A handful of countries – most of them islands, most of them remote – remain coronavirus-free, but life has not remained wholly unchanged
Young men play a game of rugby at sunset in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. The largest cluster of places without the coronavirus can be found in the scattered islands of the South Pacific. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP
For all of its virulence, for all the breathtaking speed with which it spread seemingly everywhere around the globe, there are places still where Covid-19 has not reached, and might never.
Places without face masks or elbow-bumps, without QR codes or capacity limits, without lockdowns or social distancing. There are a handful of countries across the globe – many of them islands, most of them remote – that have managed to escape the pandemic. But while the virus hasn’t hit, the global shockwaves it has sent rippling around the world certainly have.
The Pacific is home to the world’s largest cluster of Covid-free nations. In the distant archipelago of the Cook Islands, coronavirus has been a spectre that never emerged from the shadows.
In the early months of the outbreak, schools were closed on Rarotonga – the most populous island – and social distancing encouraged in public places. Relaxed after a handful of weeks, the measures were the closest the Cooks would get to experiencing living with the virus.
But in a country of only 22 doctors and two ventilators for a population of 17,500, many have lived in fear of an unchecked outbreak.
“No matter how prepared we may think we are,” Glenda Tuaine said from Rarotonga, “we have been in a safe bubble here devoid of the real impact and devastation Covid-19 can and does have on communities.”
Tourism contributes over two-thirds of the Cooks Islands nominal gross domestic product. So when the government shuttered borders to international travellers in mid-March, the impact was swift and pronounced.
“The moment we closed our borders, it hit our people in the pocket,” prime minister Mark Brown said.
Since then, the economy has been propped up by a government relief package that’s kept workers in jobs and a fraction of commercial activity ticking along in the absence of vital tourist dollars.
Despite, or because of, the hardship, Brown argues a stronger community spirit has emerged. “People taking care of each other, looking out for their neighbours, their relations, sharing food they have grown: the creativity of our people has re-emerged with a vengeance.”
In the meantime, a business community struggling to stay afloat waits still for a partial lifeline through a potential quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand, and residents lead lives without facemasks or restrictions.
Across the Pacific, keeping the virus out has required, essentially, keeping borders resolutely shut.
Tonga has stopped almost all movement in and out of the kingdom, and has avoided the virus, as has Kiribati, Niue, Nauru and Tuvalu.
Enforced isolation helps. Two of the only places on earth not connected by aviation – the airstrip-less islands of Tokelau (a New Zealand dependency) and Pitcairn Island (a British territory) – are also Covid-free.
But the counter-narrative has been all too starkly apparent.
French Polynesia re-opened its borders and abandoned quarantine in July, in order to reignite a stalled tourism-dependent economy. At that stage, the French territory had just 62 confirmed cases: it now has more than 15,000, and 91 deaths.
But staying shut has come at its own price. Covid-19 shutdowns have devastated already fragile economies across the Pacific, especially those dependent on tourism.
Fiji’s economy cratered more than 20% in 2020, and thousands there have abandoned tourism sector jobs to return to farming on ancestral lands. In some parts of Papua New Guinea, people have returned to using shell money and bartering as the formal economy ground to halt.
Across PNG, more than half (52%) of families have pulled children out of school because they could not afford to keep them enrolled and attending, according to a World Bank survey.
And in neighbouring Solomon Islands, where there have been just 17 cases, 57% of all families surveyed are eating less because of reduced incomes.
In Koror, the largest city in the western Pacific archipelago of Palau, remaining Covid-free after a year is regarded as a combination of luck, fortified by the early decision to close borders. The country has even received 2800 doses of the Moderna vaccine, courtesy of the United States, and has ambitions to effectively vaccinate its entire population by mid-year.
“It has definitely made me appreciate the ‘normal’ activities that we have taken for granted like family gatherings, or social events like graduations. Even traffic I get to appreciate as it is an indication of normalcy,” Semdiu Decherong, a government employee, told the Guardian.
Decherong said he has close relatives living in the US: some are healthcare workers on the front line of American emergency wards.
“I’ve been able to get a vivid picture of the situation they have faced for many months now. There is always the fear here that we might get one case and everything is locked down,” he said.
But being isolated for the duration of the pandemic has made Decherong anxious to “get off the rock” when he can.
“Living on a beautiful island has many perks but it is definitely nice to just get away for a bit every once in a while. But, if anything, the isolation has forced me to re-explore or revisit places that I have long forgotten or not made time to see on the island.
“Maintaining a positive outlook will get me through the isolation. I do hope that family members wishing to come home may be able to do so sooner rather than later.”