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Pacific Nations Severely Hurt by COVID-19 Despite Almost No Causalities

Countries like Tonga and Samoa were largely spared of coronavirus but are suffering from the lack of tourism and remittances from overseas workers

Jenny Tupou’s money struggles in a foreign nation

Working overseas can be hard. It can be even harder when you’re working to send money home to help your family. Jenny Tupou knows this all too well.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, things have only got tougher for her. These days, she spends most nights worrying about how to support her family back home in Tonga.

Tupou has been living in New Zealand for over three years and earns her living by selling the traditional Tongan crafts at various markets dotted around Auckland, the most populous city in New Zealand.

But markets were shut-down for more than two months; and although Tupou is supported by the wage subsidy scheme, a measure New Zealand’s government has put in place to help ease the economic havoc caused by COVID-19, the amount she receives is much less than when she was working for herself. 

“It’s put a big strain on me. I can’t send back as much money as I used to and that really worries me,” says Tupou. “It’s also stressful as most of the people who purchased my bone-carvings were tourists, and now that there aren’t any tourists, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my business.” 

Pacific nations will face a sharp drop in important remittance payments 

Though New Zealand’s government recently lifted all COVID-related restrictions, the border remains closed.

Pacific nations such as Tonga and Samoa have made international headlines recently for their COVID-19 free status. But even though there may not be any cases of the virus, its far-reaching economic impact is still being felt in these small island nations.

COVID-19 has left Pacific nations with little to no income from tourism, and a new report from the World Bank shows these countries will face a sharp drop in important remittance payments – the money sent home to families in the Pacific from workers in Australia and New Zealand. 

“My parents are getting old and they really relied on the money I used to send back,” Tupou explains. “Now that my husband and I are essentially out of work we might even have to consider moving back to Tonga. I’m feeling very anxious.”

Many overseas workers move to support family members 

The recently released World Bank report predicts a 13 per cent decrease in remittance flow to the Pacific and East Asian regions. Data released shows that lower-income countries receive remittance funds at the same level as they receive foreign direct investments. 

Tupou says she chose to move to New Zealand with her husband partially for the chance of living a better life, but more importantly, the chance to take care of her parents financially. 

“I feel like when people think of Tonga, they think of coconuts and beautiful beaches and just a holiday dream destination. This is partly true, but life can also be very hard. I know lots of people from Tonga who made the move to New Zealand, and for me, being able to financially support my parents was really appealing,” says Tupou. 

Huge chunks of Pacific nations GDP’s are from remittance payments 

According to World Bank Group President David Malpass, it is crucial that wealthier economies recover quickly in the face of COVID-19, so developing nations suffer less. 

“Remittances are a vital source of income for developing countries. The ongoing economic recession caused by COVID-19 is taking a severe toll on the ability to send money home and makes it all the more vital that we shorten the time to recovery for advanced economies.”

David Malpass in a statement
Expected drop in remittances due to COVID-19. Source: Quartz

According to the remittance report, Tonga is the leading country predicting a drop in remittance rates, as the country’s GDP was made up by 40 per cent in remittance funds in 2019. Samoa is also another affected Pacific nation, as remittances accounted for 16.2 per cent of GDP in 2019. Over half of Tonga’s adult population work outside their home country and stories like Tupou’s are becoming more and more common. 

New Zealand’s Pacific worker scheme 

In New Zealand, which has a population of five million people, over 10,000 workers from Pacific nations remained in the country when it went into a strict COVID-19 lockdown that ended in mid-May.

The workers were in New Zealand as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, which allows New Zealand companies in the horticulture and viticulture industries to employ overseas workers when there is a domestic shortage. This also means the 10,000 workers were eligible for the government’s wage subsidy scheme. 

Migrant struggles amplified as COVID-19 impacts New Zealand 

But now concerns are being raised as lockdown ends that the financial aid measures in place are not enough to support migrant workers in New Zealand.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters made national headlines for telling struggling migrant workers “you should probably go home.”

For her part, Tupou would prefer to stay. She says she hopes New Zealand’s successful and intense response to COVID-19 means things will look up soon. “New Zealand feels like my home now. I still have faith. I hope everything works out soon. I don’t know what to do if they don’t. ” 

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