Sharin is working as a COVID-19 Emergency Response Officer with Vanuatu's Ministry of Health
02 Dec 2022
The delayed pandemic: supporting our neighbours in Vanuatu

In 2020–21, while much of the world grappled with ongoing waves of COVID-19 variants, Vanuatu was preparing to avoid a serious outbreak.

However, the small island nation still faced challenges. Vanuatu’s economy, which heavily relies on tourism, was severely impacted by border closures and the global economic lockdown.

Helping out our Pacific family

In 2020 the Australian Government moved quickly to support the Government of Vanuatu and assist their response to the pandemic.

As Vanuatu’s largest health sector partner, the Australian Government provided support to Vanuatu through a variety of programs, including enhanced disease surveillance, quarantine facilities, medical supplies and equipment, and specialist health advice. These measures were important for preparing communities in Vanuatu for a possible outbreak.

Early in 2022, the first cases of COVID-19were detected in Vanuatu. The island country was already rolling out their vaccination program; however, due to rising cases, the Australian Government stepped up their support.

Australia Assists: providing valuable expertise

To bolster this support, Australia Assists, the Australian Government’s humanitarian civilian deployment program implemented by RedR Australia, is providing Vanuatu with valuable assistance to help respond to and recover from the pandemic.

The Australia Assists program has deployed five humanitarian experts to work in Vanuatu throughout the pandemic, with an additional three deployees assisting from Fiji. Their support has included education for health workers, transporting essential supplies, public health management and protecting priority groups in the community.

Drawing on local expertise

Since February 2021, Australia Assists deployee Sharin has been working with Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health. She’s supported the public health response through her role as a COVID-19 Emergency Response Officer.

Alongside providing advice to the Emergency Operations Centre on prevention and preparedness measures such as vaccination rollouts and medical inventory standards, she has also played a key role in the development of new plans, including a national health plan.

A ni-Vanuatu national, Sharin is passionate about connecting and supporting communities.

“My work is helping to support communities to be better prepared for a disaster in the future,” Sharin said. “Because I'm a Pacific Islander myself, I feel I understand the Pacific context quite well. It makes it quite easy for me to engage with different groups of people, including the most vulnerable groups.”

Masks, beds and oxygen

Australia Assists deployee Rowan – also a ni-Vanuatu national – supported Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health as a COVID-19 Logistics and Procurement Support Officer.

Rowan played an important role in ensuring Vanuatu was equipped to respond to the pandemic. A complex operation, he was responsible for procuring everything from new beds to personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical oxygen.

“I was proud to be the heart and core of the actual response. We were at the centre of the operation,” Rowan said.

Rowan was also involved in COVID-19 vaccination rollouts by providing training and logistics support for cold-chain supply staff. He assisted vaccination teams and organised free public transport so communities could reach vaccination sites more easily.

"People don’t see me, but I’ve helped the health system to better peoples’ lives and help ensure people were well looked after,” Rowan said.

Rowan is also proud to have supported his community through Australia Assists.

“As an Australia Assists deployee, I'm proud that we did good. I felt like a lot of people respected our work and there was big respect to the Australian Government, knowing they provided assistance,” Rowan said.

Australia Assists deployee Rowan played a vital role in helping Vanuatu respond to COVID-19.

Learning lessons in COVID care

It goes without saying that nurses are at the heart of the global pandemic response.

As part of Australia’s commitment to supporting Vanuatu’s hospitals and health centres, the Australia Assists program deployed three experienced nurses to support Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health.

Alongside ni-Vanuatu nurses, Australian deployees Annie, Pip and Dale worked as Health and Nurse Educators to support local health care workers in the provision essential health services following a spike in COVID-19 and influenza cases earlier this year.

“Part of our work had us travelling to remote provinces that were just starting to get COVID,” Annie explained. “It was great to help them set up their hospitals and health centres and provide education to help keep the staff and community safe.”
The trio also assisted with training local staff how to use equipment donated by the Australian Government.

“We learned our own lessons in Australia and from around the world about preparing for and responding to COVID. We learned the best care for COVID patients and we could share these lessons with communities in Vanuatu,” Annie said.

“We helped them set up their hospital for screening and separate it into zones with areas to put on and take off PPE. We were sharing new information about how to best care for patients with COVID.”

Australian High Commission Senior Program Manager Olive Taurakoto, Australia Assists deployees Pip, Annie and Dale, and Ministry of Health Principle Nursing Officer Harriet Sam.

They also helped to prepare communities in Vanuatu for the unknowns of COVID.

“We helped alleviate some of the anxiety and concerns about what might happen [when COVID-19 arrived],” Dale said.

“We were giving out USBs to the clinics with information from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization and lots of other resources. This information helped them to continue their education and reinforce training.”

Annie has worked throughout the Pacific and is able to speak Bislama. This meant the three Australian nurses could engage more easily with local staff.

“We could say ‘I’m a midwife like you’ and we could connect with people, building that trust and rapport,” Annie said.

“We were working alongside the local staff and seeing how it was for them, and the learning was mutual. We were learning how they do things and how difficult it is for them with very little resources. They’re very skilled at managing in emergencies and, generally, with minimal resources. So it was learning on both sides.”

Assisting from further afield

In neighbouring Fiji, three more Australia Assists deployees have worked with regional organisations to support Vanuatu’s COVID-19 response.

Currently deployed in Suva, Australia Assists deployee Kate is working with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Kate is a specialist in sexual and reproductive health, as well as gender-based violence in emergencies, and has been working with other UNFPA staff in the Pacific to improve their ability to respond to humanitarian crises, including COVID-19.

In October last year, Kate also provided training in Vanuatu on COVID-19 lessons from Papua New Guinea and Fiji, as well as how to prepare for support pregnant and postpartum women with COVID-19.

Australia Assists deployee Kate (left) has supported Vanuatu to be prepared for COVID-19 via online training. She is pictured with a volunteer midwife in Fiji.

Currently working with UN Women, Australia Assists deployee Jessica is helping to ensure that the needs of high-risk groups are being considered across the Pacific region. Based in Fiji, her role includes preparing toolkits to guide community workers on COVID-19 related risks, including gender-based violence, wellbeing in isolation and mental health and psychosocial support.

Also supporting from Fiji’s capital, Navjuvon was deployed to United Nations Children’s Fund and ensured Vanuatu and other Pacific countries had necessary COVID-19 supplies on hand including PPE, masks, gowns, gloves, rubber boots and coveralls.

Nearing the end of 2022, Vanuatu is grateful to have one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world; a testament to the power of planning and quickly adopting lessons in best practice. Australia Assists is proud to form part of the Australia’s support to Vanuatu and the broader Pacific’s COVID-19 response and recovery.

Learn more about Australia Assists and the work of deployees before, during and after emergencies.