A New Vulnerability: COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold Create the Perfect Storm in the Pacific

The Pacific Islands are a group of 20 small island developing nations scattered across the Pacific Ocean that are especially vulnerable to large-scale disasters, such as cyclones. Climate change is making these disasters more frequent and intense. Over the last five years, the region has dealt with some of the most destructive cyclones on record, including Tropical Cyclone (TC) Pam in 2015, TC Winston in 2016, and TC Gita in 2018. In 2020, the Pacific Islands had to face a new challenge: weathering a Category 5 cyclone, the highest measurement on the cyclone intensity scale, while facing the paralyzing conditions and economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April 2020, TC Harold hit four Pacific Island nations—the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga—leaving destruction in its wake. Although these countries have been preparing for disasters of this kind, COVID-19 has made it especially difficult for governments to implement swift and impactful relief and recovery efforts. In addition, while the level of destruction and needs of affected communities are immense, the situation in the Pacific continues to be underreported and underfunded.

Importantly, as the first in a series of what will be many countries grappling with the collision of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related disasters, the situation in the Pacific has made clear that climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) remain essential and urgent imperatives for countries vulnerable to sudden-onset disasters. As such, these efforts must continue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic response, despite increasingly less appetite to do so in the short-term. In addition, the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 underscores the centrality of local humanitarian responders and the importance of building local capacity in order to most effectively serve vulnerable communities in the face of disaster.


Beginning on April 2, 2020, TC Harold moved from the Solomon Islands to Vanuatu to Fiji and then Tonga. Some countries were harder hit than others. Fiji and Vanuatu, in particular, are still dealing with the worst effects. 

TC Harold bore down on Vanuatu at peak intensity on April 3, with winds of up to 183 mph. This was not the first time that a cyclone of this size has struck the archipelago—TC Pam devastated the island state in 2015. However, TC Harold stalled for a longer period of time over the islands, causing more destruction, especially in the northern islands. In Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu, it destroyed between 80 and 90 percent of the island’s homes. It destroyed another 95 percent of homes on the island of Pentecost. As of April 28, TC Harold had displaced an estimated 80,000 Ni-Vanuatu people, or over 27 percent of the nation’s population. As of April 6, the Vanuatu Red Cross Society estimates some 1,000 people are living in evacuation centers, although many more have been forced to stay with relatives or in makeshift shelters alongside damaged homes. The United Nations estimates that over 160,000 people, or more than half of the country, have been affected by the storm in some way.

TC Harold hit Fiji on April 7, displacing 10,000 people. Thousands fled to emergency shelters when the storm struck. Weeks after TC Harold hit, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that over 1,300 people were still sheltering in evacuation centers in the Eastern and Central Divisions of the country. As of May 17, 610 people remained in 79 evacuation centers.

In Tonga, which TC Harold struck on April 8 as a Category 3 storm, the human and physical damage was less severe than in other countries in the region. However, TC Harold’s economic toll will be felt over the long-term. Tonga’s economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry, which was already strained by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government’s efforts to prevent the disease’s spread in Tonga involved unprecedented bans on arrivals of flights and cruise ships just weeks before TC Harold hit. In an interview with local newspaper Tagata Pasifika, Tonga Tourism Association President Saia Moehau warned: “[T]his is harder than any other problems in the past we’ve had—big hurricanes, but only a few days later, we had planes start coming in, but this pandemic is kind of different.” Tonga’s government calculates that damages from TC Harold total about $111 million,1 or almost 25 percent of annual GDP, with a large portion of that due to the impact on beach resorts.

Exacerbating Existing Vulnerabilities

In the Pacific Islands, measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 began in mid-March, just weeks before TC Harold struck. Governments closed ports of call, schools, and non-essential businesses; banned public events; placed restrictions on social gatherings and imposed curfews; and installed handwashing stations in public areas. Some islands took even more extraordinary measures. For example, Fiji closed down two of its largest cities—Lautoka was under lockdown for 17 days until April 7, and the capital of Suva was under lockdown until April 17, with ground teams testing over 180,000 people for fever. Fiji has recorded 18 cases of COVID-19, 15 of which have made a full recovery. Meanwhile, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu still have zero reported cases. However, some of these preventative actions have severely hampered the rapid and essential humanitarian assistance that became critical with the arrival of TC Harold. 

Limited humanitarian access and assistance

In the weeks leading up to TC Harold, government officials in all Pacific Island nations asked foreign humanitarian aid workers to leave their countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In calling them back to assist after the storm, governments sought to strike a balance between delivering urgent humanitarian aid and protecting their citizens from COVID-19. Humanitarian workers returning to the islands had to therefore undergo a 14 to 28-day quarantine before resuming their work. In the meantime, affected countries did not have a sufficient amount of technical skills and personnel to help with recovery. Dr. Collin Tukuitonga, the associate dean of the University of Auckland Medical School, explained to TIME, “There’s quite a small group of people that are expected to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone as well as prepare for COVID-19 work…They have a hell of a job on their hands.”

In addition, intra-island mobility restrictions and limited commercial flights because of COVID-19 have made it “very, very, very hard to get health workers where they need to go, aid workers where they need to go, and critical supplies where they need to go,” said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s representative for Pacific Island countries, in an interview with TIME. Because of this, Fiji resumed intra-island transport after TC Harold to mobilize the provision of relief supplies and essential personnel to affected villages.  

Disrupted supply chains, disrupted lives

All of the countries affected by TC Harold have taken different approaches to managing the challenges of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and delivering aid to affected populations. Efficiently disseminating emergency supplies and ensuring they reach all those in need have proven especially complicated in Vanuatu. The newly elected government has relied on the advice of the NDMO to put into place very strict protocols around incoming cargo. In order to move delivered goods from ports of call, workers must spray cargo pallets with ammonium concentrate or similar disinfectants. They then spray individual items separately, then leave them to sit in quarantine for a minimum of 36 hours. By comparison, in Fiji, cargo is sprayed with disinfectant but then distributed within a few hours to communities that need it the most. 

As a result of Vanuatu’s strict protocols, there have been significant delays in the delivery of lifesaving supplies. “We’re approximately two weeks behind where we should be in terms of providing effective relief,” Glen Craig of the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council told Refugees International in a phone call on April 28. Vanuatu’s director of public health and the World Health Organization’s country office have issued guidance indicating that the virus is unlikely to spread via shipping containers. Nevertheless, these decontamination and quarantine procedures continue.

This has had a direct effect on the island’s supply chains, impacting the delivery of items as diverse as medication, personal protective gear (PPE), and food supplies. This has made it difficult to order medication that may spoil easily: “If you’re a pharmacy, you’re expected to have medicine sprayed and [quarantined] in a non-temperature-controlled environment,” Craig told Refugees International. Other types of essential healthcare supplies are also running low or unavailable. Craig said they had completely run out of asthma inhalers and blood-thinning medication among other supplies.

Food insecurity

In addition to destroying lives and infrastructure, the storm ravaged both Vanuatu and Fiji’s food supply. As of May 7, OCHA reported that the cost of damage to crops and livestock totaled approximately $12.9 million in each of the two countries. In Vanuatu, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that winds damaged more than 175,000 hectares of cropland, and has requested $3 million in urgent assistance for seeds, tools, and capacity building for more than 156,000 people impacted in the country.

While the storm’s damage has jeopardized domestic food supplies, strict import protocols have made it more difficult for residents to access adequate and nutritious foodstuffs in Vanuatu. With roads washed away by the storm, it is also harder for whatever food aid is available to reach all those in need. In a recent assessment of north Ambrym, an affected island in the north of the country, teams working with the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council reported signs of chronic malnutrition in children already due to delays in food delivery.2

In Fiji, it will take several months for home-grown gardens to be cleared of all debris and for any planting and subsequent harvests. In response, the government announced a program to boost food security that will deliver $228,000 worth of food rations, followed by water, shelter kits, and medical supplies. Despite these efforts, “there is still an immediate need for food supplies, as government rations are insufficient,” Salote Soqo of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee told Refugees International on May 10.

Home-grown gardens in the Solomon Islands, which would normally help to stave off hunger, have also been severely damaged. Loti Yates, director of the Solomon Islands NDMO, reports that much of the Guadalcanal Plains, which provide food to the capital of Honiara, have been washed away. In the village of Suaghi in North Guadalcanal, local Sarah Tito told the Solomon Times that it is proving hard to feed families: “We cannot do any gardening as there is still a mass clean up taking place. Now we are only surviving on bananas and coconuts.” 

Shelters and social distancing—a difficult dance

Thousands of displaced people have sought emergency shelter in the aftermath of TC Harold. Although this has helped to keep communities safe, it also significantly increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading. “If [it] were introduced [in the shelters] now, it would just go like wildfire,” Dr. Tukuitonga told TIME. In an effort to hedge this risk, the Vanuatu Red Cross has trained more than 5,000 households on “safe-shelter awareness.” However, they report that the need for shelter far outstrips current supply, with just 13 percent of those in need having received shelter assistance thus far.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) finds that conditions in evacuation centers, including overcrowding, have prevented certain marginalized groups from accessing water, latrines, and other essential aid. Aid distribution points and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities are often not accessible for people with disabilities. Meanwhile, family members, sign language interpreters, and other caregivers have limited capacity to help in the centers. The IDMC also reports that instances of gender-based violence (GBV) have significantly increased due to proximity and lack of lighting in shelters.

Challenges in Vanuatu Response

Limited and uneven aid distribution

Vanuatu, the hardest hit of the islands, faces many obstacles to delivering aid, including limited transport infrastructure, harder-to-reach communities, and newly washed away roads. “Even within some of the larger islands, there may be only two vehicles for transport. Logistically it’s very difficult,” Hassan el Maaroufi, a regional representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Refugees International. Despite this, the government of Vanuatu has begun to distribute basic supplies, including one kilogram of rice, one tin of fish, and 12 bottles of 1.5-liter water per household. However, OCHA reported on May 7 that only about 10-15 percent of people in need in the hardest hit “Priority 1” areas had received assistance thus far.

Where assistance has been provided, delivery has not taken into account the complex realities of displacement on the ground. For example, in local journalist Dan McGarry’s village, TC Harold destroyed more than 90 percent of people’s homes. “[After the storm,] people came into the house my wife and I built because it was one of the only ones still standing. We had 20 children sleeping there and a few other family members in close proximity under tarps. When food distribution showed up, they had a list of residents to give one batch of food to…regardless of the number of people in each household. The people [in my house] were not given any food…and not given any in their village because they were not there to receive it,” he told Refugees International by phone.

Up-to-date information is therefore needed to inform the humanitarian response. In an interview with the Refugees International team, el Maaroufi emphasized that the IOM is already supporting the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office with “ongoing assessments to [provide] information during this response period to understand the changing needs and locations of people displaced by TC Harold.”

Sources on the ground report uneven aid distribution, with worrying patterns of politicians and others in power prioritizing aid for their home villages. “The former Prime Minister—now deputy leader of the opposition—is from the Melsisi area, and the distribution of relief supplies has been lopsided. It’s created a situation that’s quite concerning… Just 5 kilometers away from Melsisi it takes weeks longer for delivery,” a source told Refugees International on April 30.

Corruption during times of crisis is not new in Vanuatu. In 2015, less than a month after TC Pam struck, the chairman of Transparency Vanuatu, a local affiliate of Transparency International, flagged irregularities in the handling of relief supplies by local officials. The same year, a judge convicted 14 members of Parliament of corruption, including charges of bribery by the then-deputy prime minister.

Prioritization of short-term threats over long-term priorities

Before TC Harold, TC Pam was the worst disaster ever seen in Vanuatu. However, it fit into a pattern of more extreme disasters that the scientific community has begun to more confidently link to climate change. “[T]he fact is in the past three or four years we’ve seen category fives coming with a regularity we’ve never seen before. It is indisputable that part of the Pacific Ocean is much warmer today than in previous years, so these storms are intensifying,” Rachel Kyte, a leading sustainable development advocate, told the Economic Times of India in 2015. Given this, many DRR efforts the government implemented after TC Pam sought to mainstream CCA and resilience measures. In 2015, the country adopted a “Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Policy” for 2016–2030.

However, despite being ranked as one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change impacts, the government of Vanuatu has diverted its attention away from CCA and resilience planning in these times of crisis. “In terms of priorities, emergency response to TC Harold and COVID remain paramount. Anything other than those have slid down the priority list,” el Maaroufi told Refugees International. Although this is understandable given the complex demands and limited capacity of the humanitarian response, it may prove short-sighted. Small steps now may make a big difference in insulating the country from the damages of future cyclone seasons. For example, a recent assessment of physical damage wrought by TC Harold found that transitioning houses from corrugated iron sheet roofs to reinforced concrete roofs would quickly and easily increase resilience to extreme winds. 

In addition, the government should place greater emphasis on building up the capacity of the NDMO and other institutions to respond to disasters. A local source told Refugees International that, “[millions of dollars were] thrown at the NDMO for capacity building post [TC] Pam—none of that has been effective.” The agency remains under-staffed and short on technical capacity, which has limited its ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with TC Harold. Another source expressed concern that these past efforts have proven over-reliant on “consultants flying in to put systems in place rather than building the capacity of the [local] people.”

Building up the capacity of local people—especially in the communities that are often affected by big storms—is essential for several reasons. First, it reduces the high costs of reaching outer islands, which perennially drains the already stretched annual budget of NDMOs and even national contingency budgets. Most importantly, it extends the reach of humanitarian aid and reduces response times, thus helping to save more lives. “Early warnings on their own are not enough; they must be coupled with training and capacity support that extends down to the last mile,” researcher Jessica Webb wrote as part of a post-TC Pam assessment of successful CARE International DRR programming. It is especially needed “at the provincial, area council, community, and household level to ensure that nationally issued early warnings are linked with effective preparatory actions,” she wrote. The need for local capacity has only been underscored by challenges laid bare by the absence of foreign aid workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

International Community Fails to Deliver Meaningful Relief and Recovery

TC Harold’s slow, concentrated descent on Vanuatu’s northern islands caused massive destruction. “The bottom 20 kilometers of Pentecost are showing signs of devastation not even seen on the worst hit islands in 2015 during Cyclone Pam,” McGarry told Refugees International. Although vulnerable communities in these outer islands need help more than ever, they are getting short shrift in the news and in aid delivery.

Indeed, TC Harold’s devastation has been significantly underreported. Most information about TC Harold is being reported by smaller, regional publications. Although there have been some major features in international outlets such as BBC News, TIME, and The Guardian, in general “there’s no appetite for [reporting on TC Harold] during COVID-19,” McGarry told Refugees International. Indeed, what little international reporting does exist is likely to dwindle in the coming weeks. However, maintaining international media attention on the crisis is critical to mobilizing donor engagement in relief and recovery efforts. McGarry emphasized the importance of this coverage even in the midst of the pandemic: “The fact that there’s competing news stories is why we have news editors. You must find ways to prioritize,” he said.

Sources on the ground in Vanuatu have also noted a significantly inferior international humanitarian response to TC Harold as compared to TC Pam in 2015, despite the former’s greater destruction on some islands. There are “no personnel, no military aircraft, no helicopters—and it’s been logistically very challenging. Financially we’ve received very little,” Craig told the RI team. World Vision Country Manager Kendra Gates Derousseau said in the early days of the recovery that “within 72 hours of Pam, we had [$4.6] million… [if] we crest [$660,000] at the end of this week, we’ll have done a good job.”

In addition to lower levels of financial assistance, countries affected by TC Harold have received support from fewer donors. In 2015, various countries contributed to the response, including Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom. After TC Harold, Australia, New Zealand, and France, are leading the charge. Through their trilateral disaster relief partnership, known as the FRANZ Agreement, these three countries have provided financial and non-monetary support to the four affected countries. Australia has delivered multiple shipments of WASH kits and hygiene supplies, New Zealand has provided essential relief items and damage assessment aircraft, and France has sent shelter kits and appliances. Australia has sent the lion’s share of humanitarian aid. Other donor states have made relatively minimal contributions. China and the United States have supported the response to TC Harold, for example, but at a scale much lower than after TC Pam.

Although the UN has yet to render an overall assessment of the costs associated with relief and recovery for TC Harold, requests have already trickled in from some UN agencies, including the FAO and UNICEF. The FAO’s request for $3 million to address food insecurity continues to be underfunded by more than $2.5 million. The United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) appeal for $7.7 million to support humanitarian operations currently falls short by more than $6 million.

In addition, lines between humanitarian assistance for COVID-19 and TC Harold have begun to blur, with pledges originally made for COVID-19 relief being used for TC Harold recovery. Craig noted that although the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has pledged $3 million for COVID-19 response in the Pacific, “no one knows how they’ll be spending it—and [TC] Harold has compounded that [confusion].”

Other financial resources that traditionally support relief efforts, such as remittances, have also dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns in other countries. A representative from the Red Cross Tonga told Refugees International on May 4 that “some family members who live abroad are not employed anymore…and some are having problems accessing funds because of their [irregular] status in their country [of destination].” This burden has meant that the Red Cross Tonga has needed to provide different forms of support, including “psychosocial support for families who have been separated because of lockdown.” 

Conclusion and Recommendations

The Pacific Islands may have been the first region in the world to deal with the complex intersection of COVID-19 and disaster—but they will not be the last. With the Atlantic hurricane season on the horizon—one that scientists predict will be more active than usual—the international community must reflect on the challenges of delivering aid during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Donor states must:

  • Increase funding for TC Harold relief and recovery efforts. Requests for funding for relief and recovery by a number of UN agencies, including the FAO and UNICEF, have not been fulfilled. The FAO’s request for $3 million to address food insecurity continues to be underfunded by more than 75 percent. UNICEF’s appeal for $7.7 million to support humanitarian operations has received less than 22 percent funding. It is essential that donors step up.
  • Ensure that the response to COVID-19 does not come at the expense of the delivery of humanitarian aid for those impacted by TC Harold. Donor states must resist the temptation to redirect funding for cyclone relief to COVID-19. Instead, they should fully fund separate responses to what are distinct crises.
  • Build up the capacity of local- and community-level responders to respond to disaster. The intersection of COVID-19 and TC Harold laid bare persistent shortcomings at the national- and local-level to provide immediate relief services. Donors should avoid launching programs that temporarily inject foreign capacity into national disaster response systems through external consultants. Instead, they must prioritize investments in building indigenous capacity through knowledge and skill transfers. These efforts should target local-level responders in order to prepare for disaster and delivery services in the essential “last mile.”
  • Prioritize climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts that will enable longer-term recovery and preparation for the next disaster. Efforts to address COVID-19 should not diminish the importance of efforts to address DRR, especially in a world in which climate change will intensify cyclones in the region moving forward. Donors must continue to invest in DRR, including wind-resistant infrastructure and resilient agriculture practices for vulnerable communities. For example, houses made of corrugated iron sheet roofs should be replaced with reinforced concrete roofs that proved more resilient during TC Harold.

The government of Vanuatu must:

  • Revise COVID-19 quarantine policies to support humanitarian assistance. Vanuatu has rightly put in place containment and mitigation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, both the WHO and Vanuatu’s Director of Public Health believe a 36-hour hold time for imported supplies is unnecessary. The government should therefore take steps to lessen the impact of these measures on the humanitarian supply chain. Much like Fiji and other nations, Vanuatu could loosen their quarantine policies to shorten the delivery of aid from ports to those in need.
  • Increase transparency in the planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance. In light of reports that emergency supply distributions have unfairly favored certain communities, the government should enhance measures to improve transparency. Where possible, the government should facilitate the tracking of donated aid by independent actors to ensure that it is delivered on the basis of need and insulated from political factors or patronage networks. They should then make sure this information is publicly available to affected communities, the media, and relief organizations.


[1] All monetary aid and damage estimates have been converted into USD.

[2] Phone Interview with Glen Craig, April 28, 2020.

Refugees International would like to thank Salote Soqo and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for contributions to this report

Cover Photo: A young girl and her great grandmother sit amid storm destruction following Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu (UNICEF/Shing).