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Pacific communities doing it tough in Australia’s lockdown capital

Pacific Island vaccination
Victoria’s Pacific Island community wait patiently for their first shot in the Melbourne suburb of Coolaroo. Picture: Rita Seumanutafa.

Coronavirus has been as foreign to the Pacific islands as palm trees are to most Victorians.

But for the Pacific diaspora that have emigrated or later grew up in Australia’s most southern mainland state, the pandemic has become very real.

Victoria has been at the heart of the number of Australian cases after more than 60,000 people contracted Covid-19 and more than 950 of the nation’s 1500 deaths occurred in the state.

Samoa has had three entire cases, Cook Islands one, Tonga none, Kiribati none, Niue none, Tokelau none, Tuvalu none.

All the sick have survived the virus in the Polynesian nations.

Fiji has been the exception in the Pacific, counting around 52,000 cases for a death toll that has exceeded 650.

The 35,000-strong Pacific community in Melbourne have been doing it tougher than most amid the state’s current 20,000 high Covid cases following reports from the Pacific community advisor to the Victorian health department.

“There is concern dealing with a growing number of cases within our Pacific Island community,” Rita Seumanutafa said.

“But in terms of experiencing it, we’re having whole families become infected.

“I am not sure if it’s been a culture shock…because a lot of things we do, we do together.

“So, in this case, we’ve been infected together.”

Living inside the state’s capital of more than five million residents has seen the tightknit group of expatriates and descendants spreading the virus to one another after people fell ill, tested positive and it entered other households.

Despite being safeguarded in the most lockdown city in the world, surpassing the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires just recently, anecdotal evidence collected suggested that communities have not been compliant of lockdown rules.

“That’s something that we always knew was a big risk,” Ms Seumanutafa said.

“We always knew at the beginning of lockdown for no one to come home with the virus because that would mean grandma, grandpa, aunties, uncles could get it.

“It’s not just one family (living) in the house but it could be two or even three families under the same roof – and now it’s actually happening.”

The positive Covid cases were not fully vaccinated after some in the communities were lulled into a false sense of security of thinking that one shot of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer was enough.

The most susceptible in the Pacific community, who had pre-existing medical conditions, have been taken to the hospital, even moving into intensive care units soon after their arrival.

It has isolated the very spirit of what Pacific cultures are all about.

“It’s hard to explain what our feelings are other than that we’re trying to be positive, trying to get better, but also then very fearful because not only are the numbers going up,” she said, “but on the news the hospitals are overwhelmed, so we feel like that it could be us, we could miss out or get turned away and have to suffer at home.”

But a social media drive that started seven weeks ago for greater Pacific vaccination rates while in a cultural safe space had more than 1600 bookings.

The aim is to vaccinate at least 3000 over three months to reduce hospitalisation admissions.

The next step is to address active Covid cases in regional Victorian cities Ballarat, Bendigo and Shepparton where Pacific populations gather.

A Pasifika vaccination day has already been organised around a sizeable cluster that has hit Ballarat.

“I am always about working as if we’re in a village because we are not in our homeland,” she said.

“We are a mixture of different Pacific cultures here, so when it comes to a crisis how do we work together?

“We already know how villages work in the homeland and we have to replicate that here.

“We have to make sure that our elders are across what needs to be done.”

Some seasonal workers in fruit-picking Shepparton have been Covid-affected, with reports to Ms Seumanutafa suggest that many emigrant workers fear taking time off over losing their farm jobs.

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