This is the story of Niue, a Smaller Island State with a population of under 2000 inhabitants. Thanks to stringent government measures they are one of the few Pacific Island countries to remain COVID free.
As Aotearoa New Zealand exits its own recent regional lockdown it’s easy to only think about how COVID-19 impacts just this country.
But what of the realm countries who are citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand, and who, each time we see a setback – must also deal with the fallout?
Pacific Periscope spoke with Catherine Papani Acting Business Development Manager/CEO of the Chamber of Commerce for Niue to find out how the country, and her people are faring.
A retrospective look
In March 2020, as travel into Niue closed to all except returning residents, the Niue Chamber of Commerce – Matakau Faahi Gahua Lagomatai ke he tau Pisinisi ha Niue (NCOC) and the Government of Niue – Ko e Fakatufono ha Niue met with the Private Sector.
Catherine says at the beginning everyone was a little dazed at the speed in which it all seemed to happen.
The private sector supported the Government’s call to close the borders even though for most it resulted in an almost nullification of their income. Not equipped to deal with the ferocity of a pandemic the consensus was that the health of their small, vulnerable population was priority.
Supporting the private sector
NCOC quickly surveyed local businesses from tourism, services support and other sectors using feedback to figure out the best means of support. Using their own funds of approximately NZD $100k the NCOC issued one-off grants of $500 – $1500 to around 65 businesses who applied.
The Niue Government also secured $1.7m NZD to support businesses through a wage subsidy scheme.
But no one could have foreseen that one year later, the world would still be coping with the pandemic. The uncertainties of returning to some form of normality meant the Government Wages Subsidy continued with a second round of financial assistance issued in November last year.
As funding came to an end last month NCOC and the Niue Government are working to deliver a solution for continued business assistance to those still on the Government Wage Subsidy.
Catherine says “it really takes its toll. There just doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. When New Zealand has a lock down, we see the ability to have a safe travel bubble pushed further and further back.
“We are hoping that Government assistance will continue and that it will continue in March 2021. It’s getting harder and harder to plan when we see no end in sight. We just wonder how long we can continue like this.”
Niue’s reliance on the outside world
Niue receives one ship into port monthly with supplies from New Zealand. Delays mean businesses in Niue relying on those imports – such as flour and other staples – simply shut down. This happened recently when a ship was delayed in Fiji due to COVID cases onboard.
“We won’t starve,” says Catherine. “Niue is a strong community, and we will ensure everyone has enough food. We all still farm our own land and fish – but it is tough.”
Actively using the resources available
Niue has consistently responded to the Pacific Trade Invest Network Pacific Business Monitor reports, issued each month.
“The reports have been so useful,” says Catherine. “NCOC is very proactive in making sure all the businesses fill it out each month. It’s great to have the data collected on our behalf. It’s great to see our efforts contribute positively and inform where it needs to.
“This helps when we’re talking with the Government about what the people are feeling and how businesses are coping.
“It gives us the data we need to support the anecdotal evidence. It’s been a huge help – all we have to do is fill it in. PTI collates it and produces the reports for us to use. It has indeed been an extremely useful tool.”
Diversification is the key word of the Blue Pacific
Catherine says currently they are looking at how Niue can diversify and recover from the lack of tourism.
“Some businesses are looking at ways to pivot or diversify their business, such as accessing a new market of enticing people who are able to work remotely for significant periods of time to come and take advantage of working in paradise.
“Instead of weekly stays we could set people up as extended stays. For one, two, however many months they can see Niue as their home.
“We need the Manatua Cable to be connected to Niue . We currently rely on satellite connectivity. It has been adequate, but the fibre optic cable is required to provide stronger international communication links to the island.
“Another thing we’re keen to harness is the PACER Plus trade agreement. We ratified this back in July 2020 and we want to see the benefits in arrangements for trade.
“This will ideally ease access to new markets. It will also help rebuild our economy to ensure that we are not too heavily dependent on just tourism.
A long road yet
Like most countries in the Blue Pacific, Niueans are incredibly resilient – but like all of us, resilience can be wearing after one year with no end in sight.
The latest Niue focussed Pacific Business Monitor shows the primary challenges for Niue businesses are:
- not knowing how long the crisis will last (100% for Niue compared with 82% for the other Blue Pacific countries
- poor cashflow (96% Niue compared with 82% Pacific)
- the impact of closed international borders (100% Niue compared with 77% for Pacific).
Catherine says people realise it’s not going to be ‘normal’ for quite some time.
“It’s heartening to read in the February Business Monitor that 70% of Niue businesses are confident their businesses will survive the pandemic fallout.
“It’s tough, and we know that. The information we are getting in a less formal setting directly reflects the numbers coming through in the reports.
Focus on mental health
“We can see that we need to keep a focus on people’s personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of the community. The negative toll on mental health had decreased slightly but its still there. Niue’s result of the negative impact on mental health is 61%, 5% more than the average of the Pacific.
“We have to just keep focussing on survival and hope vaccines via Aotearoa will come through sooner rather than later and we can open up a safe travel corridor between our countries and start to get our economy moving again.”