Fiji struggles with social distancing rules

Shoppers in Fiji are ignoring physical distancing rules, while rule-flouters face jail time in Sāmoa and the Cook Islands, writes Teuila Fuatai.

Scenes from one of Fiji’s best-known fresh produce markets illustrate the difficulties of clamping down on Covid-19.

Footage captured at the Sigatoka markets on Viti Levu on Thursday March 26 shows shoppers and stall holders continuing to engage as normal – ignoring advice about physical distancing and minimal public contact.

The scenes come as authorities across the Pacific ramp up efforts to contain the virus. In Fiji, Sayed-Khaiyum’s Thursday night budget had wide-ranging financial-aid for workers, businesses and financial institutions for the next nine months. MPs have also had a 20 percent salary cut for six months as part of Fiji’s crisis-response.

With five cases identified and containment measures already in place in the Lautoka region, Sayed-Khaiyum urged all Fijians to face “this new reality” of life with Covid-19. Without it, a nationwide lockdown would occur, causing further economic uncertainty, he said.

“For Fiji, the economic fallout will not only prove greater than Cyclone Winston, it will be far worse than cyclones Winston, Josie, Jenny, Gita, Tony all combined. Every aspect of our economy will be thrown out-of-whack.

“In 2009, our arrivals were only down 7.3 percent on the year,” Sayed-Khaiyum said. “The year after Winston, tourism numbers actually surged by 6.4 percent. As of today, Nadi airport is shut down. Over the next few months, there will not be a tourism sector in Fiji.

“Right off-the-bat, that’s up to 38 percent of our GDP gone,” he said.

Like administrations around the world, Fijian authorities have publicly condemned those who flout public health measures. While a ban on public gatherings of more than 20 was in place, the Government, essential service locations like supermarkets, pharmacies and open-air markets have been exempted – if public distancing is observed.

Sayed-Khaiyum: “We are aggressively moving to stamp out this virus and prevent a large-scale outbreak. But if people, including some supposedly well-educated individuals, continue violating the strict measures we’ve instituted, and the virus spreads further, we will have no choice but to lockdown all of Fiji.

“In that scenario, non-essential businesses will be closed nationwide.”

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Vanuatu is the latest country to declare a state of emergency. Strict curfews severely limiting movement and business operations have been imposed for 14 days. Media coverage of the ongoing crisis has also been affected, with any publication of articles on Covid-19 requiring authorisation from the country’s National Disaster Management Office.

Caretaker Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said yesterday the new orders would assist the Government to contain the virus. A quarantine has already been enforced on the island of Aneityum, after a passenger from a cruise ship which docked there later tested positive for Covid-19.

In Tonga, residents are preparing for a seven-day nationwide lockdown beginning Sunday night. While the country remained Covid-19-free, authorities continued to test and quarantine suspected cases. Police and armed forces would assist in enforcing a night-time curfew between 8pm and 6am during the week-long lockdown. Like New Zealand, all shops selling essential services would remain open throughout.

In Sāmoa and the Cook Islands, authorities have warned that those unwilling to adhere to crisis-response measures would face fines and possible jail-time. New legislation in the Cook Islands has given its Health Ministry special powers to impose supervised quarantine and isolation. If required, it could also seize private property for use as a quarantine centre. Rarotonga has also effectively been cut off from the outer islands to contain any potential outbreak.

In Sāmoa, residents were in their second day of lockdown on Wednesday night. Those found in breach of state of emergency orders could be fined up to (tala)$200 and sentenced to three months in prison. While both Sāmoa and the Cook Islands remained Covid-19-free, several individuals have been tested as potential cases. A state of emergency was also declared in the Solomon Islands on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Guam and Tahiti continue to be the worst-affected Pacific nations. In Guam, 45 cases have been confirmed, including one death. The US territory has struggled to cope with the added pressure on its health system from Covid-19. On Friday the US Department of Interior said it would fund the purchase of more testing kits to Pacific nations it has ties with, including Guam, American Sāmoa and Palau. So far, Tahiti has 30 confirmed cases, with one person in hospital.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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