In March last year, as the world began battling the biggest pandemic to hit in decades, Fiji moved swiftly to close its borders to prevent the virus spreading within the community.
All arrivals into the country were required to undergo a strict two week quarantine at centres in Nadi and Lautoka. For almost a year we managed to avoid its spread through early lockdowns and containments.
But with this success came laxity and complacency. It took only one soldier at a quarantine centre at a Nadi hotel to disregard proper protocols in April this year for the virus to spread and imperil the entire country.
I believe at this early point there was a laxity in the screening of frontline workers and security guards and the enforcement of proper protocols, which allowed the virus to spread.
How was an infected security personnel, for instance, allowed without being tested to travel to the central division to spend a week-end with his family?
But even then the health authorities moved quickly to enforce restrictions, dividing the Central Division into containment zones and strictly forbidding movement outside the zones. A couple of curfew-like lockdowns were also imposed. At this stage the virus was contained within known clusters.
People were told if you move, the virus moves with you. But suddenly, even as the number of cases began spiralling, the policy changed to opening up. We were told the economy must be opened up.
The three containment zones within the division were lifted a month ago, allowing freedom of movement in the Greater Suva area. Undoubtedly, this was due to pressure from the business community because the reason given was to allow businesses to open up and workers to travel to work.
This was a tragic mistake. Since then the numbers began creeping up until now we are registering 700 to 800 new cases a day. The latest death toll was 6 (Thursday 8 July), giving a total of 48 deaths since April.
The ferocity with which the virus spread appears to have caught the authorities completely unprepared. Our major hospitals and health centres became contaminated and had to be closed down, health workers were infected, makeshift field hospitals were set up to deal with the increasing number of cases, and isolation centres opened up in community halls, hotels etc to deal with the more severe cases.
It soon became obvious that our health facilities and resources were unable to cope. Infected people were told to isolate at home because government did not have resources to ‘hospitalise’ all infected cases.
This was another major mistake because it helped the virus to spread rapidly within homes and settlements. Those most severely affected were people in low income communities, mostly in informal settlements where families lived close together in an overcrowded environment.
Those in home isolation complained of being abandoned to fend for themselves without medication or access to medical advice. Critical cases were told to find their own way to the nearest health centres to get emergency treatment. Little wonder the death toll is mounting. Often people were turning up at these centres either already dead or too late to survive.
The Prime Minister refused to heed any advice on how to deal with the rapidly worsening crisis. Even those from our regional neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, which have rushed to Fiji’s aid with vaccines, medical personnel and resources as well as funding grants to deal with the crisis.
The PM is ignoring widespread calls for a hard lockdown to contain the spread of the virus and to allow health authorities to catch up. He says the economy cannot afford a lockdown. This despite the comment from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden that lockdown in her country saved lives and saved the economy as well.
It seems now the authorities have given up – the cases are spiralling beyond control. Fiji has neither the resources nor the manpower to deal with the burgeoning crisis.
Their only recourse now is to vaccinate as many people as possible with two shots of Astra Zeneca by November this year. So far less than 10 per cent of the population have received two doses of the vaccine.
It means hundreds of more lives may be at risk before we reach the target in November. Meanwhile, the Government’s only priority appears to be to open up businesses to revive a tattered economy.
The nation is heading for a calamity of unimaginable proportions. Yet government remains paranoid about reviving a failed economy, as if people’s lives don’t matter!
Mahendra Chaudhry is the leader of the Fiji Labour party and former Prime Minister of Fiji.
The Pacific Advocate has also invited Fiji Health Minister Dr. Ifereimi Waqainabete to submit an opinion piece