Preparing for Coronavirus on a Small Pacific Island

3 April, 2020

Mori Neumann

Mori Neumann, IsraAID’s Water Engineer in Vanuatu, discusses his work building a water system on a small island and how to prepare local communities for the risks of coronavirus.

With the coronavirus pandemic reaching every corner of the world, we’re checking in with some of IsraAID’s team members to find out how COVID-19 might affect the communities they are working with. This week, we spoke with Mori Neumann, IsraAID’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) Engineer in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hi Mori, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are now?

My name is Mori Neumann, I’m 34, an environmental engineer, and a graduate of the Technion in Haifa. I started with IsraAID in December 2017 as a WASH engineer in Puerto Rico. It’s been an adventure. I’ve now been on missions to five different countries. I’ve been in Vanuatu since last June. I think it’s fair to say that most people in the world have never heard of Vanuatu — including people who work in airports, by the way.

I’m living in Latano, in northern Pentecost island. Vanuatu has 83 islands, and if you add up all of them together they’d only be about half the size of Israel. Latano is one of the bigger towns here and it has about 200 people. It’s a beautiful place, you can see the sea from pretty much any point here. I love Vanuatu. The scenery is amazing, the people are amazing. In Latano, there’s no electricity and no running water. I’m lucky to have a solar panel in my house, which was built for the village priest, although there hasn’t been a priest here for a while.

And what are you doing there?

The day the water arrived, the kids were jumping up and down, screaming. In 2019, IsraAID won a Vanuatu Department of Water tender to build a gravity-fed water system here in Latano. This project, which was funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is probably the biggest WASH project that the government of Vanuatu has carried out for two years. It serves nine villages, with around 900 people. They haven’t had a water system installed here for 40 years.
When I arrived there was no water in the whole village and you could feel it. Most people would bathe in the ocean — in the salt water. Some households have a small rainwater system that’s good for drinking, but it’s not enough for anything else.

Now we’re at the end and you can really see the transformation. There’s now a tap to every two to three houses in Latano, meaning everyone can take a shower in fresh water, use it for washing clothes, washing dishes, for everything. The day the water arrived, the kids were jumping up and down, screaming.

Just so you can understand the scale, we’re talking about 12 kilometers of pipeline, all dug by hand and buried. The water comes from two different sources. It’s all gravity-fed, meaning there are no pumps and no power needed at all, which makes it much easier to maintain and much more sustainable. We’ve built 55 tap stands, distributed throughout the nine villages. We have two sets of storage tanks that can take up to 20,000 liters each. So, it’s a very big project. It took 10 months to build and we’ve only got two or three more days of work left.

The communities that live here and are going to benefit from the project contributed the labor. In addition to overseeing the project, IsraAID took care of buying all the materials and paying for all the community food for all the workers throughout the project.

How might the coronavirus pandemic affect the community?

If COVID-19 reaches us, it will be a huge challenge for all of the islands in Vanuatu to deal with.
There are still no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Vanuatu, but the testing capacity is also limited, so that’s a big problem. The existing hygiene situation — in Pentecost and also in Vanuatu as a whole — is relatively poor. Most people don’t use soap at all or wash their hands frequently. I’ve seen changes here in Latano since we installed all the taps, but in general the way hygiene is viewed is very different from what we might be used to in Israel, for example.

If coronavirus were to hit Vanuatu and start spreading, I think this would be a huge problem on a national level. It’s very unlikely that suddenly people will start washing hands and changing their way of life completely. Communities tend to gather a lot in community houses, drink from the same coconut shells, drink kava. And people here also shake hands a lot. If COVID-19 reaches us, it will be a huge challenge for all of the islands in Vanuatu to deal with. Big efforts are already being made by the authorities to be as prepared as possible and IsraAID’s team in the capital Port Vila has joined the Ministry of Health’s Risk Communication Group to help shape the national response. We have a great team here in Vanuatu, committed to working with communities here and doing whatever we can in the current situation.

What can we do to help the community you’re in prepare?

There are few reliable sources of information, many people here just kind of feed off what they see on Facebook.

First of all, I think the most important and basic thing is knowledge. We need to share some knowledge and explain what COVID-19 is, what has happened in the world so far, how it is transmitted, the symptoms, what we can do to prevent the spread, and how likely it is to affect the population. These are things that most people here just don’t know. There are few reliable sources of information, many people here just kind of feed off what they see on Facebook. I recently had a big community meeting about the opening ceremony for the water system, so I took advantage and gave a 20-minute overview of COVID-19 and everything that I know about the virus. I spoke in Bislama, because it’s important that as many people as possible in the community can understand.
You have to be culturally sensitive and understand the context you’re working in. There’s no magic, overnight fix, it’s a long process.

The next step would be to promote handwashing with soap. But it’s not easy to change habits. It’s very nice to come in and bring soap and think we’re going to “help” the community, but you have to be culturally sensitive and understand the context you’re working in. There’s no magic, overnight fix, it’s a long process.

Coronavirus might be an opportunity here to promote hygiene behavior that can have a positive long-term impact. You know, it’s good to wash your hands every day whether we have a crazy virus spreading the world or not. It’s just good hygiene practice.

Then we also have to explain what behavior might reduce the spread of the disease — avoiding large gatherings, social distancing, not shaking hands. But remember that we don’t even have one confirmed case in Vanuatu. So people are skeptical about the need to do these things. A few minutes ago, a guy wanted to shake hands with me, so I reached out my elbow and said, “because of the coronavirus, let’s just do an elbow bump”. His response? “Ah, that’s bullshit, it hasn’t even arrived in Vanuatu.” And the truth is, he’s right — as far as we know — but that’s why we need to help prepare the community now for what could happen soon.

I’m trying to put in preventative measures and bring some accurate and useful information to the community here. We just have to do the best we can to make people aware and try to avoid the spread of COVID-19 on the islands.

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