Fiji is racing against time to vaccinate its population while a COVID-19 outbreak explodes


Fiji has been racing to ensure every eligible adult is vaccinated, as the highly-infectious Delta variant continues to multiply.

The Pacific nation has made COVID vaccination compulsory for all workers, who face fines or forced leave if they don’t get the jab.

With AstraZeneca donations from Australia, New Zealand and India, authorities say they now have enough doses to vaccinate the entire country.

But despite recording around 700 new infections dailythe government has refused to implement a nationwide lockdown.

“Our experts tell us [a lockdown] would not kill off the virus. But it would kill jobs and it could kill our country’s future.”

As numbers have surged since the outbreak began in April, health teams have fought to administer vaccinations quickly and safely.

About 58 per cent of Fijians have received at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to official data, while more than 10 per cent have received a second.

But with more than half of the country’s 48 COVID-related deaths recorded last week, there are concerns this strategy isn’t working.

‘Stupid, stubborn, ego-driven policies’

Two women and a man sit down on the floor surrounded by parcels.
Ashie Naisara has been helping deliver food to families struggling during Fiji’s COVID outbreak.(

Supplied

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Though the government has not introduced a widespread lockdown, curfews and limits to public gatherings have been put in place to restrict movement.

Meanwhile, areas where active cases are spreading have been declared containment zones, and people are not allowed in or out.

In Qauia, an informal settlement where the outbreak is taking hold, many residents rely on NGOs to deliver basic services.

Ashie Naisara, from the volunteer organisation Mama Ashy that has been helping households there, said a lockdown might have prevented the community from suffering the brunt of Fiji’s deadly second wave.

“Certainly, they should have locked them down earlier, just for 14 days,” she said.

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At least seven people have died from COVID-19 in Qauia and surrounding areas, according to authorities.

Despite this, Ms Naisara said many refused to get the jab, as they did not believe the deaths were caused by coronavirus.

A man polices a COVID-19 containment zone checkpoint
Police have been deployed to man containment zone checkpoints.(

A man polices a COVID-19 containment zone checkpoint. Photo: Kurt Petersen

)

About 29 per cent of Fiji’s population live below the poverty line, and many of them face chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Ms Naisara said not only were they the most vulnerable to the economic impacts of a lockdown, but they had also been the hardest hit by the outbreak.

“The sanitation and living standards are not up to standard, some of them are living in very dire conditions,” she said.

“So we know that COVID has added on to the already existing problems.”

The government’s refusal to lock the country down has been heavily scrutinised, with opposition MP Biman Prasad saying the decision had made the crisis even worse.

Vaccines lead to a reduction in severe cases

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Although Fiji had early success with keeping the virus at bay by closing its borders, controlling the highly transmissible Delta variant has posed a major challenge to health authorities.

“The number of deaths would have been a lot higher than what we’re seeing right now, if we our numbers were very low in terms of vaccination,” said Rachel Devi, who heads the vaccine taskforce of Fiji’s Ministry of Health.

But leading an ambitious vaccination drive in the middle of a highly infectious outbreak has brought with it its own risks.

Dr Devi said health workers have had to put in place strict COVID-safe measures while administering the jab.

“The last thing we wanted was vaccination sites to become superspreaders,” she said.

A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 in Fiji.
More than 10 per cent of Fijians have been fully vaccinated.(

Kurt Petersen

)

Clusters among health workers have led to the shutdown of hospitals and health facilities in Fiji, and Health Ministry staff have gone into isolation after being exposed to a positive case.

Mahomed Patel, a professor in applied epidemiology at the Australian National University, said COVID-19 presented a “wicked problem” to governments trying to control its spread.

Dr Patel said Australia could turn to lockdowns as a way to reduce case numbers or minimise deaths, but countries like Fiji may not be able to afford such decisions.

“[In Australia] the government can give money to business to continue [or] it can create things like JobKeeper to make sure that nobody dies from hunger,” Dr Patel said.

Dr Patel said although vaccination was “certainly the best thing we have at the moment”, a single approach was unlikely to work.

“COVID has picked up the flaws in the system, [which] is further going to exaggerate inequalities,” he said.

“The only way to work it out is to take one small step at a time, monitor its impact, and then decide whether that’s working or not, and be prepared to change very quickly.”

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