Following the recent battering of several Pacific nations by Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold, vulnerable communities are still recovering in an increasing complex disaster environment. The storm hit the Solomon Islands on 3 April, before passing through Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, causing significant damage to buildings and communities, destruction of crops, roads and contaminated water supplies. Some areas, such as Luganville, Vanuatu’s second largest city, reported almost 90% destruction.

In the days following the Cyclone, more than 1,000 Red Cross volunteers mobilised across Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands to offer physical and emotional support, including delivering essential items.

Daniell Cowley, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) COVID-19 Pacific Operations Manager, says: “the challenge in several areas is compounded by the risk of Coronavirus [COVID-19] and the potential impacts on already vulnerable, and often geographically isolated, communities.”

“The aim is to help Pacific communities and individuals best prepare, and ultimate reduce their risk of infection,” Mr Cowley says. “We are focused on all Pacific Islanders, but in particular the most at risk and vulnerable groups, including the elderly, people with existing medical conditions or disabilities and other vulnerable groups. There are many challenges, and we are also very aware of the broader social and economic impacts of COVID-19 outbreak.”

Pacific Red Cross Societies have been working underneath their Ministry of Health COVID19 incident management structures since March. Their role includes Red Cross volunteers visiting communities across the islands, offering advice and handouts about reducing the risk of infection, promoting correct handwashing practices and giving advice on physical distancing.

IFRC is also working closely in partnership with other lead agencies supporting Pacific ministries of health, including WHO, UNICEF and Pacific regional organisations.

“Getting simple and accurate information to communities is crucial to prevent rumour mills, and ultimately provide the information that might help save lives,” Mr Cowley says. “We already have Red Cross active networks and trained responders through the National Societies in many islands, who can mobilise quickly to support communities to take early actions prior to the onset of a disaster and to take life-saving actions after an event, like TC Harold.”

The distances between islands can mean it can take longer to reach all the communities that need provisions and support. Travel between islands is restricted and any sea freight takes longer to reach the Islands and is required to be fumigated and disinfected and often quarantined for many days.

Red Cross staff and volunteers are having to overcome new challenges to access to the people that need them most. For example, where once, five people in one car with kits would have sufficed. Now, because of social distancing, multiple cars are required with fewer people per car, and each car needs to be disinfected before use.

“Our strong community volunteer network across Vanuatu is well trained to provide COVID-19 information,” Suzanna Gislapno, Logistics Officer for the Vanuatu Red Cross, says.

“We have integrated community awareness on prevention options into the distribution of hygiene and household kits in response to TC Harold to the most affected communities.

“Because of COVID-19, the Vanuatu Red Cross has had to apply a new approach, as restrictions have meant fewer support staff being able to get to the Islands. Therefore, we have used the capacity and ground resources we have on the Islands – in a sense applying true localisation, while using technical remote support from other Islands, New Zealand and Australia.”

Some aid items are taking longer to arrive because of COVID19 restrictions.

“It’s been uplifting to see how communities are finding their own solutions,” Ms Gislapno says. “Although there has also been positive feedback from people about the good work that Vanuatu Red Cross is doing in the community, as we were the first organisation on the ground to offer support and assistance to the affected population by mobilising the community through our volunteer networks.”

“Knowing the local context is vital in the fight against COVID19,” Mr Cowley adds. “We are here to support the national authority by reaching communities and preventing the spread of COVID-19, for as long as it is needed.”

IFRC’s COVID-19 appeal in the Pacific is being supported by the Japanese Government, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, United States Agency for International Development, Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Red Cross and New Zealand Red Cross.