Outside the Western Union branch in Honiara, the queues grew in the heat of the afternoon sun. Anxious relatives wired cash to locals who urgently sought to buy provisions before the lockdown started at 6pm on Tuesday evening (Solomon Islands Time).
Images from this daily cash-based economy stand in stark contrast to the trolley-wars of home. Amid pre-existing national tensions, and with lockdown preparations hindered by a lack of personal resources, locals need to know that their government has prepared well and their needs will be met in the days ahead. But how prepared is the government to meet the needs of the people as the pandemic takes hold?
It was last week that COVID-19 slipped into the Solomon Islands, by routes of allegedly surreptitious enablement, beginning with the illegal entry of a vessel from Papua New Guinea. Since then the virus has spread rapidly, resulting in Tuesday's confirmed caseload of approximately 700 across a population of 700,000, with a testing rate initially limited to 200 tests a day.
Until this point, the Solomon Islands have remained largely untouched by the virus - fortuitously, given partial vaccination rates as low as 27 per cent, with only 9.7 per cent fully vaccinated. Despite a government awareness campaign, vaccination rates have remained so low that a forecast by the Lowy Institute extrapolates that full adult vaccination won't be achieved until 2026. This forecast places the Solomon Islands as one of the last nations on Earth to achieve high vaccination levels.
But with case numbers now rising exponentially, can the Solomon Islands government turn it around? Or are we witnessing the beginning of a humanitarian disaster?
This week Australia landed two aid flights in Honiara, bringing critical medical supplies and PPE, with more to follow. Other nations are mobilising their aid too, including China, which is donating funds and vaccines. However, despite two years to achieve preparation for the pandemic, PPE, vaccinations, testing and treatment are all in logistical disarray.The newly created field hospital in Honiara has a 56-bed capacity. Those 56 beds are reportedly already full. So is the mortuary.
While some provinces have attempted to get ahead of the pandemic with preparations, factional issues have provided barriers to those seeking to facilitate preparative outcomes. The province of Malaita, with its well-documented stand against Prime Minister Sogavare's alignment with China over Taiwan, had its Taiwanese aid embargoed and confiscated in an import dispute in June last year. The embargo cited the delivery from Taiwan as an "act of sedition" by Malaita, a charge contested by lawyers seeking release of these pandemic medical supplies.
The embargo of medical supplies has been seen at a local level as Prime Minister Sogavare flexing his muscle against this seemingly "misaligned" province. But it's not the only frustration boiling at the local level. Reports are circulating that Australia's endeavours to supply pandemic preparative aid in December were turned down, for reasons unknown.
Finally, and highlighting a lack of pre-planning, in an extraordinary national address on Wednesday, the PM appealed to the Solomon Islands business community and development partners for "much-needed items" including "25 Hilux-type vehicles, six three-tonne trucks, six buses (15- to 30-seaters) and basic food items including rice, tinned food, noodles, sugar, tea, and salt". The vehicles were "needed to assist the movement of health surveillance, swabbing and contact tracing teams including police".
The lockdown of Solomon Islands citizens creates a tinderbox. Cash-strapped and ill prepared, the cultural norm to support family is still deeply embedded. With penalties for breaching lockdown high, the government will face pushback when shortages and sickness begin to impact isolated family members. Lockdown sits badly with cultural norms. Perhaps unworkably so.
Whatever the political and social dynamics at play, the outcome of delayed actions will be measured in lives lost in this vulnerable population. We need to acknowledge that it's not local politics, national politics or geopolitics that matter now - it's saving lives. Australia will be there, hopefully offering shared learnings from our diverse cultural challenges during COVID-19.
Sadly, while the Solomon Islands government scrambles to mobilise, leaders talk to the nation about Australia's next aid drop - the mobile mortuaries.
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