After more than a year of documenting some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases in the world, French Polynesia and New Caledonia are currently experiencing a devastating surge of the coronavirus.
In just two months, cases there have skyrocketed, pushing their health care systems to the brink.
The situation is so dire that recently, France extended a health emergency declaration for the two Pacific Island territories into mid-November — a legal maneuver that allows Paris to enact curfews and quarantine rules and monitor borders.
“It’s horrible here, it’s hell. It’s currently hell,” said Jean-Paul Theron, a general practitioner living on French Polynesia’s main island of Tahiti.
Since mid-July, COVID-19 cases have more than doubled in the territory, which only has a population of about 280,000 people. Most of French Polynesia’s nearly 600 deaths throughout the whole pandemic have also occurred in the last two months.
Theron says he is caring for some 80 COVID-19 patients right now, most of whom are elderly. With the few hospitals in French Polynesia practically full, he treats some patients in their homes or in makeshift hospitals set up in community centers and churches around the island.
He also treats patients via telemedicine; it’s sometimes the only practical way to get medical help in an archipelago territory made up of 118 islands and atolls spread across a swath of the Pacific the size of Eastern Europe.
Theron notes that this latest surge came on the heels of a trip to French Polynesia by French President Emmanuel Macron back in June.
“I was sure that if we close the country, everything will be all rright. If we leave the country open, we will have a big, big explosion. So, now, we have a huge epidemic with delta.”
“I was sure that if we close the country, everything will be all right. If we leave the country open, we will have a big, big explosion. So, now, we have a huge epidemic with delta,” he said.
That’s despite the fact that more than 40% of French Polynesia’s population is vaccinated.
A strained relationship
Motai Brotherson, a member of the French parliament who represents French Polynesia, squarely blames the deadly surge in cases on Macron’s visit.
“They reopened the airport; President Macron came and while he was here, they held ceremonies and public appearances with thousands of people. After that, you cannot expect Polynesian people to abide by the rules,” he said.
While managing resources throughout the pandemic has certainly tested the relationships between France and its overseas territories, things are particularly strained between Paris and French Polynesia. Because, while Paris has sent aid to the territory, many doctors and officials, like Brotherson, say it’s just not enough.
“We are still the overseas territory with the worst case of [the] pandemic; we are far from receiving the same amount of aid as the French Antilles, or [French] Guinea.”
“We are still the overseas territory with the worst case of [the] pandemic; we are far from receiving the same amount of aid as the French Antilles, or [French] Guinea,” he said.
Brotherson, who caught COVID-19 last year, says France has ignored his territory’s pleas for more help getting oxygen, nurses and doctors on hand. He says Paris has only sent some 120 medical personnel to French Polynesia, which holds France’s highest record for infection rates, while they’ve sent hundreds to the French Caribbean.
His theory as to why this is happening has to do with the fact that President Macron is up for reelection in 2022, and that there are far more potential voters in other territories than in French Polynesia.
Brotherson, who is a member of the territory’s pro-independence party, says the pandemic has put on full display French Polynesia’s dependence on France. Paris gives the territory some $2 billion in assistance every year.
“Nowadays, people are hearing it because they are experiencing it, but we have been telling that message for 40 years,” he said.
Every territory is different
While French overseas territories can be found around the world, Paris’ Pacific holdings — French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna — are particularly pivotal to Paris’ standing as a main Western player in a strategically important and resource-rich region.
Managing resources thousands of miles away is not easy, and each pandemic response depends on the territory and its level of autonomy, said Ziad Gebran, a press officer with France’s Ministry of the Overseas.
For example, France is responsible for health services in Martinique and Guadeloupe, but in the Pacific territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, that’s not Paris’ responsibility, he said.
Between those two territories, Gebran says France has given over $450,000 in state loans to help with the pandemic and economic rebound. They’ve also provided thousands of vaccines to all of their territories — enough, he says, to vaccinate everyone.
Still, just this month, New Caledonia, which lies nearly 3,000 miles west of French Polynesia, went from having fewer than 100 cases to more than 3,600. The territory also now has at least 25 deaths because of the virus.
In French Polynesia, Gebran says, they’re trying to balance the pandemic with the territory’s tourism-dependent economy.
“We’re opening the borders because the local authorities asked for it,” he said. “And when we opened the borders and saw that the COVID was degrading, we asked the local government to confine earlier. They decided to wait because they needed tourists and economic growth.”
Still, it’s estimated that the territory lost some $1.2 billion in tourism revenue in 2020.
And this year isn’t looking much better for French Polynesia, where health officials say the territory’s COVID-19 cases have finally plateaued after the latest surge.
But Theron predicts cases won’t actually start to decline for another two or three weeks.