Islands showed great resilience amid COVID-19 - but the future is challenging

Skye from the Old Man of Storr

Island communities coped better than many mainland states with the first phase of COVID-19, according to a survey co-produced at the University of Strathclyde.

But the study found that the pandemic has also exposed the fragility of islands in key areas such as food security and health infrastructure.

Submissions were received from 83 islands in 53 countries for the survey, which was conducted by the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG). It was carried out in conjunction with social enterprise Island Innovation, which connects island stakeholders globally with the goal of sharing knowledge on sustainable development.

The survey found that, while islands’ food supplies were not negatively affected and proved to be resilient, lockdown had highlighted the need for security of supply to be in place. In addition, while islands used the same quarantine and tracing procedures as mainland states, limited health infrastructure meant some had to move COVID-19 patients elsewhere and there appeared to be heightened anxiety about the virus spreading on an island.

The report on the survey calls for an inclusive debate on a post-pandemic future for islands which takes a sustainable approach and covers communities’ economic, health, digital and cultural needs. In particular, localisation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the role of islands in the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change should be considered.

Dr Francesco Sindico, Co-Director of SCELG, led the study. He said: “Despite the apparent success in dealing with COVID-19 on islands, the reality is that in most islands - especially small ones with scarce population - health infrastructure is limited and in some cases poor.

“While there could be options to improve health services on islands through increased funding and digital innovation, the reality is that in some cases the costs may be perceived to outweigh the benefits and such improvements may not take place. It is hence necessary to take strong account of the fragility of island health systems should a second wave of the pandemic materialise.

“Despite the fact that food supply chains did not break down, COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of food security on islands. Food security should not only be seen as producing more domestic produce for people living on the islands but also as an opportunity to diversify the economy of those islands that rely heavily on one sector, such as tourism.

“COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity for a new start for islands. Islands and their communities should not consider business as usual and the old normal as the goal to return to quickly. Doing so would probably lead to cutting corners and undermining environmental protection and, in the worst cases, even human rights.”

James Ellsmoor, Director of Island Innovation, said: “It was critical to take a snapshot of island life around the world at this unprecedented time. We were happy to work with SCELG to use our network to collect data on island responses and hope that this will be used by policymakers to inform future decisions.”

The survey was not designed as a research project but is intended to provide data to inform policy and practice in islands’ handling of the pandemic. It was conducted between 22 March and 1 June.

Submissions to the survey were made from a wide range of island including Japan, Jamaica, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Tasmania, Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Mauritius and Ibiza. They were made by a combination of citizens, government officials and stakeholders.