Covid-19

Fiji: A paradise under pandemic rules

Convincing its citizens to take lockdown seriously will be a major challenge for Fiji’s government, writes Mandy De Vries.

My husband, Howie, and I are lucky enough to live on the beautiful Coral Coast in Fiji. We started a tourism operation here two years ago which was, until recently, booming. Ecotrax is a tour riding on modified electric bicycle carriages along an old disused sugar cane tram line that winds for 28 kilometres along the coast through the landscapes and villages of our part of Viti Levu.

We employed 18 local staff. We were booked up weeks ahead, and about to expand. Things couldn't have looked rosier. Then it changed.

The past two weeks have been heart-breaking. We've been telling our beloved staff increasingly bad news each day and now have had to close Ecotrax, laying off all staff except security. Like many foreigners living in Fiji, we’ve also had to decide whether we go or stay.

In the end it wasn't that hard. We're hopeful we can do some good during the crisis in whatever ways we can – ferrying food and supplies to the villages our leased tramline passes through to people who have been told to avoid non-essential travel, and mostly don't have transport anyway.

How much we can really do only time will tell. If there's a full lockdown we’ll be in the same boat as everyone else.

The beautiful people of Fiji are by nature inclined to live in the present, to enjoy the here and now. It’s one of the things the world loves about this place. But faced with this virus and government advice to “stay home to stay safe” we fear this very quality could be the undoing of many, if they continue to act as if nothing has changed.

Social distancing is a largely foreign concept in Fiji. Everyone is greeted with the local handshake, there is lots of hugging and kissing – more than in many European societies, and so a harder habit to break. Especially when people can't see anything different yet.

There is increasingly strident direction from the government that all non-essential travel must stop immediately, all children and the elderly must stay home at all times, and that those who have to venture out must observe the two-metre physical distancing rule.

Despite all this, today I saw queues outside supermarkets, children and elderly included, clustered together, no physical distancing. Handshaking, touching, the usual supermarket music blaring – there was almost a carnival air to it. A sense of excitement rather than caution about this unusual situation.

The school holidays have been brought forward two weeks to keep people at home, but they all seemed to be out this morning. They are not taking it seriously and that's the scariest thing of all.

The rumours circulating would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous. One of our staff rushed in the other day to tell everyone, “It's just been announced that if you drink alcohol you can't get the virus! But the best alcohol to get is vodka because that works best.” There was a sense of relief from the other staff – thank goodness we found out early, spread the news!

The source of this “announcement” wasn’t surprising: Facebook, which appears to be a second bible here. If it's on Facebook then it must be true.

I hate to think how many had already spent their redundancy pay on vodka. Trying to educate people about the reality of the virus has been one of our goals over the past week.

When anyone goes to the supermarket now they know to wear the gloves and masks we've provided (even though I suspect they're just doing it to make us happy). Yesterday I asked if they were sticking to the physical distancing rules and was told it was easy – because they're wearing a mask everyone else thinks they must have the virus, so they back away.

The government has been doing a great job of securing the borders and getting the messages out.

It has also started arresting people who are spreading misinformation on Facebook. The challenge now is to make Fijians take the official advice seriously.

Lautoka, where the first Covid-19 case was identified, is in total lockdown but there have been several arrests for breaking border restrictions. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Fiji, who allegedly broke border rules to leave for Australia, has since had her contract terminated and declared a prohibited immigrant. Boats have been caught ferrying people in and out of various places, but punishments are harsh so the hope is this will stop.

The government has also said that local wage earners can access the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF, similar to New Zealand’s Kiwi Saver scheme) to withdraw up to FJ$1000 if they have been affected by the layoffs across the entire tourism sector. This is heartening news, and I just hope it isn’t spent quickly and impulsively.

One of our younger staff members, who doesn't qualify for FNPF as he's been employed less than six months, proudly showed me the new shoes he'd bought a day after receiving his redundancy payout. If people go hungry we will see crime increase. In fact, we're starting to see it already – one of our staff had 10 precious ducks stolen from his yard last night.

It’s early days. There are still only five reported cases of infection, but the risk is that many Fijians may not come forward immediately if they suspect they are ill. People tell me some will be embarrassed and ashamed to be linked publicly to the virus, as if it is their fault they caught it.

We all hope it can be contained, but the growing consensus is that it will hit hard and fast over the next few weeks.

In the meantime we will do everything we can to keep our Ecotrax team supported, united and, most importantly, fed during this time. We’ll try to support our local community as best we can. Unfortunately, there is nothing here to match the generous New Zealand Government assistance packages, and I'm yet to hear of any financial support for tourism operators.

But hopefully we will still have a business to open at the end of it all. We just have to stay positive. The sun is still shining. We're still living in Paradise, just under new rules for a while.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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