Tropics weather the COVID storm but challenges remain
Northern Queensland may be on the road to recovery from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the impacts of the virus have been put into sharp focus in a new report by James Cook University.
Released annually on the International Day of the Tropics on June 29, this year’s State of the Tropics Report, entitled “COVID-19 in the Tropics”, examined how the pandemic impacted countries and communities wholly or partially situated between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
At a local level, tourism took a significant hit between March and April 2020, with Cairns suffering a 99.9 per cent drop in international passengers and 96.5 per cent drop in domestic passengers.
Business survey results from March of that year in the Cairns region reported sales had fallen by 52 per cent, and 49 percent of businesses anticipated having to lay off staff due to the pandemic.
More broadly across the Tropics in 2020, passenger movements decreased by at least 50 per cent.
Unemployment increased globally by 15 percent between 2019 and 2021, with the Tropics’ unemployment rate increasing from 6.6 per cent to 8.1 per cent over this period, an increase of 22 per cent overall.
Female unemployment, already higher than male unemployment, increased to a greater extent during the pandemic, risking increasing gender inequality in the future.
On the health front, while mortality as a population of COVID-19 caseloads has been much higher in tropical regions, Oceania, which encompasses Australia, has been the only tropical region to have mortality rates below one per cent of cases.
However, COVID-19 infections in Oceania increased from 1.8 per cent to 3.1 percent between December 31, 2021 and January 31, 2022 - an increase of almost 200,000 cases in one month.
Globally, between January 1 and May 14 this year, there was a 45 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases.
Education outcomes also suffered during the pandemic, affecting literacy across the Tropics.
The number of 10-year-olds without basic literacy skills has increased by 17 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic and the shift to remote learning approaches disenfranchised many rural and poor students who did not have reliable access to the necessary technology.
However, school closures in Oceania were the lowest for all regions in the Tropics, with full or partial closures imposed for only 22 per cent of the 2020 and 2021 school years.
JCU Vice Chancellor Professor Simon Biggs said this year’s State of the Tropics Report highlighted the significant challenges that remained as a result of the pandemic.
“For many regions of the Tropics, the COVID-19 pandemic compounded existing
health and economic burdens,” he said.
“Many communities that avoided the first waves of COVID-19 due to hard border closures and controls on community transmission of the virus still experienced the negative economic impacts of its spread.
“All aspects of human endeavour, from health to trade, employment, education, greenhouse gas emissions and travel have been significantly affected by the pandemic.
“Indirect societal effects occurred as international borders closed, lockdowns were imposed, and inter-connected economies went into downturn.”
Prof Biggs said despite the negative impacts, there were some silver linings as a result of the pandemic, such as the accelerated uptake of communication technologies and the “biggest reduction in CO2 emissions in decades.”
“Air and water quality improvements also provided insights into alternative mechanisms for better environmental quality,” Prof Biggs said.
“The long-term effects of COVID-19 will take decades to play out fully, but the hope is the global community will learn from the pandemic and work towards and invest in a more resilient future for everyone.”
State of the Tropics Report lead author Dr Shelley Templeman said the pandemic highlighted both resilience and fragility in communities.
“Job losses and community lockdowns intensified many household stresses leading to increases in domestic violence incidents,” she said.
“However, many families, through increased together time, also discovered hidden dimensions in each other, creating stronger family bonds.”
Dr Templeman said while there was now a gradual return to normalcy after two years of the pandemic, ongoing health, economic, social and education impacts from the pandemic would continue for months to years.
“The pandemic highlighted just how globalised the world has become,” she said.
“It also showed how fragile our economies are to international disruptions. Even though borders have re-opened, supplies of many goods are still limited.”
A special event to mark International Day of the Tropics and launch JCU’s latest State of the Tropics Report, COVID-19 in the Tropics, will be held Wednesday, June 29 at 1pm at JCU’s Bebegu Yumba Campus in Douglas, Townsville.
A copy of this year’s State of the Tropics Report, COVID-19 in the Tropics, will be available here from June 29.
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