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Local businesses on the frontline of a late COVID wave in Vanuatu

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*Geneva and Port Vila *- Vanuatu, one of the last countries in the world to experience COVID-19 community transmissions, is on high alert since the beginning of the month as cases rise quickly. The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council (VBRC) has stepped up to support the response and help businesses cope with the impact of the pandemic.

VBRC, a Member Network of the OCHA/UNDP Connecting Business initiative (CBi), quickly mobilized its members to put in place safety measures and support the local response to the pandemic.

The first cases of transmission at community level in Vanuatu were documented on 4 March. Since then, the number of cases is quickly increasing. The Ministry of Health reported a total of 2,640 cases as of 28 March 2022, and a current test positivity rate of 53%. All six provinces of Vanuatu are now on high alert, with a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am every day.

According to Glen Craig, VBRC’s Chairperson, the outbreak pushed people to vaccination centres, which are now experiencing hours-long waiting lines. Only essential businesses are allowed to operate, and after two years of economic difficulties linked to the global pandemic, the situation is particularly hard for small businesses.

Supporting the Government-led response

Beyond preparing local businesses, VBRC has been involved in the national response to the outbreak:

  • Assisting quarantine centres. VBRC’s members donated over US $50,000 of supplies to the quarantine centres, including cleaning products, sanitary items, toys and reading materials for the children, and set up Wi-Fi access points so people in quarantine could talk to their loved ones. VBRC also helped the Government organize a feeding programme. Local farming co-operatives are helping produce and distribute 1,500 hot meals a day to frontline workers and people in quarantine.
  • Supporting the most vulnerable. VBRC is working with its partners to prepare to implement a cash transfer programme, should it be needed, to help the most vulnerable purchase basic goods.
  • Informing businesses and communities. VBRC is supporting the Ministry of Health and Government’s information efforts, through daily videos published on the network’s Facebook page in French, English and Bislama, to inform about safety measures and regulations.

A food security challenge

“As a country made up of 83 islands, Vanuatu’s economy is based on movement between those islands. Lockdown measures mean that fuel and food are running low in some provinces. Exports of copra, coffee or cocoa are also stalled, which will result in the loss of livelihoods for many farmers. We are working with the Government to address those potential challenges,” explained Glen Craig.

VBRC is collaborating with the Government and Municipal Council so that food markets can reopen quickly. VBRC has trained market operators on COVID-19 safe measures and advocated among them to adopt cashless payments. It has also developed contactless operating procedures for transfer of cargo, allowing several ships to offload their cargo and ensure food supply to remote islands.

VBRC is also working with the Government to set up a small business grant to provide immediate cash relief to small businesses for the next six months.

Beyond COVID, the impact of the war in Ukraine

In addition to the recent COVID outbreak, Vanuatu is among the countries most affected by price increases in fuel and cargo shipping linked to the war in Ukraine. This is because Vanuatu’s energy mix is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and its open economy depends mostly on cargo shipping. Fuel and shipping price increases are particularly difficult for the tourism sector, already struggling after two years of pandemic.

VBRC is working with its partners to set-up incentive programmes for small and large businesses to invest in renewable energies. This move might not only help with economic recovery, but also strengthen businesses’ climate resilience.