with Australia and New Zealand months ahead of everyone else.
If only it lined up better with this:
Confirmed cases per million population - source: Our World in Data
Confirmed cases per million population - source: Our World in Data
PNG reached the highest infection rate in our region some time last month. The actual date is arbitrary, of course. We all know that reported case numbers are vastly lower than actual case numbers.
Fiji is at a critical juncture now. It is on the brink of national crisis. Even if it dodges a generalised epidemic on its shores, widespread lockdowns after more than a year of economic depression could knock the stuffing out of the economy.
Proportionally speaking, Fiji is vaccinating its population faster than any of its neighbours. It has to do it, because nothing else will get the national economy back on track. It’s a race against time.
I’m tired of saying it, but the lack of a globally coordinated response to the COVID-19 virus defies logic. And the hard logic of viral infection is about to become grimly clear in the Pacific region.
I expect it won’t be much longer before Americans start talking about a pandemic Marshall Plan. It’s a useful way for a staggering super power to regain balance and momentum, and to assert a non-threatening presence in the developing world.
That might not come soon enough. Despite the thin broth of consolation offered in Australia’s domestic vaccination programme, the country will soon be bordered on all sides by infection. PNG is a lost cause. Indonesia is fighting to gain control.
Bougainville is already reporting community cases. There is no reason why it won’t follow the rest of PNG into a generalised epidemic.
That means Solomon Islands will inevitably follow. And then Vanuatu. We all have huge un-patrolled ocean borders. And while travel is limited, it’s impossible to police.
New Zealand has recognised this threat, and committed to contributing funds sufficient to vaccinate 800,000 people in the region. This will be especially comforting for Polynesia. But they’re not running the programme themselves. They’re relying on COVAX, which is massively underfunded, and hamstrung by the unwillingness of developed nations to adopt a global stance on vaccines and related technology.
The brains trust at the ACT-A, who administer the COVAX programme, has created a triage system that prioritises countries experiencing community spread. An unfortunate side-effect of this is the real risk of a perverse outcome. If COVAX funding shortfalls and vaccine shortages due to hoarding behaviour persist, then every nation will inevitably face either generalised infection or prolonged lockdowns, economic depression and, in the Pacific, a life of increasing hardship and isolation.
Seasonal worker inflows will cease, impacting Australian agriculture, and reducing remittances. Economic hardship will be exacerbated, creating social instability at a time when neighbouring countries are not equipped to provide humanitarian intervention.
The virus is coming, even here, at the margins of the map.
There is still time to stop thinking locally and to start acting globally. It will mean a slightly longer period of suffering for a minority, but a quicker recovery for all of us.
Time is running out.
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Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu