Report: Islands and the COVID-19 Pandemic Webinar

The ‘Islands and the COVID-19 Pandemic’ webinar, the first in our Island Responses webinar series, was a big success, with excellent presentations from our diverse group of speakers
Pandemic Webinar

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The ‘Islands and the COVID-19 Pandemic’ webinar, the first in our Island Responses webinar series, was a big success, with excellent presentations from our diverse group of speakers, an insightful discussion conducted by our moderator and a range of interesting questions and comments from our attendees. You can continue this conversation in our Facebook and LinkedIn groups.

Some quick statistics on the webinar:

  • 6 expert speakers from Scotland, the Maldives, Greenland, Anguilla & Lanzarote (Canary Islands).
  • 1,053 registrations.
  • 498 joining live through Zoom
  • 5,000 views on Facebook (and counting!)

From the polls we held our live attendees included:

  • 39% island residents
  • 22% island businesses
  • 12% from the tourism/travel sector
  • 22% from academia/universities
  • 33% in Europe
  • 29% in the Caribbean
  • 21% in North America

You can access Mohamed Raaidh’s presentation slides here and the full report on the session here. We would also encourage you to read our new policy brief co-authored with the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Environmental Law & Governance and contribute to our survey request for data on island responses to COVID-19. We look forward to seeing you at the next session!

Content summary:

This webinar showed there is a significant level of interest for this topic, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect island communities around the world. Because of this, there were over 500 live viewers of the webinar on Zoom. In addition to this, the webinar was also streamed live on the Island Innovation Facebook page where it has so far reached close to 4,000 views and has been shared almost 100 times.

In his introduction to this webinar and the Island Responses series as a whole, James Ellsmoor, founder of Island Innovation discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has led our organisation to pivot in response to the crisis, in order to look at how we can help island communities work towards solutions. The reason why this webinar series is important for island communities is that they are affected differently by this crisis, so while many have been fortunate to have limited the immediate health impact due to rapid lockdowns, there will be long term economic issues to deal with. 

Moderator: Francesco Sindico – Co-Director of the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, Scotland:

Following James’s introduction, our moderator Dr Francesco Sindico introduced himself, his work and his connection to Island Innovation. Dr Sindico works at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He has developed the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG), now one of the leading centres in the UK in the field of environmental law. Some of his focuses have been on law, islands and sustainability which has resulted in a successful collaboration between Island Innovation and the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG); a survey aiming to better understand how Covid-19 was being dealt with on islands globally. SCELG was soon joined by Island Innovation and together they reached out to their island network. The goal was not to undertake a research project, but to collate “raw” data from anybody who was inclined to respond and put such data at the disposal of policy makers and wider island related stakeholders in their ongoing activities to deal with and adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. The response to the survey was very positive and so far responses from islands in 36 countries have been included in an online database where people can now find the data divided by islands and by specific survey questions. Using the results from this survey James and Dr Sindico have co-authored a policy brief entitled ‘A Global Island Perspective On COVID-19’ which can be downloaded here

Vittus Qujaukitsoq – Minister of Finance and Mineral Resources, Greenland: 

Our first speaker was Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the Minister of Finance and Mineral Resources for the government of Greenland. During his presentation Minister Qujaukitso explained how the government of Greenland placed the island into lockdown over seven weeks which was an effective response, as so far there have been only 11 incidents of COVID-19 recorded in Greenland and all of these individuals have recovered and are now doing well. The lockdown has included restrictions on all domestic and international flights and travel within Greenland, business have been closed altogether, all government personnel have been sent home apart from key workers, there has been an emergency relief package for small businesses, as well as a financial relief package of over 100 million dollars released. 

For the past week, the government has eased the lockdown, gradually reopening businesses across Greenland and all of these measures have proven very successful in containing the spread of COVID-19. Since 2001 there has been an act on contagious diseases, then as late as February 2020 there was an executive order introduced regarding infectious diseases which led to the establishment of an epidemic commission which was already formed and functioning before the COVID-19 virus arrived in Greenland. The island has been prepared and has benefited from excellent collaboration between different agencies helping with fighting the disease including the police force, health care workers, social security network etc. There have been daily briefings for the public and all materials have been available for the public on the internet. There is also a lab and testing available for anyone that needs it. Greenland’s economy has been hit hard due to lockdown measures put in place and this has been a very difficult time for everyone, but Minister Qujaukitso envisages a return to more normal activities due to the early rapid response. 

Mohamed Raaidh – Managing Director of Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation, Maldives:

Our second speaker was Mohamed Raaidh from the Maldives, who started his presentation with background information about the Maldives including social, economic, demographic and geographical features. As most of our attendees will likely already know, the Maldives is synonymous with luxury tourism and is considered one of the most luxurious and desirable destinations in the world. Tourism in the Maldives can be grouped together into three broad categories, Luxury, Cruise and Local. Luxury tourism is what the island state is most well known for and has the model of one luxury resort per island, cruises to the Maldives are also a popular choice. A newer option which Mohamed has been a part of developing is Local tourism which involves small hotels, hostels or guest houses which local people have been given permission to open up. Because the Maldives is seen as a top luxury global tourism destination, there is still a high expectation from guests choosing to stay in the Local accommodation including access to facilities like top-class restaurants, spas and water sports. 

As Mohamed explained, the first case of COVID-19 was found on March 11th in two tourists, then the government took immediate action to lock down the country. By 15th April there was the 1st community outbreak discovered outside the main resorts with 618 positive cases, most of which were foreign workers, with fewer than 205 Maldivians. There have been two deaths registered. While the lockdown has been effective in stopping a large scale outbreak of the virus, the economy which is so highly dependent on tourism has been hit very hard, with the World Bank estimating it could be one of the worst-hit countries in the world in terms of economic impact. As all resorts have been forced to close, there have been mass lay-offs and a resulting high level of unemployment. Mohamed believes the best-case scenario for the Maldives will be for the country to reopen in July, including all tourism facilities, ready for peak visitor season in November 2020. If this is to happen though, he emphasised the point that we need to reach a new normal, in order to keep the tourism industry open and stable in the country. This will include the introduction of a number of new features and measures such as Virtual Reality tourism, advanced health facilities at each resort including testing available onsite for COVID-19 and the ability to lockdown individual resorts rather than the whole country, the development of medical infrastructure zones for different areas of the country, a health visa issued with your passport to prove you’re arriving from a safe area and airport health screening on departure and arrival. 

Tahirah Banks – Partner at Thoughtful Digital Marketing Agency, Anguilla: 

The agency that Tahirah works for has helped to manage the government of Anguilla’s response to COVID-19. During her presentation, Tahirah began with the positive insight that there are currently zero active cases of COVID-19 and three recovered. This is a fantastic basis to work from and has led the government to begin de-escalation of the situation, but Tahirah stressed that they are not falling into complacency and are still preventing outside visitors with boats patrolling the waters and the country is adhering to standard international measures such as social distancing, as advised by the World Health Organisation. 

Next Tahirah outlined how the island has been able to put itself in such an advantageous position for going forward and returning to some semblance of normality. In collaboration with the government, they decided it was important to follow a dual approach of medical assistance and preparation, coupled with effective messaging. In order to counteract false information being spread on WhatsApp and Facebook, Tahirah and her team helped to develop a central platform alongside the Ministry of Health where they were able to share official information about the situation to the population of Aguilla. The aim was to give key stakeholders the ability to use this platform to give the people of Anguilla access to factual information. The biggest barrier to the government to develop such a platform was the cost, so Tahirah’s agency entered into a public-private partnership with the government and developed the platform at no cost to the government, as a public service. This website provides many important areas to assist the public, including a hotline for those who are suffering with mental health issues during the crisis, information on the virus and the status on the island, updates from different government ministries, unemployment assistance information, updates on the status of education, travel and tourism, food assistance and much more. The development of this platform has given the public access to a mobile-friendly, fast, modern and user-friendly platform. It has enabled the government of Aguilla to control the conversation about COVID-19 and the situation on the island, giving the population a resource they can trust. The next step for Tahirah and her team is to help other island governments to develop similar internet-based platforms to empower them and their populations. 

Daniel Trigg – President of the Lanzarote Business and Residents Association, Canary Islands:

Daniel began his presentation with an introduction to Lanzarote, the Canary Islands and the Lanzarote Business and Residents Association. He mentioned how the Canary Islands are in a unique position compared to many other islands around the world, as they have access to funding from Spain and the European Union. There have been massive infrastructure projects financed by the central government of Spain and the EU including hospitals, roads, ports, airports and more, and everything the island needs at the moment is being provided to them. Lanzarote has gone from a population of 450,000 per month to 150,000, so there is full capacity available in terms of hospitals and health clinics, food supplies, electricity, water and other amenities. Due to the lockdown and closure of businesses and tourism, there are very few cases of COVID-19 in Lanzarote and the Canary Islands. 

Ordinarily, the Canary Islands have 15-20 million international tourist arrivals each year. There are questions that need to be asked going forward, such as how is the tourism sector going to be successfully maintained. This is very important for the Canary Islands, as the vast majority of the population is employed in tourism and most businesses are reliant on tourists, so if the islands are not re-opened for visitors in the near future, this is going to have a devastating effect on the local population, businesses and the economy. The government has put in place a number of measures to help individuals and businesses, such as tax breaks and business loans, but these will need to be paid back at some point. While the government is supporting people unable to work at the moment, businesses will be expected to take over this support once the lockdown is lifted, but this will be difficult if the demand still doesn’t exist if tourists don’t return for a while. As well as this, all public information is currently in Spanish, even though Lanzarote has 25,000 non-Spanish speakers resident. As Daniel suggested, it will be very difficult to open up the tourism industry again to its previous level in the Canary Islands without a Health Visa and testing before departure to the islands, upon arrival and then again upon departure, plus successful tracing if someone does become ill. Once these measures are put in place, the Canary Islands can once again become a safe place to visit and live in. 

Following these insightful presentations by our four different guest speakers, Francesco then continued by introducing a series of questions related to the common questions being raised by the webinar attendees: 

What are the health aspects that will be necessary going forward to continue with the successful reduction in spread of COVID-19?

Minister Qujaukitsoq: We have similar obstacles and restrictions in Greenland to other locations around the world. There are demands on the population to wear masks, there are restrictions on how many people can gather in businesses and buses etc. Greenland is no exception in this regard as it will continue to impose social distancing regulations. 

From an economic perspective, what are the main measures that can really give hope to the people on your islands? 

Tahirah: One of the things we are looking to implement moving forward is to host a number of economic development sessions, between the private sector and key government stakeholders. This will include dividing up the key issues facing each industry such as accommodation transportation and fisheries sectors and then analysing how the government can best assist you. I’m always going to be an advocate of public-private initiatives and feel open discussions of this nature are the best way forward.

Daniel: I like to describe Lanzarote as an island of shopkeepers, as there are many small business owners here and in many instances, this is better than relying on just one business, in case that one business fails, causing massive unemployment. It is rare and this is one of those rare occasions when many different businesses face closure at the same time. There needs to be more support for small businesses going forward, as these form a huge part of employment on the islands, rather than just big tour operators and package holidays. 

Minister Qujaukitsoq: This gives strong evidence that islands need to diversify their economies and not rely solely on one industry and form of employment, for example in Greenland up until now we have relied heavily on the fishing industry, but this is just as fragile as any other industry such as tourism, so we are looking at developing other industries such as mining. It’s important to emphasize the Sustainable Development Goals if we are going to restructure our economy and society to best serve all of our population.

What happens in an island economy if there is an extended time without tourism? What if we can’t come out of lockdown for a longer time and nobody is able to travel there?

Mohamed: That would undoubtedly be the worst-case scenario for the Maldives, but that is why it is vital that we work extremely hard to not allow that to happen. I believe that the government of the Maldives will not open everything up all at once, but will open parts of the country up in stages so that everything will be safe for international travellers at the beginning of the peak part of the season in November. That will definitely be the aim, to avoid the worst-case scenario.

Can we have more environmentally friendly and resilient forms of tourism in the future as a way for island economies to successfully recover from this crisis? 

Tahirah: COVID-19 has forced us to really stop and think about the situation, especially when such a large percentage of the population is dependent on tourism to be able to eat and pay bills. We need to consider how we can develop our economies so they are more resilient and more diversified, even beyond tourism. 

Daniel: I think the crisis will have a devastating effect on the environment because up until now a lot of money has been spent in the Canary Islands on educating younger generations on the environment such as recycling, using renewable energy etc., especially in the last five years, as well helping to prepare the next generation of sustainable businesses. All of this has been driven by the amount of money being injected into the local economy by tourism which is then being spent on education but without tourism, all of that will be cut back on, as the government and families look to make savings. 

Minister Qujaukitsoq: Greenland is no exception in that this crisis is going to hit our economy as hard as any other island. It is important going forward that we focus on and emphasise a green economy and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources. Greenland has also been hit hard by climate change, leading to the melting of our ice cover. There is a need for diversification in all areas of the economy. 

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