Australia Forgets About the Pacific
In 2019, Australia announced that it was going to step up its assistance to the Pacific. At the time it was concerned about China’s increasing influence in countries like Vanuatu. Fast forward to this month when Cyclone Harold has devastated Northern Vanuatu, leaving two thirds of the country’s citizens homeless, and Australia has come up with a paltry $4 million to buy food and shelter for the disaster damaged people.
In contrast the Chinese have been delivering tens of millions of medical supplies, including ventilators to deal with coronavirus emergencies. The Vanuatu Government has also been displeased with Australian stories that the Chinese deliberately tried to block an Australian RAAF aid flight on 12 April. A story to this effect appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Monday.
The true story, as confirmed by the Australian Defense Department, is that a Chinese A320 was at the end of the runway unloading when the RAAF plane arrived and the Australian plane was cleared to land by the Vanuatu air traffic controllers but the pilot decided there was not enough room to land and when he had only enough fuel to return to Australia, took that option. Defense has launched an investigation into the incident.
What should be investigated is the fact that the $250,000 cost of the aborted flight has been charged against the $4 million aid allocation. This means that eight flights would chew up half the money available for food and shelter.
The situation in Vanuatu is desperate and it is bad in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
Humanitarian workers were struggling to get supplies to those most in need, said Jacqueline De Gaillande, the Red Cross secretary-general in Vanuatu.
She said the damage in some areas was worse than that of Cyclone Pam five years ago, which wiped out almost two-thirds of the country's economic capacity in Vanuatu's worst recorded natural disaster.
"It will be very hard for the economy to come back. We need to have a recovery period which will last at least a year," she told AFP.
At the moment Vanuatu is coronavirus free and it wants to stay that way. As a consequence it has banned foreign aid workers from entering the country and is subjecting all aid supplies to quarantine measures. One side effect of managing the disaster internally is that there are virtually no philanthropic donations coming from countries such as Australia and New Zealand because it is out of sight and out of mind. These funds are usually used to rebuild community buildings like schools and churches.
“It’s a disaster wrapped in a catastrophe inside a calamity,” says Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s representative for Pacific island countries.
Remarkably, the northern provincial hospital in Luganville - the biggest settlement on Santo, one of the islands most affected - has been able to open in a limited capacity to treat some of the injured.
The Vanuatu government believes around 20 per cent of Pentecost's near 20,000-strong population were injured by debris from the winds.
Pentecost, which wore the storm's full force with sustained winds of 220km/h, has been decimated beyond imagination.
And further on Harold's journey, the southern Fijian island of Kadavu and Lau island group were also ravaged.
Given that the Australian Government can find hundreds of billions to prop up the Australian economy it is remarkable that it cannot find more to assist the Pacific with disaster relief. Foreign Minister Marise Payne gives the impression that she is oblivious to what happens in the region and Minister for the Pacific, Alex Hawke, has been missing in action. It looks as if they are prepared to surrender the region to China.