Leaving no one behind during COVID19

Frances Tawake

The panic rose in my chest as I left work after the announcement of the first COVID-19 case that hit Fiji on 19 March, 2020.

The hustle and bustle of the small town nearby my house greeted me as I approached the Supermarket. People were rushing from shelves to shelves trying to load necessities into their trolleys and hardly a single utterance heard. Then 5 minutes later I found myself moving with the crowd that was trying to get in.

After cashing my items I took a sneak view of the line of people behind me. In the crowds stood a woman with her child clinging onto her long velvet dress. In her right arm, I saw 2 kg of rice, a packet of baby’s milk and a tin fish on the other crook of her left arm. This pierced my heart. It was clear she could only afford to pay for a one day ration of meals.

It has been over a month since Fiji has had its first case of COVID19. The people of Fiji were advised to stay safe by washing their hands regularly with hand sanitizer or soap and water. The nation was advised to avoid large crowds and most families stocked up their foods to keep going during the lockdown.

But there’s a key problem with that advice: The low-income families can’t afford to follow it. If you have almost no money, how will you even buy in bulk to get you through the long weeks ahead? It is a privilege to access hand sanitizer which you will need money to buy, let alone having access to water to wash your hands.

Social distancing is also a problem since most of the unfortunate families in Fiji live with extended families. These are the people who are more likely to be exposed to the virus and suffer economically. The only people who get through the lockdown okay, are the ones who could afford it. Unfortunately the majority of the Fijians living in the lockdown areas bear the brunt of the economic shutdown.

A week later when the nation was still mainly closed down, I went down to Suva to buy vegetables for my two-year-old daughter. The town was quiet and terrifying and there were fewer people around. It was cold and drizzling and the mist made the city blurred like an old painting. It was comforting to see that the Suva market was still open but it also looked strange. I have never seen such a long lane of vacant taxis parked on the opposite side of the road. No work for them too. As I rushed to the market from the sidewalk, I felt as if I was walking on stage, being watched from a distance.

In the corner of my eyes I saw an old woman sitting on the cold pavement selling her packets of Ivi (Tahitian nut). From the depth of my heart I connected to her. I thought about my mum’s struggle many years ago trying to put food on the table. The woman looked pale and I wondered when was the last time she ate and enjoyed a meal with her loved ones.

I sat down beside her handing over the $10 note that I was planning to use to buy carrots and cabbage. She had lots of stories to share as a widow, both sad and funny. I stayed with her for almost an hour sharing stories of joys and obstacles in life.

Women all have dreams and plans, and achieve some, but life has been unfair and unpredictable to so many of us. Yet I still found she spoke of using fallen pieces to create positive change, all the unspoken ways that we survive as grassroots women.

Before we left each other I shared with her about Coronavirus and how she could best protect herself. I like to work with other women, turning small unplanned encounters with each other into something more.

Often, the most vulnerable and marginalized communities are left behind and are forgotten. Single mothers, women living with disabilities, LGBT, senior citizens and people living in poverty experience stigma and discrimination, every day, and while seeking services.

Women in Fiji are more likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty since most of them work in the informal sector and lack access to paid sick leave and other employment benefits. Women also do most of the unpaid care work, for all of us.

As time unfolds, measures to address the socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus must always consider the particular vulnerabilities of the different communities, and especially women. They must all be inclusive of women in all their intersectionality, find out their needs, and ensure that no one is left behind.