Poor People’s experience of the COVID19 Pandemic in Fiji

By DIVA for Equality Management Collective and Staff, Viva Tatawaqa, Tima Tamoi, Vika Kalokalo, Frances Tawake, Penina Tusoya, Noelene Nabulivou

17 May 2021. Viti Levu, Fiji.

Since the COVID19 pandemic reached Fiji in March 2020 (as far as we know), the implication and challenges of this pandemic to individuals, households and society are in every part of society – health, education, water and sanitation, food sovereignty, and of course, decent work!. 

From most official figures, between 100, 000 to 150,000 people of a Fiji national total population of around 830,000 people (2017 census) are now under-employed with drastic cuts to work hours, or unemployed. The tourism and related service sectors have been devastated and the remaining motels and hotels that are staying open are holding on, but barely. Our borders are closed to international travel except for medical emergencies. 

Just as elsewhere, Fiji has not recovered from these economic blows overall to date, with a rise of debt load from 46.39% of GDP to an expected  83.4 % GDP by July 2021. Fiji faced the devastation of 3 direct hits from severe tropical cyclones in 2020 and early 2021, while a second wave of infections has hit Fiji again in April 2021. Four people have died, there are rising numbers of infections daily, and the Government is working to maintain calm in the national mood, and make progressive health decisions. 

We are in lockdown in Suva-Nausori, the mood is fearful but we are all hopeful that small size can be a factor that works for us, in finally overcoming this pandemic. Using the advantages of small and contained geographic area, high communal resilience processes already in place, decent infrastructure (ish) and multi sector, speedy, gender-just human-rights framed response (please!) – that is needed. Vaccine programmes are ongoing, in batches via COVAX and bilateral arrangements. 

DIVA continue to push (as do south people and Governments everywhere right now) for a People’s vaccine, quickly and in sufficient amounts, and for a World Trade Organisation Waiver on the Intellectual Property TRIPS regime. This is NOT the time for radical capitalism to make money on vaccines and therapeutics to save lives – Well, it’s never the time, actually. The Ministry of Health is highly communicative with daily Press Conferences and Statements with public health experts leading the briefings, the Government is careful on sticking to single-voice communications most times, and for now retains a certain level of public confidence, although the usual in-fighting and posturing continues. In times of stress like this, confidence is shaken by reports of Police brutality against street-present people, sex workers, curfew breakers and others, denied by them. This is not surprising to us in a society that is still too full of toxic masculinity and bravado by those in many areas of public service and is a major part of the reason for the cross-government, cross-sectoral National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls (2021-2025) and the long, hard, ongoing work by women’s human rights organisations in Fiji. 

Overall though in terms of COVID19 response, in Fiji there is calm and a willingness to work together to address this public health crisis. We are from a small island society, and know how to work quickly together in emergencies, but there are also already leakages and fissures showing in grassroots communities. We must watch and act quickly for each other, with genuine empathy and care in coming days, weeks and months.

Socio-economic conditions are where we are finding the most community pain and this will be the real test of national and global response. All of this occurs in a time when Fiji’s poverty reduction has stagnated over 3 years and latest poverty figures show that poverty reduction had stagnated in Fiji, even before the impact of COVID-19. The poverty rate in fact increased from 28.1% in 2013-2014 to 29.9% in 2019-2020.

The high numbers of households that have requested assistance from the government, of food packs and unconditional cash transfer of $90 offered during this second lockdown for people in Suva-Nausori corridor, and then throughout Viti Levu, and with the many requests coming from our own DIVA for Equality networks indicates the level of need faced by grassroots communities in urban poor and rural communities, especially in Viti Levu right now. Additionally, the need is not unknown in rural and maritime areas but proximity to home-grown options and fisheries, are a resilience strategy.

DIVA for Equality has worked VERY hard in 2020 and 2021 to play a role in addressing hunger in many poor communities. This mutual aid network focus has always been part of our focus, bringing together material and structural justice frameworks. We cannot talk about long term societal change, while bellies are rumbling. It is a matter of addressing immediate need, and being part of solidarious action. Last year for example, after the first lockdown, DIVA for Equality produced through the LoveMeals programme, around 26,000 school meals for children from impoverished households of many diversities. We provide targeted food aid, and rental assistance for those being evicted due to loss of income and businesses closing. We assist with SRHR and health commodities for at-risk and high need villages and informal settlements. We work directly with women and young people and the elderly, and helped to build many bathrooms, toilets, houses, outdoor kitchens and 3 bridges in the past 12 months. There is much need, and much more to do and we have limited resources. COVID19 makes it even harder. On we go. Hence these blogs, as we are aware of the knowledge we hold from community constituencies, and the importance to pass it on to public and national and global decision makers who are not always listening in the ways that community want, or who are responding in ways outrightly detrimental to the interests of the People.

Humans talk a bit game on development justice, but development systems brand, self-justify and pay themselves particularly well, living in bubbles of comfort while change work in communities is small, late, and left out of formal processes. We see it all the time. More local, committed, networked, well-resourced civil society work, is vital. Expatriate development workers, if you want to help then be gate-openers, not gate-keepers. And sometimes, just say no and propose a local.

We are getting more rural requests as family members who were supplementing and internally remitting funds from hospitality and other positions around Fiji to village based relatives, are now unable to play this role. They are returning home to rural villages, as they cannot sustain rents and food bills in urban areas. Those small amounts of cash remittance were invaluable for rural families for health, education and supplementary food, but these are now unavailable. This also translates into changes in conditions for families supporting children and young people at educational institutions in city centres on the main islands. It is not just the costs of school books and equipment (long lists of standard requirements), uniforms and such, but the transport between islands by inter-island jetties, and more. 

There are marked changes already to the food and water usage patterns of families in our networks. Many now plan only two meals a day. Others are cooking 1 small plain meal a day, usually for dinner – with just tea with sugar for energy at other meals, and quietly pushing children to turn up at the homes of relatives or neighbours during the day. But this can be fraught as neighbours and families are themselves often now without income themselves due to job loss, or have reduced income, etc.  

People often cannot understand the obsession about our local brown sugar supply running out in grassroots communities after cyclones and now in lockdown, but it causes stress, because sugar represents a small inexpensive comfort when food is difficult to find. It is also a boost of much-needed energy at the start of the day, for empty stomachs. Yes, people must cut sugar amounts for diabetes/NCD response, but a little bit of (regular) sugar (supply) is a fine thing in a time of very few pleasures for many people. Government and suppliers, please ensure sugar supply. It is always the first complaint.

While government and CSO support is important at this time, the supply and distribution of food is ad hoc and yet not enough for the national need. Government and CSOs would admit this, for DIVA for Equality we are aware of the massive unmet need in our own networks, much less wider. We are just not in a position to do more, and the types of needs for poverty alleviation go way beyond food aid, as they are about rent and eviction avoidance, paying basic utility bills, health crises (one-offs and chronic illness already more pronounced in poorer communities). 

Then there are the realities of super-high rates of gender based violence, with 2 of 3 women facing intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The economic cost to poor and disenfranchised women is devastating, and so too are the economic impacts of trying to leave the violence, the poverty that arises from starting over and alone, often estranged from families who do not think you should have left, or have brought shame on the kinship network. 

We need to push for much more gendered, transformative pro-poor socio-economic response packages immediately and from the next national budget, to recognise, reduce and redistribute the burden of pain on poorest Fiji communities right now, including especially women and girls and the elderly, disabled and marginalised, and be clear that one-off unconditional cash payments are useful, but not the full solution. 

The Central division was affected by the first outbreak but not really as bad as we are living through today. It was the Western side in trouble then (and now of course, with the lockdown of their largest hospital, more live cases, proximity to the international border). Families all over the country are struggling, AND learning new skills. 

Fijians are resilient people, as in all small-island states. Emergencies and development challenges are not new. However, Fiji people now have to learn how to prepare for lockdowns like never before, whether standing in spaced long lines in supermarkets in odd hours of the morning, sometimes in the rain or blazing sun, storing rations, working with others to buy certain items in bulk, then sharing, and more. There are fully packed public transport stations and long waits because of the limited number of people that can now be transported in public buses and minivans on a single trip with COVID19 spacing. Masks are a must-wear before leaving your homes and as everyone living in hot tropical countries can tell you, masks are not a friend of humid, hot, sweaty bodies. 

It is also a time of so many more decisions for poor people, today whether to spend $2 worth or eggplant for a meal or to buy a medical mask for yourself and the children. The mask generally wins because it is not just about protecting yourselves and those you love, but the fines for non-wearing are impossible, when trying to survive poverty conditions. There are heartbreaking stories of people balancing need with legalities, a student fined $200 because he was rushing to the shop to buy toilet paper after curfew, 3 women fined $300 for ‘loitering’ in Suva streets when they came from the West desperate to find jobs. (NGOs are paying their fines). 

While the whole main island in Fiji, Vitilevu prepares food rations for the lockdown period of 4 days, likely extendable later – many villages, communities and informal settlements face water cuts most days, and this is not about COVID19, but the realities of living in a small frontline island state with decades old water infrastructure ill-maintained and prone to frequent breakdowns despite many attempts by various Governments to fix them. Rural areas face water shortages and some major projects are working to address this. DIVA has also played our role in providing water tanks to villages in maritime and rural areas, repairing and building new bathrooms, giving funds for taps and showers, paying for new water connections to take people off expensive informal shared set-ups, and more. 

Meanwhile, Suva is notorious to locals for poor and uneven water infrastructure. The best suburbs seem to have the best, stable water as everywhere in the world, but the neighbourhoods with poor water, have it for DECADES. Households in informal settlements struggle for basic water access and lean-to toilets and bathrooms with little privacy are everywhere. We know intimately the decades of water problems, and we are working with many households to change these realities.

The groundbreaking Fiji Women Builders Peer Support Group, a wonderful group of trained young diverse women and gender non-binary builders are changing the face of the construction industry, with pro-poor, development justice focused building, renovation and just plain help for poor families needing infrastructure assistance but not able to pay much for the work. Email us if you want more information on their work, or to support their pro-poor work, after the lockdown break.

At the end of the last lockdown period of 4 days, in the following 2 days many Suva households were without water supply, the last thing needed after a full household and increased water needs. It is important that water supply is a high-level priority, because a water-stressed community, as well as a hungry one, is an angry one. As well as the long term issues of water in Fiji, we must pay added attention in this time of COVID19. 

This is also the time of the year ending the cyclone season, and there are observable changes in lengths of both wet and dry seasons, and rain patterns every year now. Fiji seems to have too much water and floods, or we experience major water shortage and water cuts. Women and children find it hard to access safe, clean and easily accessible drinking water for cooking, washing, bathing and many more. 

Water is a basic need for everyday living and a must for washing and sanitation, and it is one of the major development problems and justice issues for Fiji people. In rural areas it is not just about 3 hours in the morning and evening, and the disruptions that brings to families, and the SRHR and health concerns overall. For women and girls and LGBTQI+ people, it is about their roles as the main water carriers in rural villages and settlements, and the safety and security of getting to and from communal taps, as well as the damage to backs and bodies from the drudgery of water cartage.  There are the problems of being expected to be much more conscious of hand-washing and hygiene, when you have barely enough water for drinking and toilets. Often those in informal settlements pay extortionate amounts for shared water taps, with no real options if the expected amounts are too high. This is just the very smallest set of water and sanitation issues (to be covered in later blogs).

So what is needed right now? We are trying to respond positively where we can, and push political will and effective policy and process where we are able. It is our role to advocate strongly for pro-poor policy, and we continue, as do many other civil scoiety groups in Fiji. It is also our role to point out when the State apparatus is failing poor and disenfranchised people, and we take that role seriously. 

To be more accountable and make more visible the key actions taken to ensure better development outcomes, including on food and water for poor people in Fiji, requires at minimum the following:

*Policy and societal response to COVID19 must reflect the needs of the majority poor and disenfranchised people in urban, rural and maritime settings. Everyone needs access to clean, free, accessible water and food systems as basic human rights, and much more.

*Government must set up multiple formal and informal communication platforms that are freely accessible and affordable to the public, especially for those living below the poverty line, and especially poor women and girls and LGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, people in urban informal settlements, rural villages and maritime areas. Poor people must be able to complain, explain and to talk to Government and to be heard in empathic, informed and responsive ways. Then something needs to be done in response.

*Since movement is restricted, state-provided regular and adequate supply of food rations and clean drinking water in times of lockdown, is paramount. This must be delivered in just and equitable ways, and be seen to be distributed fairly, in all neighbourhoods of need.

*The State must take special care this year to set up the necessary public health programmes addressing waterborne diseases like Leptospirosis, Typhoid and Dengue fever that we always must be careful about, in small island states with the flooding now worsened yearly from climate change, but also exacerbated in these times of generally increased vector borne, communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). 

*Ensuring access to safe water systems will enhance hygiene both in containment and non containment areas and likewise in lockdown and curfew controlled areas, but also decrease the stress levels for communities already facing considerable mental health issues, and stress. 

*On that similar note, the status of mental health facilities, commodities and services is a concern already in usual times, but in COVID19 and especially around times of COVID19 lockdown, we are seeing evidence of heightened cases of depression, not to mention  difficulties for people trying to maintain mental health treatment. So too for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Violence is a major stress for communities, and is increasing. Communities are under great stress as we describe in the next blog in detail, and the combinations of patriarchal, stressed and locked-down households, are a lethal combination for women and girls and LGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, is the subject of our next blog, out later this week. 

*Specific attention, specific design, specific resourcing for pro-poor policies during COVID19. Locally-designed policy and process measures taken to address the financial and economic crisis that prevent people who live in poverty from being “collateral damage” from how the crisis is managed, and to further impoverish when they are already the ones ‘left behind’ in development. 

* Cross-ministerially and cross-sectorally, the Fiji Government must demonstrate how the fight against poverty has been mainstreamed in policies such as gender justice, rural policies, sector-specific initiatives of fisheries, agriculture, transport and internal market policies . We need to see more clearly and specifically, and with targeted resources that include CSOs, that the eradication of poverty and the dignity of all Fijians is a high priority of government, civil society, development partner and funder agendas;

*Government must show what concrete steps have been taken to defend the right to housing and to address homelessness in this period of great unemployment and strain for the people of Fiji. This problem did not start with this pandemic, but it is now much worse.

*In addressing housing and homelessness, to pay particular attention to what is happening to LGBTQI+ communities, to women-headed households, to the elderly, people with disabilities, sex workers, and other st-risk and marginalised groups;

*To evaluate the impact of any liberalisation and privatisation of services of general public interest, and especially any having really bad impacts for poor people;

*To show what measures have been taken to ensure economic justice for people experiencing poverty in areas such as debt advice, access to bank accounts, financial education, emergency aid, non-conditional cash transfers, social floor, social protection and social infrastructure. This is particularly important for women in Fiji, and especially elder women, as often they are without FNPF and pensions if they have worked in the home all their lives, raising families and contributing to unpaid care, domestic and communal work, but with no social protection in their latter lifetimes. They are also often STILL, in later life, primary carers for young people and children. 

*Feminisation of poverty must be explicitly addressed with pro-women, pro-poor resourced progressive social policies, as a matter of equity and gender justice. This could be a specific heightened focus for development funders, in this period, to help poor, older women in Fiji. 

To end, Covid 19 is a health and human crisis which has threatened all our human rights and human security needs, especially rights to food and water. It is imperative that the Fiji Government and all stakeholders ensure equitable access to food and safe drinking water and hygiene facilities to address basic needs, for human dignity.

We must stop hunger and thirst in the communities that have been Fiji frontline workers since Independence, and who must be able to count on the State and society to assist, when now they are most in need. Hospital attendants and porters, nurses, carers, domestic workers, retailers, car wash attendants, security guards, gardeners, long term