‘I’m always afraid’: Fiji reels as it moves from Covid haven to frontline

For most of the pandemic, when Fijians tuned in each night to updates from the country’s health experts, they were greeted with the same message: the nation had reported zero, or one or two cases that day.

While most countries around the world grappled with surging Covid cases and overwhelmed health systems, Fiji – a country of about 900,000 people in the south Pacific, about a four-hour flight from Australia – was largely spared a widespread outbreak. Like many countries in the Pacific, the impact of Covid on Fiji was chiefly economic, as tourism-dependent economies contracted, but there were few deaths.

By the end of March this year, the country had recorded just two deaths and 67 cases over the entire pandemic. But in April, as people tuned in to watch the government officials, there was a different story: daily case numbers began climbing. Lockdowns were ordered, curfews put in place, the vaccine rollout was sped up, but still the cases kept rising.

The country has seen daily records broken over and over. On Monday this week, there were 352 cases. On Sunday, there were 522 new cases and three Covid-19 deaths. The country currently has 5,178 active cases in isolation, and has recorded 33 deaths.

Registered nurse Sharon Zibran is up at 5.30am each day to prepare for work, rolling out the national vaccination campaign.

She works in the greater Nakasi area on Fiji’s mainland Viti Levu with 50 others, trying to vaccinate the almost 25,000 people who live there.

Zibran, 31, savours the weekend because it is the only time she gets to be with her two young children. But even then, she is cautious around them, mindful of what she does or where she goes. Sharon has received both doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the only vaccine option for Fijians at the moment. Just 9% of the target population has been fully vaccinated, with 54% receiving at least one dose.

“Initially I was afraid, especially being a frontline worker. There was that fear, but after receiving the vaccination and provided adequate personal protection equipment, I feel more confident to do my part to help our beautiful nation fight this pandemic and get back on its feet,” says Zibran, who hails from Fiji’s old capital, Levuka, on the island of Ovalau.

“The higher the vaccination rate, the better the protection to our entire families and country. There have been some resistance to the vaccination but once we explained this better to the people that visited us, it helped them overcome their fears.”

Jese Smith (not his real name), a registered nurse in the Central Division, is more fearful.

“I’m always afraid. Every day I walk out the door and go to work, I know the risk and the chances of being positive are high. It scares me to think that, if anything happens to me, I’d be leaving my child behind with his grandparents,” says Smith, who has received two doses of AstraZeneca.

He works 14 days straight away from home while attending to Covid cases then undergoes 14 days in isolation before he returns to his family.

“As a family, we have adapted to phone and video calls and the usual question always pops up: ‘Dad, when are you coming home, why can’t you stay a little longer, you are always going out.’ These questions always bring me to tears.

“The challenge every day is that I might go to work today and not be certain if I may go home the same day because at any time I can be a primary contact for a Covid-19 positive case and isolate for 14 days. It’s tough.”

It is during those tough times that he constantly reminds himself about this profession that he chose, the work he is passionate about.

“Even though we have Covid-19-positive patients, it hasn’t deterred our care as nurses or a team to make sure that we give our best to our patients … at the end of the day, nursing is a calling to serve mankind.”

Smith chose to share his experience on the condition of anonymity because he feared speaking to the media might cause him to lose his job, and he has seen the devastating economic impact brought on by Covid-19 nationwide.

The economic impact on Fiji has been severe.

Fiji’s tourism sector, which was valued at more than FJ$3bn (A$1.9bn) in 2019, was hit hard – 93% of 279 members of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association closed down because of a drastic decline in tourist arrivals.

The sector contributes 40% of Fiji’s gross domestic product and employs 40,000 Fijians directly, and 100,000 indirectly, according to the association.

Sereana Naituki, 44, was one of many hospitality workers made redundant because of hotel closures. She worked in hospitality at the Naviti Resort Fiji, on the Coral Coast.

Her husband has also lost his job. While it was a big blow for the family’s finances, Naituki says they decided to go back to the land and sea for provisions.

“When we worked at the hotel, we did not have time for these two resources – the land and sea – because we were earning an income from our work at the hotel. But this pandemic really taught us a lesson, and now we farm the land and fish for our sustenance,” she says.

“We have a home garden for our tomatoes, okra, eggplant and cabbage. Families in the village also trade the barter system way – root crops in exchange for a bundle of fish, or octopus, and sometimes even chicken.

“Our surplus we would sell at the roadside market. A dozen coconuts or heap of vegetables for FJ$5, a bundle of fresh fish for FJ$10-$25, octopus for FJ$20 and yaqona (kava root) for FJ$60-$80/kg.”

Naituki says the villagers have banded together as a community to assist one another and that one positive from the pandemic has been the change to spend more quality time with her husband and children.

Fiji has had to balance the health risks of Covid-19 with the economic impact of widespread lockdowns.

“Developing countries have never successfully implemented total lockdowns,” Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said last month. “It is easy to call for drastic measures like 28 days of straight lockdown for the whole of Viti Levu if you are still in a high-paying job or have a healthy savings account.

“It is easy to call for a lockdown if you do not depend on day-to-day wages or struggle to pay bills for a business that is closed.

“It is easy to call for a lockdown if you don’t work at a factory that might permanently leave Fiji if they must shut down completely for 28 days; the garment factories and call centres that cannot serve overseas clients will lose those contracts – and the jobs they support – forever.”

He said Fiji would get through this ordeal by an intelligent and targeted application of measures to contain the spread until enough people were vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Even amid growing concerns about blood clots, he is hoping the AstraZeneca vaccine will provide Fijians with 92% protection against hospitalisation.

“[W]e believe that if we follow some sensible guidelines designed to keep us from gathering indiscriminately in large groups, we can manage this virus while protecting our health, protecting Fijian jobs and businesses and safeguarding the long-term prospects of our young nation,” said Bainimarama.

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