Author: Taukiei Kitara (Lead author), Carol Farbotko (Corresponding author), Maina Talia, Samid Suliman, Chris Evans
Photo by Carol Farbotko


Tuvalu remains free of the coronavirus as of 30th May 2020. Unlike much of the rest of the world where focus is on death tolls and struggling health systems, Tuvalu is currently free of these immediate pressures. However, a potential outbreak is being fended off by the national government through a declared State of Emergency, which includes the closure of borders and enhancing the capacity of the health system to cope with an outbreak. In addition, the Government is currently advising voluntary population relocation from the capital island, Funafuti, to either Funafuti’s rural islets or the more distant outer islands. Funafuti is the location of the only international port and airport, and so is the most likely site of coronavirus entry into the country. Under the Management and Minimisation of the of Coronavirus Regulation, the government can mandate relocation should COVID-19 arrive in the country. Internal migration from urban to rural areas is now occurring at an unprecedented rate. As of early May 2020, about 1500 of the capital’s 6500 population have voluntarily moved to the outer islands, with more movement expected. This figure, representing about fifteen per cent of the national population, does not include additional numbers moving from the capital to rural islets off the capital. This paper outlines the role of population mobility in the COVID-19 emergency measures in Tuvalu, in the context of both regional cooperation and national action, and considers how social, cultural, economic and environmental changes may unfold.  

State of Emergency

In 2019, Tuvalu was considered poorly prepared for a pandemic, ranking 181/195 in the Global Health Security Index. Yet it is now one of only a handful of countries to remain free of COVID-19. The National Government took early and decisive action, forming a COVID-19 Health Taskforce in late January 2020. In February, Tuvalu’s borders were closed to countries that were considered high risk, with cases exceeding ten infected people. High risk countries were later redefined as those containing five, and then one, case. International arrivals were further restricted from 3rd March. After this date, anyone who had spent time in any country with a case of COVID-19 would be required to self-isolate for 14 days before arriving in Tuvalu. On 20th March, following the first case of COVID-19 being confirmed in neighbouring Fiji, a State of Emergency was declared in Tuvalu. Borders were closed, with the last flight from Fiji arriving on 21st March. Schools were also closed and public gatherings cancelled. The fifty-six passengers on the last flight were medically examined on arrival and quarantined for two weeks. No suspected cases arose during this period, and on 4th April the ban on public gatherings was lifted, allowing resumption of church services. However, the advice to voluntarily relocate to the islands remained in place.

The focus of Taskforce efforts during April and May 2020 was to oversee the delivery of essential medical supplies such as COVID-19 testing equipment, protective suits and masks for frontline personnel, and ten ventilators. The emergency regulations provided exemptions to flights and vessels for essential supplies of food, medicine, fuel, or humanitarian assistance. Although primary schools have reopened, Motufoua, a boarding school on the outer island of Vaitupu, closed at the beginning of the State of Emergency, and will not reopen until mid-June, in the meantime offline home-based learning is being provided. The question of repatriation remains a high priority and a politically contentious issue. Repatriation of Tuvaluan citizens, which is a high risk in terms of entry of COVID-19 into the country, will not commence until after additional medical equipment has arrived and sufficient quarantine facilities for repatriated citizens have been set up on Funafuti. Initially, around 1000 Tuvaluan citizens registered with the Tuvalu embassy in Fiji for potential repatriation. This number, however, rapidly decreased to around 100, due in part to an increased understanding of the role of repatriation in potentially causing COVID-19 entry into Tuvalu. On 8th April, the Tuvalu government commenced a series of press conferences, including significant time for public questions both online and in person. These are broadcast nationally and online, helping to counter misinformation and uncertainty among the public. 

Regional Context

Incoming traveller restrictions and internal population movements in Tuvalu have occurred in a context of multilateral cooperation and bilateral support in the region. On 8th April, Pacific Island Forum foreign ministers met virtually to establish The Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 (PHP-C), in consultation with the World Health Organisation and the Pacific Community. The PHP-C enabled the limited circumvention of region-wide border closures and mobility restrictions to ensure that humanitarian relief could be provided to Pacific nations both directly related to the pandemic and for disasters and other humanitarian crises that may occur during this time. In establishing the PHP-C, chair of the Forum Foreign Ministers’ meeting Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano reported that PIF leaders had invoked the Biketawa Declaration, which is a framework – agreed upon by Pacific leaders in 2000 – to coordinate regional responses to regional crises.

This strong regional response sits alongside pledges by regional partners and the international community to support the Pacific during the COVID-19 crisis. Australian and New Zealand governments invoked their respective Pacific Step-Up and Pacific Reset foreign policy platforms to provide assurances that they are committed to supporting Pacific nations by providing expertise, technical assistance, medical equipment, and finance to help regional governments maintain their efforts to avoid and supress transmission of the virus. Other donors, such as Taiwan in Tuvalu’s case, also committed material and technical support. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres established a multi-billion dollar inter-agency funding mechanism to support response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuvalu is one of the six Pacific nations eligible to access these funds.

Tuvalu has been at the forefront of regional diplomatic efforts to create the conditions in which the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to small island states could be mitigated, while maintaining the necessary linkages to ensure essential supplies. In addition to the Tuvaluan Prime Minister coordinating diplomatic efforts to create the PHP-C, Tuvalu’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Kofe, has worked with regional counterparts on the issue of reciprocal support for Pacific Island citizens who are currently in another country in the region, including citizens of other countries who live in Tuvalu. The Tuvaluan Government is, however, also supporting its citizens abroad who cannot currently be repatriated. It is providing cash payments to civil servants stranded outside the country as well as students abroad, to cover unforeseen costs incurred because of the pandemic. Assistance from the Tuvaluan embassy in Fiji even extends to provision of the embassy vehicles to take Tuvaluan citizens grocery shopping, given the COVID-19 risks associated with taxis and public transport. The Tuvalu diaspora is also contributing support. Nurses among the Tuvalu community in New Zealand have offered to return to Tuvalu in the event of the virus arriving in the country, to assist in addressing the current nursing shortage. Tuvaluan doctors are communicating COVID19 health information online to Tuvaluans around the globe.  The Tuvalu Community in Brisbane, Australia, is assisting Tuvaluans participating in Australia-based education and temporary labour schemes who are unable to return to Tuvalu and require support.

Population Movement to the Outer Islands

Tuvalu’s current State of Emergency will likely continue until Fiji achieves elimination of COVID-19. Tuvalu’s borders are also likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future. Given the strong suppression currently being achieved in regional neighbours such as Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, and no cases in others such as Kiribati and Solomon Islands, there may be opportunities emerging for a ‘Pacific bubble’, allowing some international mobility within the region.

In the meantime, Tuvaluan people are responding to government advice and seeking relative safety from COVID19 by voluntarily moving in large numbers outside the capital to rural islands. This is leading to a sudden reversal of rural-urban migration, which has been underway since the early years of the 20th century. By 2017, Funafuti was the site of about sixty per cent of Tuvalu’s population, around 6,500. The remainder was distributed throughout Tuvalu’s outer islands: Nanumea, Nanumaga, Niutao, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukulaelae, Nukufetau and Niulakita. These islands have now experienced an average population increase of about thirty five per cent in March and April 2020, while Funafuti has experienced around twenty five per cent decrease (Figure 1). More movement to rural areas is expected by the National Government, who continue to advise people to leave the capital. According to anecdotal accounts from some who were planning to leave Funafuti in May 2020, health security is the key reason to move, but the prospect of spending time on one’s fenua (home island), eating local food there, and leaving the noise and the pollution of the capital made the impending relocation welcome. 


Figure 1 : Resident populations of Funafuti and outer islands of Tuvalu in Census years 1973-2017. Note that the 2020 population figures do not take into account other demographic changes between 2017 and 2020.

Population increases on the outer islands are likely to be accompanied by increased stress on island environments, already facing climate change impacts such as coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, changing rainfall patterns and changing land and marine ecosystems. Tuvalu’s islands are each already exposed to increased frequency of extreme events, storm damage, flooding, loss of agricultural land and loss of coastal houses and infrastructure. Extremely high coastal population densities are found on all Tuvalu’s islands and are associated with high levels of exposure to climate change impacts. On Vaitupu, for example, the entire population lives within 500m of the coastline, with the majority within 200m. Water shortages on the outer islands are already a challenge and salt concentrations in the soil are hampering the growth of crops. Measures to increase water and food security and address coastal erosion, such as trialling of more salt-resistant crops, planting of mangroves, and installation of water tanks, were being  implemented, but the emergent additional population pressure on food, land and water resources from the pandemic relocation is likely to be considerable. There will also be additional pressure on services including island schools, medical clinics and shops, and possibly governance challenges for island councils. Those on the outer islands with serious health conditions may have their access to essential medical care diminished, as the nation’s only hospital is located in the capital.

Tuvaluans are most likely to move to their fenua (home island) or that of their spouse, as it is on these islands that people have ancestral ties and a claim in kaitasi (family lands). Kinship links are strong, so few if any new arrivals would be landless or lacking in some family support. Many thus have access to temporary housing with relatives, for example. There are early reports that a minority of new arrivals are not able to access family support on their home island, and at least one family has been turned away. However, back in the capital, the Funafuti falakaupule (the council of Indigenous chiefs) has given permission to non-indigenous residents to relocate to Funafuti’s rural islets. Previously, permission to live on these islets has been granted only to families recognized as possessing indigenous land claims. Most of these islets are completely undeveloped and all are accessible only by private boat. Only one, Funafala, has a small village, comprised of around ten households, a chapel, a community hall, a small agricultural initiative and a guest house, but no school or shops. Those who are relocating to these rural islets are building traditional-style houses and installing water tanks (Figures 2 and 3). From Funafuti’s islets, it is possible to return across the lagoon to the capital for supplies, services and employment, at least while the country remains COVID-19 free. Frequent return trips to the capital may not be feasible for many, however, including school students, given the high cost of private boat transport. 

Figure 2: April 2020 - Family building new house after relocating to Papaelise, an islet of Funafuti, to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Photo by Iakopo Molotii
Figure 3: April 2020 - Water tank delivered to family who moved to Papaelise, an islet of Funafuti, to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Photo by Iakopo Molotii

Children who relocate with their families to the more distant outer islands will be able to enrol in existing local schools, although these are likely to become crowded. 

The government has allocated AUD 500,000 to each outer island to assist in their immediate efforts to prepare for the influx of people arriving from Funafuti. This includes improvements to health clinics and providing assistance to households through the provision of water tanks, and tents or tarpaulins to assist with housing shortages. The falekaupule (council of Indigenous chiefs) on each island is to oversee the utilisation of the funds in line with national government guidelines. Other forms of financial assistance have been introduced to individuals and businesses in the private sector. A financial support package, drawing on AUD 5million funding from Australia and New Zealand, includes cash payments to all individuals, including children, of AUD 40 per month during the State of Emergency. Employees affected by downturns in the tourism and hospitality sector and the wharf and aviation sector can access pension accounts up to a limit of AUD 500. Banks have been requested to ease requirements for loan repayments and freeze interest incurred on personal, house and business loans. Agriculture and food security businesses can access grants. Should a shortage of food emerge, a food voucher system can be implemented first on Funafuti, then on the outer islands, intended to prevent bulk purchasing. The outer islands are likely expected to enjoy greater food security due to their existing agricultural base. However, the increasing population on the outer islands will increase demand for local food. All assistance measures will continue to be monitored and evaluated and, if needed, reassessed. 

Possible Effects of Population Relocation

Effects on Funafuti

Depopulation on the capital may lead to service disruption in some sectors. Pre-existing unemployment in the capital, however, may be reduced and pressure on the natural environment eased. Problems such as domestic wastewater discharge and solid waste dumping may decrease in severity, for example, with positive effects for the health of the coral reef ecosystem of Funafuti. Residents remaining in the capital are planting more food in their gardens, and the government is providing advice and seedlings. If successful, these food production activities could potentially lead to decreased consumption of imported food, better human health, and less solid waste. The habitation of Funafuti’s until now largely uninhabited rural islets may be a permanent change. Lack of land and increasing population numbers on the capital has contributed to overcrowded housing conditions. The indigenous people of Funafuti appear willing to open up this previously undeveloped land to people from other islands for the first time, which will need to be formalized through new tenancy arrangements. Funafuti’s only rural village, Funafala, is receiving many of the new arrivals. A new road, aptly named COVID19 Road, has been cleared through the bush outside Funafala, seemingly to enable the rapid building of new houses (Figure 3).

Figure 4: Drone image of COVID19 Road, Funafala (Youtube).

New arrivals to Funafuti’s rural islets may be reluctant to leave once the State of Emergency is lifted. Existing residents of Funafala value being able to live in a way that is more connected to the natural environment and enables customary practices. This includes more reliable sources of local food and other environmental products that have become scarce on the capital. The new arrivals are likely to see the same benefits. New planning measures, employment opportunities, and services, however, are needed to support a larger population in the longer term, such as a primary school, medical clinic and public ferry service. Environmental safeguards and climate change adaptation measures will also need to be considered. 

Changes on Outer Islands

With borders closed to all but the most necessary of cargo shipments, food security in Tuvalu will become more dependent on expanding the existing subsistence agricultural and fishing sectors throughout the country. With more people moving to the outer islands, where fishing and farming are common occupations, the increased labour supply should assist in greater production of food from local sources. Labour will also be needed for construction of new housing, installation of water tanks and so on to accommodate new arrivals. Customary governance by the falekaupule (council of Indigenous chiefs) on each island will attempt to ensure communities work together harmoniously. However, this approach may be challenged by the urbanized new arrivals, more accustomed to ola tu tokotasi or kalo vao (individualized lifestyles). In this vein, there may also be disagreement between rural and urban branches of single families. Families in Tuvalu have existing, well-established systems of exchange, circulating food and other locally produced items from the outer islands to family members on the capital, who in turn supply cash for expenses such as building materials, mobile phones and so on. These systems are likely to have been disrupted by decreased opportunities for cash income, more crowded living conditions on the outer islands, and increased demand for local food. More positively, urban arrivals in the rural islands will engage more extensively in customary food production, preservation and storage, and distribution. Tuu mo Iloga Faka-Tuvalu (customary knowledge) of these has been dwindling among those living in the capital, particularly young people, and is likely to be usefully strengthened. There is, for example, a customary practice of planting trees when building new houses.  Each time a house is built, staple food-producing trees such as coconut, pandanus, pawpaw and breadfruit are planted around it. This practice will be expected of new arrivals on the outer islands. Tree-planting is a customary safeguard against long-term future uncertainty. Oral histories capture the story of each tree that is planted; extended family will remember who nurtured the young trees. This tree-planting practice is similar to that of burying the umbilical cord of newborn babies on the fenua (home island) and planting a new tree in the spot. Even after periods of absence, return to fenua always involves further nurturing of all the trees connected to a family.   

Climate Change and Disasters

The looming effect of COVID-19 not only disrupts the current ‘normal’ way of living in Tuvalu but also layers complexity into existing climate challenges. Climate change related sea-level rise will always be Tuvalu’s most pressing issue. The physical structure of the islands renders Tuvaluans prone to the impacts of climate change and other disasters. Tuvaluan people are still recovering from Tropical Cyclone Tino that struck Tuvalu in January 2020, which also resulted in a State of Emergency, and are facing drought. Tino caused damage to crops in some of the outer islands, reducing the amount of local food now available in some areas. Food and water security in such conditions are already significant challenges. In a COVID-19 free country like Tuvalu, border restrictions and travel bans due to COVID-19 are seen as a barrier to disaster recovery, especially during this drought period. Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Forum, shared the same concerns

"It is important to emphasise the interconnectivity between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Cyclone Harold is a clear example that climate change induced disasters can exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis in our Blue Pacific continent. For instance, an already struggling small public system that has closed its borders under COVID-19 may now have to respond to the impacts of Cyclone Harold and the dilemma of opening its borders for external assistance."

Although government plans have put specific emphasis on COVID-19 response measures, this does not mean that climate change is no longer a priority. However, it is not clear whether the voluntary relocation of 1494 people* thus far from Funafuti to their home islands, increasing rural populations in Tuvalu, will result in a net increase or decrease in vulnerability. This is partly an issue of planning for the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19, which is still underway. Such planning will need to incorporate hypothetical questions such as “what if Tuvalu is struck by a cyclone amid COVID-19?” as has already occurred elsewhere in the Pacific. Though there are national climate change adaptation, disaster recovery and preparedness plans in place (e.g. Te Kaniva 2012; NAPA 1 2007; National Disaster Risk Management Plan 2011), and a comprehensive COVID-19 worst case scenario plan (Talaaliki Plan), the task remains to build an even more comprehensive national plan that addresses climate change, disaster and COVID-19 risk management together in a fully integrated way. The Talaaliki Plan was purposely designed as a national COVID-19 emergency response plan, covering both an outbreak and a cancellation or extreme limitation of food, fuel and other essential imports due to external factors. The Talaaliki (Sooty tern - Onychoprion fuscatus) is a rare species of bird that is typically only found in Tuvalu during cyclones or other extreme weather events. The talaaliki is traditionally believed to be a special bird that signals an imminent threat when it flies over people or settlements and makes a loud sound. Despite this customary climate knowledge encoded in Tuvalu’s COVID-19 worst case scenario plan title, the plan does not explicitly address the challenge(s) that climate change impacts and disasters such as cyclones and droughts can pose amid COVID-19. Continued development towards an integrated, holistic resilience framework in Tuvalu could also consider how climate change adaptation and disaster planning needs to be updated to take the new population changes and COVID-19 considerations into account. For example, there are issues to be addressed such as: will sufficient local food be available while recovering from a cyclone, if external assistance is unavailable for COVID-19 related reasons? If external assistance is available, will Tuvalu need external personnel to assist in disaster preparedness or recovery, or drought management, or does Tuvalu have the capacity to carry out responses on their own with deliveries of external emergency cargo? In addressing such challenges, COVID-19 may become an opportunity for Tuvalu to increase national self-reliance and resilience, including adapting to climate change challenges.   


As the COVID-19 pandemic prevention plan unfolds in Tuvalu, there are significant emerging challenges for families, island communities, and the nation as a whole. The government’s COVID-19 response has been clear, effective and largely well-supported by the public. Tuvaluans who are moving to the outer islands and Funafuti’s islets report looking forward to exiting the crowded and polluted urban areas and returning to a much-loved fenua (home island). The prospects of Tuvalu weathering the COVID-19 emergency with health security intact currently seem favourable. Whether some of the social, environmental, cultural and economic changes unfolding during the State of Emergency will also be long-lasting, remains to be seen. Should COVID-19 arrive in Tuvalu, population relocation is likely to intensify significantly, further than what has already occurred. While Tuvalu remains COVID-19 free, many of the relocated people are likely to delay returning to the capital until the regional and possibly even the global COVID-19 situation improves significantly. That some people will choose to remain in the outer islands in the longer term, boosting the population of rural areas on a permanent basis, is a possibility. Whether or not the relocated populations will be encouraged to remain in the outer islands as a matter of national policy is yet unknown. In any event, the unfolding changes in Tuvalu’s rural areas warrant policy and program action, including:

  • Monitoring and assessment of effects of population changes on food and water security, employment, health, education, environmental change, and climate change and disaster vulnerabilities; 
  • Analysis of how urban-rural migration might be resulting in changes in values and practices associated with culture and the environment such as increased engagement with nature, new local climate change adaptation activities, reduced preferences for imported food, increased local food production, changes in community and cultural activities, and revival of customary knowledge;
  • Integration of COVID-19, climate change adaptation, and disaster planning into a fully harmonized national framework for resilience, including scenario development of population changes associated with COVID-19 relocations in the long term.  

It is too early to know if increasing rural populations in Tuvalu will result in a net increase or decrease in vulnerability. However, a holistic knowledge of, and planning for, changes in Tuvalu’s rural populations is likely to be important for a climate and COVID-19 resilient future.

* Voluntary relocation number derived from interview with national government statistician in Tuvalu in April 2020.  

Taukiei Kitara (Lead author),
Taukiei is currently the President for the Tuvalu Community in Brisbane, Australia. Currently studying at the Griffith University for his Masters in Global Development.  In Tuvalu he worked in the NGO sector at the Tuvalu Association of Non-governmental Organisation (TANGO). He was a co-founder of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN) and selected to its secretariat and has represented Tuvalu civil society at several international climate change Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COPs). His mission is to help his country (Tuvalu) in any way possible in their fight against climate change and other challenges, now involving raising awareness and advocating for the people of Tuvalu here in Australia and beyond. 

Carol Farbotko (Corresponding author),
Carol Farbotko is a human geographer with research interests in culture, environmental change, mobility, and power. She is an adjunct fellow in geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast and a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University. Her work on cultural politics of mobility and climate change has been published in journals such as Global Environmental Change, Social and Cultural Geography, and Nature Climate Change.  

Maina Talia
Maina Talia is from Tuvalu and is currently undertaking Doctoral Studies at Charles Sturt University. His research is focused on the issue of “tuakoi (neighbour) and climate change from three trajectories, indigenous wisdom, biblical and geopolitics.” Mr Talia was the Tuvalu Association of NGOs Director in 2018 and has served as the Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN) secretary since 2011. Mr. Talia has attended numerous international meetings, including United Nations meetings in New York (Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) and Geneva (Human Rights Councils) due to his special interest on “Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change.” While in Bonn (COP23), he was appointed as the Co-Chair of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus under the UNFCCC Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. 

Samid Suliman
Samid Suliman is Lecturer in Migration and Security and Honours Program Director in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University. He is also a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, and has recently been a Visiting Researcher in the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. Dr Suliman is an interdisciplinary early-career researcher interested in migration, security, postcolonial political theory, international relations, regional and world politics, global development, climate change, and the politics of knowledge. Dr Suliman was awarded the Australian Political Studies Association’s 2015 Thesis Prize for his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Migration, Development and Kinetic Politics’ (this is currently being revised for publication as a monograph). His work has recently appeared in Review of International Studies, Globalizations, Energy Research and Social Science, and Mobilities.

Chris Evans
Born in London, Chris took his first degree in Geography and Economics at the London School of Economics in 1959, and later an MA at Southampton University in 1985. Most of his working life has been devoted to High School teaching, University tutoring, and private research. He has lived and worked for several years each in New Zealand, East Africa and Tuvalu, and various parts of UK, before settling in Australia in 2001. He became an Australian citizen in 2011, and is currently a full-time PhD candidate at the University of the Sunshine Coast, researching migration patterns in and from Tuvalu.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Iakapo Molotii, Sikale Sikale, Lee Faiva Moresi, Tapugao Falefou and Niuatui Iakopo 

This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.