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Former deputy Bob Loughman elected prime minister of Vanuatu

April 20 (UPI) -- Veteran Vanuatu lawmaker Bob Loughman became the country's prime minister Monday, beating out another Parliament member who was backed by the former head of state.

Loughman, who defeated Ralph Regenvanu in a vote of 31-21 in Parliament, has a daunting task ahead of rebuilding the country's economy after its northern islands were ravaged by Cyclone Harold earlier this month while under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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While there are no cases of COVID-19 in Vanuatu, a nation of about 80 islands in the South Pacific, there is a fear that it could wreck its healthcare system if it does show up.

"We see coronavirus threatening the whole world," said Loughman, who's served in Parliament since 2004. "I say thank you to the outgoing Prime Minister [Charlot Salwai] and all his ministers for all the efforts they put in place to make sure this virus hasn't caught up to us today. While we were focused on COVID-19, we could never have known Cyclone Harold would add to the burden."

Loughman also formerly served as Vanuatu's deputy prime minister under Salwai, education minister and tourism minister.

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Social distancing measures were relaxed ahead of the storm so people could evacuate into shelters. Many are still there. The cyclone damaged about 70 percent of the homes in Luganville, Vanuatu's second-largest city.

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