Contemporary Peace Research and Practice By Paulo Baleinakorodawa and Upolu Lumā Vaai  |  27 July, 2021

Fiji COVID Poverty Crisis

Image: RNZ (Radio New Zealand)

After almost a year of being community COVID-free, Fiji Islands, one of the popular tourist destinations in the Pacific, is currently experiencing an exponential increase in active cases since the Delta variant second wave of the Corona virus landed on her shores in April 2021. The outbreak has recorded, to date, a total of 22,443 active cases and 177 deaths over the past three months. According to the Fiji Ministry of Health Epidemic Outlook on 22 July 2021, the 7-day average in Fiji is 934 new cases per day or 1,056 cases per million of the population per day. This is one of the highest in the world today, exceeding current records in India and the United States. The virus is currently spreading exponentially along the epicentre of the outbreak – the Lami-Suva-Nausori corridor.

The Fiji government has refused to move to a national lockdown, despite multiple calls from the public, including parliamentarians and the business community, in order to control the spread of the virus and to re-boost the economy.

In recent weeks, the Colonial War Memorial Hospital, the major hospital in Fiji, and the smaller hospitals and health centres in the Lami-Suva-Nausori corridor, have been overwhelmed by an unprecedented influx of patients. Health care workers are exhausted. Not surprisingly, the national health system is rapidly collapsing as it struggles to cope with the overwhelming realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 7 June 2021, the Colonial War Memorial Hospital was declared a full-time COVID-care facility. Thankfully, with the assistance of the Government of Australia, a field hospital was set up at the Vodafone Arena, a national sports facility in Suva, which has since become the de facto emergency department and triage centre.

The rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been slow but effective, thanks to the assistance of the international community. However, it has also been met with stark opposition from some religious groups who have succumbed to conspiracy theories, condemning the vaccine as the ‘mark of the beast’ and a ‘sign of the end times’, referencing Revelations 13. In Fiji, the voice of the Lotu (Christian Church) is influential in daily affairs, in particular those of the grassroots communities. In Fiji, spirituality cannot be separated from the discussion of issues that affect the society. However, it has also proven that sometimes such an influential voice has the potential to mislead and put people at risk, if it is not carefully assessed and rigorously managed. The Pacific Conference of Churches, the Pacific Theological College, and the Fiji Council of Churches have stepped up to counter these fundamentalist conspiracies. They are advocating for the importance of vaccination as part of citizens’ faith and the spiritual responsibility towards their ‘neighbours’, by putting a stop to the chain of transmission and victimization.  While encouraging vaccination, they're also carefully considering and are aware of the importance of the rights of individuals when it comes to vaccination.

While the COVID-19 numbers are soaring, the Fijian Governments response has been mostly reactive, enlisting support from foreign aid, expertise and vaccination. Assistance has been provided from Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, United Kingdom and the United States amongst other countries. While outside support is needed and appreciated, it is equally important to look inward to understand the problems ordinary Fijians face on the ground, and to provide proactive solutions that speak to their experiences.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected Fiji beyond public health, in profound direct and indirect ways. The effects coalesce primarily around social, economic and political issues presenting individuals, organisations, and communities with livelihood, work, education, cultural and church obligation challenges. With international border closures, supply chains are disrupted and food insecurity has increased. Fiji’s major income earner, the tourism industry and other major and small non-essential businesses have closed. This has resulted in a huge population of unemployed workers pushing them in to poverty. Fijian households, especially those living in the growing poor squatter settlements in the greater Suva area, face significant uncertainties.

With the current high rate of unemployment, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many households struggle with access to food and drinking water. A rapid assessment was conducted by Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Parish two months ago to determine the severity of community needs. Approximately  95 percent of the 200 families assessed confirmed their needs were COVID-19 related. Many have lost employment and are now in extreme poverty. The Fiji Government, private sector, NGOs, churches and community-based organisations, have reached out to assist families struggling with food and other humanitarian needs. However, in the long term, it is uncertain whether this assistance will continue. Many people have resorted to farming on any available land. For example, public rental board tenants in the Nadera housing estate have forcefully established farms on unused government land nearby. Rural farmers from non-containment areas are forced to sell their produce in unfavourable roadside conditions at the borders, as they can no longer sell their produce in the main markets in containment areas. Mothers in some locked down communities have staged roadside protests demanding food from government and the lifting of restrictions to allow family members to return to any type of work they can attain. Given COVID-19’s direct impact on livelihoods, food security is currently a major issue in many affected families.

Additionally, the pandemic has brought about other socio-economic challenges. In a culture where communal living is practiced, observing safety protocols, for instance the wearing of masks, and restrictions to movement, presents an ongoing struggle. This added stress and associated psycho-social impacts are affecting the security of local communities. For example, there are reports of elevated community conflicts, domestic violence and  divorce. Recurring incidents of individuals violating COVID protocols are further endangering the health and lives of Fijians.

Densely populated squatter settlements, such as Qauia in Lami, are among the virus hotspots. Living conditions in these settlements typically involve crowded households, little space between houses, and limited sanitation and hygiene facilities These conditions, which make it difficult for people to self-isolate when infected, are ideal for the virus to thrive. These realities ‘on the ground’ explain some of the major challenges faced by Fijian people during this COVID-19 pandemic and are where Fijian people most need assistance. While the race to vaccinate the population progresses, there is an immediate and urgent need to help those in extreme poverty attain access to life supporting resources. We urge those who would like to directly support these communities to donate to Transcend Oceania which will distribute funds to organisations directly delivering aid to those most in need:

Transcend Oceania, 8 Des Vouex Road, Suva

Bank:    Home Finance Company, HFC Bank, Fiji
            HFC Centre 371 Victoria Pde, Suva, Fiji Islands
            Account 100086468
            Swift Code/Bank Identification Code HFCLFJFJ
            IBAN: BSB:129010 

Reference: Covid Aid       

Registration: TRANSCEND OCEANIA is a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation, registered under the Fiji Charitable Trust Act. Registration number - 1000

Paulo Baleinakorodawa is the Director Programs at Transcend Oceania, a Peacebuilding and Development regional organisation based in Fiji

Upolu Lumā Vaai is the Principal of the Pacific Theological College in Suva Fiji, a regional ecumenical institution of the Pacific Churches.