China pledges to supply an extra one billion vaccine doses to Africa as Omicron takes hold. India repeals farming laws that led to year-long protests. Barbados removes Queen as head of state and becomes a republic. By Jonathan Pearlman.

‘Worst yet to come’ for rioting in Solomon Islands

People gather in Honiara’s Chinatown following two days of rioting in which thousands ignored a government lockdown order.
People gather in Honiara’s Chinatown following two days of rioting in which thousands ignored a government lockdown order.
Credit: Charley Piringi / AFP

Great power rivalry

Senegal: Every three years, China’s leader meets with leaders from 53 of Africa’s 54 countries at a forum designed to cement their growing economic and diplomatic ties. Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, which recognises Taiwan rather than China, is the only African nation that does not attend.

The latest summit, held in Senegal on Monday and Tuesday, occurred just days after South African scientists informed the World Health Organization (WHO) that they had detected a new strain of Covid-19. Researchers in Gauteng province had found strange mutations on eight samples of the virus on November 19, just as reports emerged there of an unusually sharp increase in cases. Testing of 32 further samples on November 23 confirmed the existence of a new strain, now known as Omicron.

Scientists had long warned that the failure by wealthier nations to ensure vaccines were distributed around the world would lead to new variants. The Delta strain emerged in India, and Omicron appears to have originated in southern Africa. Just 7 per cent of people across Africa have been fully vaccinated, compared with a global average of 43 per cent.

On Monday, six days after Omicron was confirmed, Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared via video link to address the opening of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation. He promised to deliver an extra one billion vaccine doses to Africa and called for a waiver of intellectual property rights on vaccines.

“We must prioritise the protection of our people and close the vaccination gap,” he said.

According to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based firm, China has donated 119 million doses of vaccine to other countries during the pandemic. Hours later, United States President Joe Biden delivered an address, calling for the world to “step up” efforts to distribute vaccines. He said the US had donated 275 million doses, more than those donated by all other countries.

Despite diplomatic rivalries fuelling initiatives by China, the US and other world powers to distribute vaccines, the effort has been insufficient.

An expert on vaccine supplies, Andrea Taylor, from Duke Global Health Innovation Center, told NBC News this week that global vaccine inequality was “worse than ever”. According to WHO, the number of vaccines administered per 100 people in high-income countries is 149, compared with eight in low-income countries. Most countries in Africa are designated low-income.

“Africa right now is essentially a super-incubator,” Taylor said.

The neighbourhood

Solomon Islands: Foreign troops and police patrolled the streets of Honiara in Solomon Islands this week after riots and looting left three people dead, as residents prepared for a looming food shortage.

Officials estimated the violence had caused about $40 million worth of damage to the economy. Many in the capital have been left without work due to the destruction and looting of about 50 businesses and the closure of others. Food prices are soaring but banks have been shut, making it difficult to access cash.

Ricky Fuo’o, who chairs the national chamber of commerce, said the attacks, which had targeted Chinese stores and warehouses, had led to dwindling supplies of rice, the main staple in the city. “There isn’t a lot of food to go around so I fear for the worst,” he told Radio New Zealand. “The worst is yet to come especially with food shortages.”

The riots broke out last week after demonstrators marched on parliament to demand the resignation of the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare. Many of the protesters reportedly came from Malaita, the most populous province, which has tense relations with the national government and has threatened to secede. The riots, like those in Solomon Islands in 2006 and 2019, involved attacks on Chinatown and Chinese-linked businesses.    

Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, has opposed a decision in 2019 by Sogavare to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. This week, he attacked Sogavare’s decision to ask Australia to deploy troops and police to prevent further violence.

Sogavare told ABC News this week that Suidani’s criticism of the Australian deployment was “very, very stupid”.

“What he [Suidani] is asking there is for government to be left to the mercy of criminals and hooligans, to pull down a democratically elected government,” he said.

Papua New Guinea and Fiji have also sent forces to assist authorities.

Matthew Wale, the opposition leader, blamed Sogavare for exacerbating tensions and said he would move a no-confidence motion against the prime minister on Monday.

Democracy in retreat

India: On Monday, India’s parliament voted to abandon three controversial farm laws that sparked a year-long demonstration in which hundreds of thousands of farmers took part in protest camps that stretched for kilometres along the highways into Delhi.

The laws, which would have scaled back subsidies and price controls, were strongly opposed by farmers, who believed the changes would hand excessive power to corporations and enable them to hoard supplies and dictate the types and amounts of crops required. Agriculture is the largest source of employment in India, which has about 1.3 billion residents. More than 40 per cent of the workforce are employed in agriculture.

On November 19, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, made a surprise announcement that he would repeal the laws. He was facing a serious political backlash, particularly as his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party faces upcoming elections in states with large farming populations.

Announcing the decision in a televised address, Modi said: “Return to your home, to your loved ones, to your farms, and family.”

Following parliament’s repeal of the laws this week, farming groups said they would continue to demand further price controls by the government. About 700 farmers are believed to have been killed in the protests due to the cold, rain, pollution and heat, and nine died by suicide.

Spotlight: Barbados dumps the Queen

The Caribbean island of Barbados became a republic this week, removing the British monarch as its head of state and installing Sandra Mason – a former judge who had been governor-general since 2018 – as its first president.

At a ceremony on Monday attended by Prince Charles, the royal standard flag that represents the Queen was lowered for the last time at midnight.

The prime minister, Mia Mottley, announced the move to become a republic last year saying the time had come for Barbados to “fully leave our colonial past behind”.

Barbados became a British colony 396 years ago. For more than 200 years, settler-owned plantations on the island were worked by slaves who had been shipped from Africa, as well as their descendants.

In his speech Prince Charles acknowledged Britain’s horrific legacy on the island, saying that the creation of a republic “offers a new beginning”.

“From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude,” he said.

Barbados, which has been independent since 1966, will remain a member of the Commonwealth. Before this week, the most recent nation to remove Queen Elizabeth as head of state was Mauritius in 1992. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "‘Worst yet to come’ for rioting in Solomon Islands".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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