Covid Surges in New Caledonia in the Pacific, Its Indigenous Hardest
NOUMÉA, New Caledonia – Drenched with hibiscus flowers and woven palm leaves, many guests gather for festivities during New Caledonia’s wedding season. The aroma of grilled fish and yams bathed in coconut milk overshadowed the fun-loving people of Lifau Island, a population of 10,000.
Celebrations on the atoll at the end of August seemed safe. For a year and a half, New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, had escaped the coronavirus pandemic. Quarantines and border controls kept the virus out, just as they did during the worst of the influenza pandemic a century ago.
But by mid-September, the Delta version was running in New Caledonia, where about 270,000 people lived. Of the nearly 13,300 people who tested positive within a few weeks, more than 280 died, a death rate higher than in the United States or France last year.
“None of us expected Covid to come here,” said 56-year-old Mary-Jane Ismatro, who spent 40 days in the hospital with Covid-19 after attending a family wedding on Lifou. “The doctors say I’m a miracle woman because I shouldn’t have lived.”
Fueled by an Omicron variant, the coronavirus is now reaching parts of the South Pacific, which had avoided the pandemic for nearly two years. Hundreds of people have been infected in Tonga, likely catalyzed by ships carrying aid supplies after a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January. Kiribati and the Solomon Islands are now battling their first outbreaks. The Cook Islands reported their first case in late February.
Of all the South Pacific islands now grappling with the outbreak, New Caledonia is the most submerged, prompting the French government last month to declare a state of emergency. Despite abundant supplies, less than 70 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. (There have been few deaths from Omicron here compared to Delta.)
A protest camp on a coastal road in the capital Noumea is decorated with hand-drawn signs declaring “no” for vaccine mandates and health passes.
Severe coronavirus infections have disproportionately affected New Caledonians of Pacific island descent, highlighting social inequalities in a region that is agonizing over whether to break free from France.
An independence referendum in December failed partly because many indigenous Kanakas, who make up about 40 percent of the population, boycotted the vote. He had called for a delay because the traditional mourning ritual for those who died of Covid had stalled political campaigning. Paris, immovable, proceeded with the referendum.
New Caledonia’s health system benefits from the vastness of the French state, which heavily subsidizes the region. Critically ill COVID patients are housed in a state-of-the-art intensive care unit at Medipole Hospital near Noumea, compared to many facilities in France. When cases spiked last year, New Caledonia gathered around 300 medical professionals who had come from France and its overseas territories.
But strong social safety nets haven’t bridged the gap between New Caledonia’s indigenous Oceanian population and largely white migrants. Hospital officials said eighty percent of doctors in Medipol are from France. There are few Kanak doctors throughout New Caledonia, and none in Medipole.
Doctors said high levels of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity among people of South Pacific origin have exacerbated New Caledonia’s COVID crisis. The region may be one of the richest places in the South Pacific due to French subsidies and mineral wealth, but the income gap is wide. Most of New Caledonia’s poor people are Melanesian Kanak and Polynesian immigrants from a pinprick French region called Wallis and Futuna. European settlers, who make up about one-quarter of the population, occupy the upper echelons of wealth.
As more Kanakas move from tribal villages to Noumea, congregating in grim apartment blocks, they leave behind orchards full of taro, yams and plentiful vegetables and fruits.
But fresh produce is expensive in the capital, as the high salaries paid to employees of the French state have driven prices down. In Noumea, boulangeries selling croissants made from imported French butter stand next to groceries, offering wilted greens at exorbitant prices. The cheapest fare is processed snacks and sugary sodas.
“When I was a kid, there were some fat people here,” said 52-year-old Dr. Thierry de Greslan, a neurologist at Medipol. “But our sedentary lifestyle and poor diet have created a terrible problem, and it has made us very scared of COVID.”
The scattering of islands north of New Zealand, New Caledonia, has long seen its history shaped by disease. Europeans arrived in the 19th century, bringing with them toxic notions of pathogens and empire. The French colonial administration placed Kanakas on the reservation and stole their land.
Diseases like cholera and smallpox spread. The campaign to force the Kanakas to whitewash their homes resulted in high rates of cancer from asbestos in the white soil. Three-quarters of a century after its first contact with Europeans, the population of Kanaka had halved.
But when influenza pandemics began to race around the world a century ago, New Caledonia was one of the few places on the planet that went largely unheard. A strict quarantine kept the virus out until 1921, by which time its virulence had subsided.
In January 2021, New Caledonia was one of the first places in the world to receive adequate coronavirus vaccines. The region had the first boosters available from much of France. Yet when Delta hit, less than half the population had been vaccinated.
“There’s a closed-island mentality, so people thought they were safe,” said New Caledonia’s health minister, Yannick Slamet. “People quickly forget history.”
As of August 2021, recent arrivals went to the courts to be exempted from New Caledonia’s strict two-week quarantine. While the local government wanted to force everyone entering the area to be vaccinated, Paris initially believed that French citizens could not be bound by such a rule.
“They said, ‘We are all French so we can go anywhere in France,’ but we were part of France without Covid,” Mr Slamet said. “it was a pity.”
From one case to four to 30, the caseload multiplied rapidly in early September.
“It was like a bomb hit,” Dr. James Aprey, who endured the first wave of Covid in Lyon, France, spent weeks and months of sleepless nights. He later came to New Caledonia for help. “It was crazy because we had vaccines and lessons learned from treating COVID, but it was like we were starting all over again.”
Shortly before the Covid spike last year, the New Caledonian government said it would make vaccination mandatory by the end of 2021. But the compliance deadline kept getting pushed back.
The anti-vaccination rallies are one of the few events in Noumea that draw both Kanak and white New Caledonians into an otherwise often isolated society. In a demonstration in front of the New Caledonian Congress late last year, with its wooden totem guards, protesters set up speakers and danced to Bob Marley. He giggled at the masked spectators.
One Kanak Rakshak, a hospital employee, said he drew inspiration from QAnon. She wanted to know how to approach the far-right conspiracy movement. Another, of European descent, said he did not want the state to dictate his life, even though he supported the continuation of French rule over New Caledonia.
Unlike the French regions of Martinique and Guadeloupe, where health care workers and police officers have been attacked in protests, there has been no coronavirus violence in New Caledonia.
Last month, tribal leaders in Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s first COVID hot spots, forced the airport to protest a rule requiring health passes or tests for passengers. In January, a vaccination and health pass mandate protest in Noumea attracted 1,000 people.
After so many deaths from the delta, few New Caledonians have been consumed by Kanak rituals of mourning, which spanned more than a year.
“It seemed like a natural thing to go to the cemetery and grieve over and over again,” said Charles V, an adviser to the president, who had died last year of several family members from Covid. “But, you know, it’s not natural at all. It’s a tragedy.”
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