NSW mistakes are lessons for Fiji

Medical workers administer tests at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in the wake of new positive cases in Sydney, Australia, June 17, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

With the Bainimarama Government obstinately refusing to lockdown, Fiji is  now suffering the worst medical, social  and economic crisis since the measles epidemic of 1875 which led to the deaths of a third of  Fiji’s population.

Today’s COVID-19 crisis has led to thousands of seriously ill people and more than 100 (so far) dying. This is all totally unnecessary, had the rulers of Fiji listened to the best medical  advice not just in Fiji, but also our nearest de- veloped neighbours in Australia and New Zealand.

Past year, when there had been only one CO- VID-19 case in Fiji, The Fiji Times published  (FT, March 21, 2020) my article “Australia’s mistakes are lessons for Fiji”.

In that article, I had pointed out how dilly- dallying by the federal Australian government had endangered the Australian population, in contrast to the firm approach taken by the NZ Government.

Australia for the last year has been saved by mostly State government Premiers following  the advice of the expert epidemiologists, rather than a federal Prime Minister and his Treasurer whose sole concerns were to save the  livelihoods of Australians and not their lives.

The federal Australian Government not only failed last year to secure vaccine supplies for Australia when it had the opportunity, but  have also failed to build a dedicated quarantine facility to safely house international  travellers, including the thousands of Australian citizens trapped abroad.  But Australia has the good fortune that after its initial gross failures in its aged care  system (a federal responsibility) its health system has now geared up to care for those who fall ill and the number of deaths have been limited, though still high compared with NZ.

Fiji’s tragedy is that its perpetually un- derfunded Fiji heath system and health staff members are totally unable to cope with the COVID-19 crisis and deaths have soared to over a hundred and still climbing.  In Australia, the federal and state governments have stepped up to provide budgetary  support for some (not all) those whose livelihoods have been adversely affected.  In contrast the Bainimarama government  has vigorously looked after corporate interests, poured hundreds of millions down the  open throat of a grounded Fiji Airways and  bankrupt FSC, and begged donors (Australia and NZ) and NGOs to see to the welfare of  those badly affected.

While NZ PM Jacinta Arden politely said it was up to individual governments to decide on whether to lockdown or not, she could easily have said beggars should help themselves first, before holding their hands out.  Sadly, there is no sign that the Fiji Government is going to lockdown as responsible citizens are calling for — or even rein in its expenditure, casually passing on today’s burdens to  future generations. Let me start with the 1875 measles epidemic when the British Government similarly also tried to pass the buck, as Fiji authorities are doing today.

The 1875 measles epidemic The measles epidemic came to Fiji after the most powerful Fijian then, Ratu Cakobau, was persuaded by the British authorities to visit the Governor of NSW. Unfortunately, he and his entourage caught the measles there, and brought it back to Fiji without full recovery, thereby passing it on to the general population. The indigenous Fijians applied traditional medicines and methods in total futility.

They  died in their tens of thousands — a third of Fi- ji’s population and an international historical  disaster by any standards. The British Government tried to shift the blame to the ship’s doctor and the captain for not quarantining the diseased passengers.  Similarly today, it seems that an international flight bringing back one of the most  powerful men in Fiji also brought back some- one who had the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19.  There were failures in quarantine and the delta variant of COVID-19 was then set loose into Fiji. Despite public calls from knowledgeable health experts for total lockdown (as had worked in New Zealand and elsewhere), the Bainimarama Government refused to do so, with the result we see today. Fiji, Australia and New Zealand  As an island nation extremely easy to quarantine from the world, Fiji can look at the experience of similar island neighbours such as  New Zealand and even the faltering giant Australia over this last year.

Students might want to go to this website  which gives up-to-date COVID-19 statistics internationally: https://www.worl- dometers.info/coronavirus/.  Australia looks good (and Australian politicians are quick to point it out) if one compares Australia with the even worse experiences of the UK, the US and Canada.

But not if you compare Australia to New Zealand which I do here, and with the sad case of Fiji. Graph 1 shows how horrific Fiji is (as of 22 July 2021) with 22,632 cases per million population compared to 1250 in Australia and the even lower 565 in NZ.  Graph 2 shows a similar degree of relativity in deaths per million with New  Zealand having only five deaths per mil- lion population. Australia has seven  times higher with 35 per million.

Fiji has a horrific 30 times higher with 162 deaths per million (and still rising). There can be little doubt that the Fiji Government has totally failed the Fiji  people in contrast to the state authori- ties in Australia and the great NZ government of PM Arden.

It is no surprise to me that many health professionals I have talked to in Melbourne in the last few months would love to emigrate to NZ. But Fiji people have no such luxury, even for temporary travel. The Pacifi c  Bubble has been pricked by the Fiji Government’s failure to keep COVID-19 out  of Fiji which they so easily could have. Why does my article title say that Fiji  should learn from NSW and not from Aus- tralia?  Why learn from the mistakes of NSW?

Making international comparisons be- tween different countries is fraught with  difficulty because of different health systems and a host of other factors such as  economy and society. But global epidemiologists are going to learn enormously by contrasting the paths of COVID-19 in different Australian states.

These states have followed quite differ- ent health protocols to control COVID-19,  all within the same national boundary of Australia – a real living experiment. For almost a year, some Liberal Party states (like NSW) and their politicians  have been sledging off at Labour-led Victoria for applying lockdown after lock-down to control the virus.

Most Victorians have been grateful to the Labour Premier of Victoria (Daniel Andrews) for firmly listening to his health  experts in mounting lockdowns despite vir- ulent attacks by the Liberal federal Gov- ernment and even a few liberal premiers,  like that of NSW, who all wanted Victoria to open up for economic reasons.

Sadly, after virtually eliminating new  cases for months, COVID-19 was reintroduced into Victoria by careless removalists  from NSW. Victoria is now again in a two  week lockdown. So also are South Australia and Western Australia.

But in NSW, COVID-19 is raging out of control, with the Liberal NSW Premier (Gladys Berejiklian) dilly-dallying for weeks trying to avoid a lockdown despite the health advice from epidemiologists.

The NSW Premier has finally given in and started to tighten the lockdown, after daily  cases rose to over 100 per day (and still ris- ing as I write).  Fiji should closely monitor what is happening in NSW and Victoria as these two  states have great lessons for Fiji. Will NSW and Victoria painfully bring COVID-19 under control over the next few  months or will COVID-19 rage out of control, as it has in Fiji?  All in Australia recognise that the only long term solution will be comprehensive national vaccination to over 90 per cent of  those aged 12 and over, probably not achievable until the end of next year.  What medical advice?

Fiji people should understand that to  counter this COVID-19 pandemic, the Gov- ernment should listen not just to any old  health expert, but to the experts – epidemi- ologists.  Epidemiologists are health and statistically-trained professional who study  outbreaks of diseases (such as fl u or SARS or Ebola or COVID-19).

They identify the causes, how the disease spreads, how it can be controlled and hopefully eliminated,  and how future outbreaks can be discour- aged (such as through vaccines).  All professional epidemiologists in Australia have consistently pointed to the  importance of “locking down” the popula- tion to stop them from moving around and  thereby spreading the virus. They have consistently said lives must be saved first before livelihoods can be saved. It has been a tragedy that in Fiji, the top  health professional fronting up to the media, while having many good messages ini- tially, unfortunately became ambivalent  about the efficacy of “lockdowns”. In replying to the clear advice from the NZ PM Ardern on the effi cacy of lockdowns,  Fong publicly worried about the willing- ness of the Fiji public to comply and whether there would be adequate resources made  available. But many wise public commentators have pointed out that Fiji’s rulers, often military commanders, have never had any difficulty enforcing national curfews to suit themselves. Nor have they had trouble making available billions in taxpayers’ funds for their political priorities. Some commentators have also pointed  out that Dr James Fong is not an epidemiologist, but a gynecologist. But surely  there is no excuse for the abject failure of  the Fiji media to ensure that the Fiji public gets the best advice from Australian and  New Zealand epidemiologists.

Fiji’s irresponsible media  During national crises such as the CO- VID-19 pandemic, the national media have  a sacred responsibility to ensure that the public is educated about the nature of the crisis, what the international experts are  advising, whether the national authorities are appropriately responding and  what the public ought to be doing to protect themselves and their families.

Schools of journalism (if they had any  initiative) would have already investigat- ed why three of the most important media  in Fiji (with the sole exclusion of The Fiji  Times), have utterly failed in their responsibility to educate the Fiji public about  the importance of lockdowns in tackling the COVID-19 crisis.  One print media and two television net- works have chosen to cravenly follow the  Government line rather than fulfil their broad responsibility to the public.

Given these days of Zoom, there is no reason why the two television stations in Fiji, could not transmitted consultations with reputable Australian or New Zealand  epidemiologists who would have no hesitation in giving free interviews, as they do  on a daily basis here in Australia (or New Zealand). Fiji does not have to rely on the advice of its national health expert, a gynecolo- gist and a civil servant who probably has  to toe the line set by his political masters (as virtually every Fiji civil servant does today).

The vaccination solution The pain of all the Australian states has  been sharpened because the federal Gov- ernment of Scott Morrison failed abjectly  to take up the international offers of vac- cines when they appeared early last year.

His airy comments last year (“we are not in a race to obtain vaccines”) have come back to haunt him, probably until the next election in 2022.

Australia is now at the bottom of the pile among the OECD countries in population vaccination rates, although there is an accelerated attempt to obtain more vaccine supplies. While China is able to build a 3000-bed COVID-19 facility in less than a month, the federal Australian Government has  failed for more than a year to build a dedi- cated quarantine facility which would not  have the weaknesses of hotel quarantine, as pointed out by the epidemiologists. But they apparently have little difficulty in spending billions on establishing military bases in Iraq or Afghanistan,  or in scandalously spending more than a  billion dollars without tender in imprisoning 100 asylum seekers on Nauru (cur- rently breaking news in Australia).

It is now recognised in Australia that in  addition to the periodic lockdowns to ensure that COVID-19 cases do not overpower the health system to breaking point,  the only long term solution will be to vaccinate the entire population (or at least 80  per cent of the over-12 population).

There are ongoing debates about the efficacy of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, the Pfi zer vaccine, the Sinovac and others.  But all experts say that some vaccine is better than none, especially as the world can expect more mutations of the virus making even current vaccines ineffective. What now for Fiji? Because of the failure of Fiji’s arrogant rulers to impose a national lockdown, the options for the people are now terribly limited.

The Fiji NGOs, unions and community  leaders can call for the people to them- selves impose a lockdown on themselves,  as many sensible families are doing al- ready.

But there is no alternative, but for the  health authorities to embark on a sys- tematic campaign to vaccinate the entire  nation. Fiji is lucky that there are many donors (Australia, NZ, China and India) who are  willing to give vaccines as aid and hope- fully there will be no shortages.

But to stop people travelling to centres to receive their jabs, mobile clinics need to go from town to town, suburb to suburb,  and village to village, until the whole na- tion is vaccinated.  By which time, almost certainly and  tragically, Fiji will have suffered thou- sands more infections and hundreds more  deaths.

The Bainimarama government can blame the COVID-19 crisis on the ordinary  population for “not following the Govern- ment’s rules”, as did the British Govern- ment in 1875. But our simple comparison  with New Zealand above shows clearly the  responsibility of Fiji’s rulers for the CO- VID-19 disaster its citizens face today.

The Bainimarama government threatens civil servants with a loss of their jobs  if they do not vaccinate.  But who in the Bainimarama govern- ment will ever lose his job, because of  the failure of Government to prevent the hundreds of unnecessary deaths and thousands of unnecessary COVID-19 cases unable to be cared for by Fiji’s faltering health system?

Time will tell, but don’t hold your breath.PROF WADAN NARSEY is an Adjunct Professor at James Cook University and a former Professor of Economics at the University of the South Pacific where he worked for more than 40 years.

The views  expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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