Fiji and Covid-19: update March 2021
Last July, my briefing here on Fiji and the Covid-19 pandemic aroused interest and concern. Eight months later, many of you will want to know what the virus is up to now in these beautiful islands.
Fiji's first Covid-19 case was reported on 10th March 2020. After observing the virus rip through the rest of the world for two months, the Fiji government took swift action, banning international flights and gatherings of people, closing schools, imposing quarantine, a national curfew and a lockdown on the major towns of Suva and Lautoka.
A year later, these restrictions seem to have worked. Fiji's total number of Covid-19 cases is 66, all on the two biggest islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Only two sufferers have died. Since last July, all new cases have been citizens returning from overseas, diagnosed during their compulsory 14-day quarantine period. The quarantine accommodation is secured by Fiji's military forces.
Many restrictions have now been relaxed although, inexplicably, the national curfew is still in force. Just last week on 7th March, Fiji received its first batch of 12,000 doses of Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine under the COVAX scheme.
Impacts on people's lives
Despite causing only two deaths, the virus has hurt the people of Fiji more than the three cyclones that hit the island nation during the last year. All economic indicators have crashed, including government and private incomes, employment and exports. As Fiji is heavily dependent on tourism, we can readily understand the hardship caused by job losses when holiday resorts close, but hundreds of Fiji businesses supply the resorts with food, uniforms, curtains, handicrafts, toiletries and furniture. Closed resorts don't need any of these things.
I hear you ask, "What's the problem with exports?" Well, even when ships and planes are allowed to enter ports, the port state's Covid-19 quarantine requirements can make the imports of perishable goods impossible. Fiji exporters of bananas, papayas vegetables, flowers and herbs can still grow their products, cyclones permitting, but they can't export them for this reason. Listen to Sashi, the manager of a herb farm, pleading for the New Zealand government to enable her to supply her customers there.
Like Sashi, all Fijians want to help themselves, but the restrictions imposed to prevent the virus spreading often make it impossible. The enterprising Facebook group, Barter for a Better Fiji (BFBF), enables people to swap their skills and possessions for necessities they can no longer afford to buy.
A scan of BFBF's page today shows that people mostly ask for food. Here is an example. Such resourcefulness is admirable, but unless people's incomes begin to recover, many will soon run out of possessions to barter.
Bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) have praised Fiji's successful management of the Covid-19 emergency. The WHO supplied an epidemiologist to work with Fiji's Health authorities and quantities of testing kits, masks and other protective equipment. The World Bank has granted funds and Japan has provided a $200 million loan to strengthen health services. New Zealand provided $1.5 million dollars in cash to be directed to Fijian businesses.
It's no surprise that Australia, as Fiji's biggest neighbour, has given $15.4 million as a grant to Fiji. Australia has also committed $500 million in the next three years to ensure that Pacific island countries including Fiji will be able to achieve full vaccination coverage.
In January this year, Australia indicated that if 80% of Fiji's population are vaccinated, chances of a 'travel bubble' are high between the two nations. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the Australian government is being excessively cautious. The logistics involved mean that vaccinating 80% of the population won't happen within a few months. Yet it is critical to Fiji's recovery that tourist resorts open as soon as possible. Why not permit vaccinated tourists to holiday in resorts staffed by vaccinated workers?
However it happens, when that bubble inflates to include Australia and Fiji, I'll be on the first Fiji Airways plane to Suva!
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