COVID-19: personal reflections from Fiji

Crowds gathered outside the Fiji National Provident Fund office in Lautoka after the Budget announcement, ignoring social distancing (Credit: Fiji Times)
Crowds gathered outside the Fiji National Provident Fund office in Lautoka after the Budget announcement, ignoring social distancing (Credit: Fiji Times)
Written by Sadhana Sen

Soon after the announcement of Fiji’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Thursday 19 March, Lautoka (the ‘Sugar City’), Fiji’s second-largest city and home to that first case, was placed under lockdown. The two main access roads into the city – from Nadi International Airport, and leading to Ba town on the other side – were now to be closed off, with checkpoints coming under the command of the Police Commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, a former military man.

Stringent measures announced by the Prime Minister included that all “nightclubs, gyms, cinemas, swimming pools, fitness centres and even recreational contact sporting engagements” would be closed effective immediately. This included the closure of non-essential businesses in the greater Lautoka area. To remain open were supermarkets, pharmacies, and other essential businesses.

But life in the city of Lautoka, on the day of the announcement and thereafter, has carried on almost as normal, according to relatives, friends, and photographs on social media. People went to work in filled buses, congregated on street corners to have hushed conversations on COVID-19, and shops, the market, grog places and Zumba classes carried on as per normal.

On the first day post-lockdown, entry into Lautoka for Fiji’s oldest newspaper, the Fiji Times was disallowed, leading to much outrage and anger expressed through social media postings. While the Fiji Times was left at the border, the Fiji Sun, widely perceived as part of the Fiji First Government propaganda machinery, was allowed through the checkpoints. Individual protests and appeals via social media, including by Australian journalist Jemima Garrett, fortunately saw the Fiji Times back in Lautoka homes on the third day of the lockdown.

The Lautoka lockdown means that many have been left to fend for themselves. A Suva resident myself, I cannot visit my elderly parents. Early panic buying occurred, and only select supplies are being allowed through the checkpoints. Fortunately, NGOs, citizens, and ratepayers’ groups have mobilised, to help the vulnerable and needy.

As further confirmations of positive cases were identified, announcements were made that Fiji’s two international airports in Nadi and Nausori were to cease flights in and out of Fiji. A flurry began in the development sector and diplomatic circles as friends said rushed goodbyes and hurried to get the last flights out.

Fiji is a cosmopolitan country. I’ve had to cancel my visit in April to Australia for my nephew’s wedding in Sydney, which has been postponed. Some 350 relatives from Fiji and the Fiji Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand, all of whom had been invited to the wedding, were left to deal with cancelling air tickets and hotel bookings.

On 20 March, all schools in Fiji were told to go on early school holidays. Social distancing and working from home were encouraged where possible. My children are now at home with me, enjoying extended Netflix viewing, and time in the garden, learning basic skills on communal food security.

But we are all worried. With no tourists coming to our shores, hotel prices have crashed. Unemployment and hardship are inevitable with the shutdown of Fiji’s number one foreign exchange earner – tourism.

All the while, the number of cases continues to rise. At the time of writing, Fiji has a total of five cases, including cases of community transition. (In fact, the fifth case was a Zumba partner of the first.) The entire nation’s attention is now on the count. We are all trying to make sense of dos and don’ts as mainstream and social media, and the coconut wireless, become saturated with COVID-19 prevention measures, analysis, and comparisons of curves. Frequency of announcements by the Prime Minister, the Health Minister and the government team are increasing. Some of the measures initially applied to Lautoka have now been put in place countrywide, although there is not yet a complete lockdown.

A FJD$1 billion COVID-19 stimulus supplementary budget was announced by the Fiji Government on 27 March. The budget includes measures to cushion the impact of unemployment, though the provision made for workers to access funds from their own superannuation accounts has been controversial. The budget projects a contraction in GDP growth of -4.3% and a fiscal deficit of 9% of GDP.

While the debate around the budget measures is legitimate, it was disheartening to see the military leaders of Fiji’s first coup and most recent coup – the now Opposition Leader and Prime Minister, respectively – tussling over who should be behind bars. Adding to the sense that the priorities of the political class were not in the right place, were the recent arrests of two prominent Fijians, both of whom were taken in for questioning on their posts on social media in relation to COVID-19.

At first glance, or as one browses through some of Fiji’s media, it seems that the Fijian government is ticking all the right boxes. But many, like me, think that Fiji needs to take its cue from New Zealand to strengthen its strategy to save lives. While some large supermarkets and shops outside of Lautoka have started limiting entry to 20 customers at a time, there is still a lot of crowding. At local markets, where the vast majority, especially the poor, shop for fresh vegetables, fruit and staple root crops, at bus stops, and on recently departed ships for Fiji’s outer islands, the importance of physical distancing measures have not sunk in.

What is needed is a bipartisan approach with clear policies and messages. Fiji needs its leaders to put differences aside. For self-care and community-care to be understood and to be effective in Fiji, a comprehensive, loud, bipartisan, united leadership is required.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series.

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Sadhana Sen

Sadhana Sen is an independent regional development and communications consultant, and freelance journalist. She also provides media support and outreach for Devpol researchers.

2 Comments

  • Hi Sadhana

    I find interesting your comment on political priorities; and I agree with your last statement on the call for bipartisanship.

    I wanted to vent a little about the attitude of some during this time.

    For those people who continue to defy the situational measures in place by our authorities, a reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is that they have not come to the full realization of the seriousness of this pandemic. This is surprising given all that is known, and unknown, about COVID-19. The known is primarily the loss of life and, for those who live on, the change in almost every aspect of life as they know it. But this is not the thinking for those who blatantly disregard health authorities’ advice for necessary isolation, do not practice physical distancing, break curfew and spread false information whether intending to create panic amongst the public or for whatever intentions; and attempt to use the situation to serve their political goals or at the very least take a shot at containment measures.

    Years prior, many experts predicted that no state would be ready for a pandemic; we only need to be responsible individuals to educate ourselves on the global experiences of COVID-19 to see that this is true. Fijians need to start with the obvious, the world’s ‘greatest’ are falling hard – the present participle is meant to capture the uncertainty of the far-reaching impact of COVID-19. So, people should be allowed to be upset and frustrated with any faults in our systems, that is human nature and the essence of democracy. Because if the ‘greatest’ are falling the hardest during this pandemic, then the weakest should spare no chance on half-measures.

    There is so much left to the unknown – the uncertainty of when a vaccine would be created or when we’d return to ‘normal’ life. Perhaps it could be the uncertainty of the extent of the worse yet to come, or not knowing the future impact on the world.

    Whatever view Fijians have on the situation, people cannot be excused or justified for being reckless when they, for example, fail to take precautionary measures to eliminate risk of exposure to the virus (especially when one is placed in a position to warrant such precaution), withhold information from medical authorities, disobey advice for self-isolation upon return from overseas, continue physical interaction like sharing grog (whether in isolation or not), disobey border protection measures in order to meet with a girlfriend, and so on. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 surpass one million, which is the population of Fiji and then some. There is no vaccine or particular treatment for COVID-19. Health systems from around the globe are struggling with their incapacity to treat victims and essentially to ‘flatten the curve’.

    So the first step of any problem is always to acknowledge and realize the extent of the same. Actual realization involves understanding the situation and paying attention to our health advisors and our authorities. And for those who are sceptical of our advisors, like many were at the beginning of the outbreak in the US, fact check the information that is shared with you, research or read reputable sources, make the choice to share factual and useful material – this is a shared responsibility. We need to be educated and informed on the facts not only of the situation here in Fiji, but of Fiji in the global context.

    And only by really understanding the situation do we become responsible in our thinking and hopefully this translates into our actions. And so despite being frustrated, if we’re reasonably informed, we are able to direct that energy to asking intelligible questions of our authorities, sharing factual and useful information and following containment measures that are put in place.

    My two pennies worth.

    Regards
    Lisa

  • Well presented for a holistic, health, social, technical, economic, political, sustainable Team Building Leadership & Humane solution.
    Because Coronavirus is still relatively unknown, Scientists with respective Governments are still trying to play “catch-up” from Testing, Treatments – Personal, Business, Hospitalization, Vaccine, Plasma or Peaceful death.
    We are reminded by Dr. Anthony Fauci (Whitehouse Corvus-19 Consultant. CNN daily news. March, April 2020) to be humble, report symptoms, practise social & Physical distancing & personal hygiene with regular hand washing with soap, stay home until the curve is flattened with updated advice & be kind to all.
    Scary but we need data, facts & modeling by the scientists to win this “infectious war”.
    It is our humanity that will sustain the human spirit to overcome “coronavirus war uncertainties”.
    Thank you.
    Mere.

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