Virus running amok – In a horrendous situation and how to get out

Nadakuni villagers wait inside the tent at the Sawani containment boarder. Picture: VILIAME RAVAI

Although the extremely contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 came via the border at Nadi International Airport carried by one of two travellers who came from India where this strain of the virus was at its devastating peak, it is running amok in the Capital City, Suva.

Virtually all suburbs are affected in the Suva-Nausori-Lami area with some obviously more seriously than others, and there is a trend of the disease spreading to other parts of Viti Levu. It may have reached Vanua Levu.

In this article, I will first identify those responsible for this debacle, then categorise the victims of the pandemic followed by suggestions for getting out of the disaster we are now in.

Those responsible

It is evident that while nearly all our frontline workers have adhered to guidelines and protocols to ensure their safety as well as the safety of those they serve, there was and is always a risk of being infected by the virus.

Unfortunately, laxity and indiscipline initially by one or two frontline persons appears to have resulted in the spread of the virus in the West.

Unlike in March, 2020 the authorities responsible failed to take adequate preventive containment measures, and the virus was carried to Suva by persons who attended a funeral in Tavakubu, Lautoka, and one or two military personnel.

While initial actions of the Ministry of Health led by Dr James Fong’s team proved effective in confining the epidemic in certain locations, further indiscipline by about 100 navy officers who attended a funeral in Nausori in groups of 20 significantly increased infections.

The Prime Minister and Minister for Economy’s decision to allow a good number of businesses and factories to open further escalated the number of infections.

Surprisingly, frontline workers including CWMH staff members, police and military personnel who were expected to be most mindful of protocols and to be furnished with PPEs were among the increasing number of infected people.

Despite so many appeals to the government to impose more stringent measures and lockdown the country by all opposition political parties, civil society organisations and the Nadi Chamber of Commerce, it has continued to prioritise opening the economy. Not surprisingly, the horrendous increase in viral infections and related deaths is the result.

Substantial responsibility also lies among citizens who have ignored the many public health announcements that clearly provide guidelines to prevent infections from spreading.

Besides disregarding social distancing and mask wearing, it has been astonishing to read about so many individuals being arrested at “drinking parties” where kava and alcohol were consumed. Social gatherings such as birthday parties and funerals have also contributed to rocketing numbers.

Some of our people habitually spit just about everywhere, this must stop.

Another significant but less direct contributor to the spread of the virus has been the influence of anti-vaxxers who have used social media to share fake news and conspiracy theories and generate fear and distrust among people who rely on social media for information and news.

The victims

From the Ministry of Health and media reports of localities of interest with high numbers of infected persons, and information on those who have died, their age and sex, it is possible to make some tentative observations on who are the main victims of this second wave of viral infections.

The many of infections appear to have occurred in crowded low-income housing locations, urban and peri-urban villages, and informal settlements.

The people living in these localities desperately need to work, and many are frontline workers (for instance as employees of supermarkets) who use public transport. Some live in homes without separate bedrooms making social distancing and self-isolation near impossible.

In these areas, there have also been a good number of breaches of the restrictions associated with preventing the virus as mentioned earlier.

Unfortunately, besides the socio-economic or class dimension, there is an ethnic and age dimension relating to infected persons and deaths.

The majority of those infected and who have died are indigenous Fijians (Taukei), and a large proportion of deaths are among older persons between 60-90 years.

iTaukei not only form the majority population of Suva-Nausori-Lami area but also inhabit in greater numbers some of the places of the highest cases of infections.

For elderly positive cases and deaths, questions need to be asked whether their younger relatives and neighbours paid adequate attention to their vulnerability and adhered to social distancing protocols.

Although civil society organisations and especially the CSO Alliance for COVID Humanitarian Response together with groups of individuals (like Allen Lockington and Rajnesh Lingam), and several businesses have been providing assistance to those in need, they are being overwhelmed.

As elsewhere in the world (Brazil, India, and US) our health infrastructure is on the verge of collapsing.

There are numerous issues about whether there are sufficient number of doctors and nurses, beds and bedding materials, medical equipment, drugs, and even food. Medical personnel like other frontline workers are likely to be working long hours and fatigued.

The Suva CWMH mortuary is full to capacity. Will we soon be having to use refrigerated trucks to store the bodies of those who die?

Getting out of this national crisis

It is apparent that government is relying on the AstraZeneca vaccination as its primary mode of preventing and controlling COVID-19. The roll out of the vaccination by the Ministry of Health supported by the military is efficient and impressive.

However, the opening of the economy is also being pursued in the midst of escalating numbers of infected persons, and increasing numbers of deaths.

To address the present national crisis, which is more serious than any category five cyclone we have experienced, requires a clear plan of action, which should include the following:

1. An immediate two-week lockdown with possible extensions on a week-by-week basis. The foolish idea of opening gyms, restaurants, food halls and barber shops must be stopped. The advice of Ministry of Health team should be listened to, and not bent to suit business or economic interests;

2. Our doctors and nurses and ancillary health workers have to be equipped with full protective gear –masks, gloves and face shields and above all PPEs. If we do not have supplies and cannot afford to purchase the quantities we need, its time to swallow our pride and ask for aid from our donors. They stand willing to help;

3. It is vital that all other frontline workers – all those who are required to work in essential services – are fully informed about how infectious the virus is, and their responsibility to exercise all precautions and discipline. All such workers must be protected by masks gloves and face shields;

4. Government must take up the offer of opposition party leaders and civil society organisations including faith-based organisations to work together to deal with the pandemic. This is no time to continue the blame game. We have a national emergency and we need an urgent national effort with all hands on deck. This combined effort is likely to surely be more effective in dealing with the spreading virus and its impacts;

5. Direct public health communication, particularly in the vernacular, is absolutely critical. Here too, we need all stakeholders playing a role in messaging – not through jingo advertising, but serious messaging that we will see more people die if we do not pay attention, and all do our part to end this nightmare;

6. As for cyclone relief, a national emergency fund should be set up to provide humanitarian assistance to the people who are most affected by the pandemic, as well as to support health services; and

7. Government Ministers and senior public servants should be the first to contribute to this fund by agreeing to a pay cut of 20 per cent for six months as did Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet members and CEOs in April, 2020 in solidarity with those who had lost their livelihoods.

It has been pointed out that the spiralling increase of the COVID-19 Delta variant is akin to a severe Category 5 tropical cyclone in terms of its impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods, and that it is incumbent on government to take an all of government, and all of society approach.

Together we can combat the biggest challenge that the country has faced in a hundred years.

The fact that our bilateral partners, particularly Australia and New Zealand, and our multilateral partners including WHO and other UN agencies together with our relatives and friends in the Fiji diaspora are reaching out with helping hands should give us the confidence and the extra-resources to overcome this scourge.

  • VIJAY NAIDU is Professor of Development Studies at the University of the South Pacific. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of USP or of The Fiji Times.

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