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Forum closely watching regional travel bubble discussions

The Pacific Islands Forum has not been invited to discussions over a regional travel ‘bubble’ and the group’s leaders aren’t raising the idea with their Forum Secretariat, Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor said.

With poor health infrastructure and inadequate health systems dotted around the region, many Pacific countries are still cautious on opening up to tourism again despite their economies desperately needing it.

In an interview with the Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands Programme, Jonathan Pryke, Dame Taylor said countries know their vulnerabilities and need to address them first.

“One of the most important things is you have got to have a good health service and public health infrastructure that can manage a situation like this,” she said.

“That is a big issue and if anywhere the dialogue partners wanted to really help is to make sure we have that in place in our countries so that they can reopen and they can be part of Pacific trade and tourism again.”

The problem is not equally spread across the region, she added, with some countries doing well while others have had the cracks in their infrastructure exposed. Meanwhile the travel bubble idea itself has not been raised in a collective way.

“I think we have learned a lot from this in terms of how inadequate the health systems have been […] expenditure on health has been very low and this has been part of the issue,” Dame Taylor said.

“There has not been a discussion by the leaders on this bubble. The Secretariat itself has not been asked to be part of this discussion but we are watching it closely and we are having discussions with all our member states on what they are interested in. The bubble is not one that is raised in terms of the collective at the moment.”

Dame Taylor was speaking on COVIDcast, a podcast by the Lowy Institute on the coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 and its varied impacts on global politics and the economy.

In the interview, she explained how the P.I.F. Secretariat has been involved in negotiating a “political space” ripe for when Pacific Islands need help getting supplies, personnel or support quickly amidst international and regional border closures and flight restrictions.

This month, the region’s Finance Ministers are gathering virtually for their annual meeting. Dame Taylor said she expects debt restructuring to be top of mind for many countries in the wake of economic devastation caused by the coronavirus.

Without grants from international finance institutions and development partners, many Pacific Island nations will have struggle to recover economically, especially those thumped by the double blows of Tropical Cyclone Harold and the coronavirus. 

“The impact of that we don’t know yet in terms of percentages of GDP (gross domestic product) but it was substantial,” Dame Taylor said. 

“It is going to be hard to sustain economies at the level they were in 2019 but everybody is looking at their budgets and their priorities, and really looking at our debt restructuring and that we get some kind of reprieve going forward.

“The loss of jobs has meant that […] the ability to cope has been tougher. If these closures go on for a long time it’s going to be very tough in terms of the economic recovery.”

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