SYDNEY - Pacific islands are imposing strict lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus, denying access to supply vessels and prohibiting human-to-human contact during aircraft refueling, amid fears their small health care systems could be overrun.
The region recorded its first case of coronavirus this week, in French Polynesia, although most island nations cannot screen for COVID-19 cases onshore, which is potentially masking its spread.
One of the wealthiest Pacific nations, Fiji, this week opened its first facility capable of testing for the coronavirus, one of only four such facilities in the region, Radio New Zealand reported.
Brad Ives, senior captain on the supply vessel Kwai, said the sailing ship was loaded with supplies for five populated coral atolls in the northern Cook Islands, in the South Pacific, when it received word it would be refused entry.
"Fortunately, we got notice that they were going to refuse the ship before we departed our last port," Ives told Reuters.
"There's cargo on it that will expire. It's a bit of a problem for us that we are solving as we go."
Kwai is now in the Line Islands reorganizing its route.
While all Pacific nations have introduced widespread restrictions on international travelers over the past several weeks, some are now completely isolating their island populations.
The United States-backed Marshall Islands this week suspended all incoming air travel, while those on aircraft landing to refuel are being restricted from human-to-human contact.
Cruise ships have been denied port calls in New Caledonia, Tonga, Cook Islands and Samoa, among others, over the past fortnight, as local authorities tighten controls.
The island of Pukapuka, a tiny coral atoll in the Cook Islands with a population of 500, has been left short of foods like sugar, flour and rice after turning away the Kwai supply vessel.
Island residents understand that coronavirus infection could be catastrophic because of a lack of medical facilities, said Pukapukan community member Kirianu Nio, who now lives on the more heavily populated island of Rarotonga.
"They are short in processed foods, which are the main supplies they normally order in bulk, but that's a small price to pay," said Nio.