Life in the Tropics during COVID-19

Each year, a team of university and research institution partners from around the world release the State of the Tropics report. Though each year’s report has a different focus, the overall project seeks to answer the question: Is life in the Tropics getting better? This year’s report considers the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and suggests that life in the Tropics in 2022 requires one major characteristic from its inhabitants: resilience.

Dr Shelley Templeman is the lead coordinating researcher for the 2022 State of the Tropics report. After spending nearly 12 months entrenched in data, Shelley says the 2022 report has a broad scope that explores both the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic.

“We have now had two years of exposure to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shelley says. “There is a wealth of direct data and a lack of indirect data, and that’s reflected in the report itself. There is phenomenal data for things like case numbers, mortality, and vaccination uptake — it’s nearly unheard of to have such a large amount of data both available and updated daily.

“However, with such a sheer volume of data, there has to be trade-offs. While the data around the pandemic’s impact on human health is massive, there’s a lag in collecting data on many of the indirect impacts of the pandemic, such as children’s education, carbon dioxide emissions and domestic violence. We have data from 2020 to compare to that of 2019 — which shows some major differences — but directing our focus on the health impacts means we don’t have as much varied data for 2021 and 2022 as we would usually expect.”

Despite the gaps in data, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic affected almost every aspect of human life within the region. Shelley and her team will release the 2022 State of the Tropics report on 29 June for International Day of the Tropics, and she shares a brief glimpse into what the report has found.

Administering vaccinations in Africa

Reflecting on reactions, restrictions and relapses

Hindsight is 20/20 and Shelley and her team have been looking at the year 2020 with not only the benefit of hindsight but the brevity of producing a balanced report.

Though northern Australia — which falls into the Tropical region — has a large volume of data, Shelley and her team were investigating the Tropics worldwide. “In terms of direct statistics, the first wave of COVID-19 cases was horrifying for some areas in the Tropics,” Shelley says. “At one point early in the pandemic, Mexico reported a 15 per cent mortality rate.”

Shelley and her team’s research also analysed the effectiveness of how nations in the Tropics managed different stages of response to the pandemic, such as staggered re-openings in 2021.

“What we found during our research may provide validation for some of the approaches to suppressing community transmission through lockdowns and restrictions when we didn’t have alternative means of protecting the community,” Shelley says. “Of course, that will always be up for debate and reflection, but the statistics show case numbers, particularly in northern Australia, were low throughout lockdowns and then increasing when restrictions were lifted. Similarly, there was a massive uptick in cases when state and international borders were re-opened.”

Staggered re-openings also had to navigate different waves of the pandemic, including facing new variants of the virus. Shelley’s team have taken on the responsibility of learning from the negative impacts of re-openings.

“The data shows that case numbers had been pushed down and vaccination rates had risen to nearly 70 per cent of the global population near the end of 2021,” Shelley says. “Then when travel restrictions were lifted and the Omicron variant began to spread, parts of the Tropics in particular had an exponential increase in case numbers. In northern Australia, the COVID-19 cases increased from a total of 400 cases at the end of November 2021 to 68,000 by the end of January 2022. Other parts of Oceania, particularly some of the South Pacific islands, had similar experiences.”

“Every aspect of responding to the pandemic was difficult to navigate, and the report reflects that.”

JCU Researcher Dr Shelley Templeman

The data from 2020-2022 also provided insight into how the necessity of staggered re-openings outweighed the negative results. “There were necessary trade-offs. Those nations that are very, very dependent on international tourism as a large proportion of their gross domestic product, or GDP, had to face a trade-off of either protecting their community or taking a significant hit to their national economy. Many countries in the Caribbean have ten to twenty per cent of their GDP reliant on tourism. Every aspect of responding to the pandemic was difficult to navigate, and the report reflects that.”

Medical workers wearing personal protection equipment in Malaysia

Investigating indirect impacts of a global virus

The indirect impacts that Shelley’s team investigated include the impacts on frontline workers and the unique struggles they faced throughout the pandemic.

“Managing the stresses and pressures of dealing with a disease in a reactionary way, as the COVID-19 pandemic was completely unexpected. The impacts don’t just include exhaustion or exposure to the virus — there were frontline health workers receiving death threats. These were the realities of the situation.”

Shelley says some of the most confronting data she worked with was that of domestic violence statistics during the pandemic. “Many countries in the Tropics, and even outside of the Tropics, had a massive increase in domestic violence,” she says. “It was to the point that even in nations where it is taboo to discuss domestic violence, it became a part of social discussion. You have to recognise how intense the issue became when at a societal level they’ve said, ‘we cannot hide this anymore’. And that’s a story that repeats itself throughout many of the case studies we worked with.”

In sharing other findings of their research, Shelley says several of the indirect impacts of the pandemic were disproportionately experienced by women. “Unemployment was greater for women than for men. That’s partly because women statistically occupy more casual positions and have more roles in hospitality and service industries. It’s also related to school closures; when children have to be home, the responsibility of childcare still tends to fall on the women in the household.”

A particularly nuanced impact is the fact that while COVID-19 distanced us physically, it made us more connected digitally than ever before. “COVID-19 raised our connectivity,” Shelley says. “It also highlighted where there are disconnections as well. While we’ve seen rapid digital innovation, the pandemic exposed our weak points in terms of supply chains and manufacturing. Even though our current trajectory is gradually reorienting back to a sense of ‘normality’, we’re still experiencing supply chain issues. That hasn’t been resolved yet and it likely won’t be resolved for some time.

“What this report highlights, particularly with these indirect impacts, is that this is an evolving story; it’s not over yet. We’ve already seen shifts in circumstances, and we’ll continue to see further shifting and evolving.”

“This is an evolving story; it’s not over yet.”

JCU Researcher Dr Shelley Templeman

A Peruvian vendor wearing a mask while cleaning corn.
Two men in Latin America wearing masks.
Masks became a regular sight in Latin South America.

A report of resilience

Considering the Tropics accounts for approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population and 40 per cent of the Earth’s total surface area, Shelley and her team grappled with a massive volume of data in compiling this report.

The research team used publicly available datasets through organisations including the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, Food and Agricultural Organisation, International Labour Organisation and many others. For information about case numbers, mortality rates and vaccination rates, Shelley’s team sourced data from John Hopkins University and the data centre, Our World in Data.

However, for their research into the indirect impacts of the pandemic, Shelley and her team turned to mass amounts of case studies. “For many areas that don’t have as much data reported, we used case studies, which is anecdotal information, to essentially create a narrative around what was available information-wise,” Shelley says. “For example, we didn’t have data for fisheries and fishing activity, but in north Queensland there were reports coming out during lockdowns about fishing being a permitted activity and there was the highest number of boat trailers on the boat ramps ever! People were using that activity as stress relief as well as free protein during widespread loss of income. It was a method of adaptation as much as relaxation.”

Shelley says their takeaways from anecdotal information like this consistently included noticeable resilience in tropical communities. “There’s a beautiful snippet from a case study in Kenya during lockdowns; it said parents and children were discovering new things about each other and that there were extra dimensions to their parents’ and their children’s lives that they hadn’t previously realised. It’s one of the most touching statements to come across during this research.

“It’s a thread that is so strongly woven through our work. Despite the overwhelming negative impacts of the pandemic, there is an underlying community resilience. If you tap into that community resilience, you will have a sustainable economy. A sustainable local, regional, national, tropical and global economy. In the face of adversity, there is still a level of emotional strength that is detectable in the data and the case studies.”

Recognising the strength and value of community resilience is just the first step. “We need to have a shift in focus to drawing more on our local and regional economies rather than relying on global economies,” Shelley says. “The pandemic revealed the fragilities of that reliance. If we were to use a top-down combined with a bottom-up approach to recovery, we would likely have stronger communities because we’re drawing on multiple existing, under-valued resources. That’s what the report highlights — the impacts of the pandemic were immense, but there is so much we can learn from and change to better prepare our communities for the future.”

“In the face of adversity, there is still a level of emotional strength that is detectable in the data and the case studies.”

JCU Researcher Dr Shelley Templeman

Want to know more about the State of the Tropics and how it stands in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Learn more about the State of the Tropics Report 2022 and watch the panel discussion about COVID-19 in the Tropics.

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