Maldives, China explore joint coronavirus strategy

Top officials from the Maldives and China on Saturday discussed ways to work together to contain the spread of the coronavirus and support post-pandemic recovery in the Indian Ocean island nation.

In a virtual meeting, Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid and Zhang Lizhong, the Chinese ambassador in the Maldives, discussed setting up of “a bilateral coordination mechanism” for pandemic prevention and control.

The discussion also focused on “people to people exchanges and project cooperation,” the Maldivian foreign ministry said.

“Pleasure to hold extensive discussions with @AmbassadorZhang of China today. We covered broad range of issue of mutual interest. #Maldives is strong supporter of #China’s territorial integrity. He assured me of China’s interest in working with #Maldives Govt on #Covid-19 recovery,” Shahid said on Twitter after the meeting.

Earlier this month, the Maldives received a major donation of medical supplies made by the Chinese government and companies to help the island nation fight the coronavirus outbreak.

It was the second shipment of medical and protective equipment donated by China to support the Maldives’ efforts to contain the virus spread.

“Had a constructive and informative discussion with Hon. Minister @abdulla_shahid on extensive areas of both current and future cooperation. Through this time, the friendly relationship has surely come out stronger with enhanced mutual trust, mutual support and understanding,” ambassador Zhang tweeted.

Several major Chinese companies have also deployed their employees based in Male to construct temporary shelters for the relocation of expatriate workers from cramped dormitories.

Authorities managed to mitigate the spread of the virus and the Covid-19 respiratory disease it causes amongst the Maldives’ citizens and residents early on by closing the Indian Ocean tourist paradise’s borders, earning praise from the World Health Organisation.

But the disease later spread rapidly within the large migrant worker community in capital Male. Authorities have ramped up relocating workers from the cramped up dormitories in one of the world’s most densely populated cities to temporary accommodation units.

An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work in the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population close to 145,000.

Foreign workers in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men, are subjected to practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.

As most migrant workers live in extremely poor conditions, a widespread outbreak amongst them could lead to large virus clusters, overwhelming the country’s already under staffed and strained healthcare system and making it harder for authorities to contain the spread of the virus.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 1,313.

Four deaths have been reported and 127 have made full recoveries. Five remain in intensive care.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

All international airlines have suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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