The COVID-19 pandemic declared by the World Health Organisation on 11 March 2020 is presenting tremendous challenges globally due to its devastating impacts. While Fiji only had 18 cases of COVID-19, all of whom have recovered, the economic and social outcomes are significant and will be felt for years to come. The closure of international borders led to visitor arrivals contracting significantly by 43.5 percent up to April and the economy is projected to decline by 4.9% in 2020 under COVID-19.The impacts will extend to government revenue, which is expected to decrease by almost 50% in the next financial year, as well as to remittances and tourism earnings, trade and production, domestic demand, employment, poverty and health. In the tourism sector alone, over 40,000 workers, one-third of whom are women, have been affected by mass layoffs and reduced hours. Their employment represented 35.5 percent of total employment in Fiji, with further impacts for their families and communities.
In addition to the pandemic, Fiji was also struck by Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold on 08 April, causing States of Natural Disaster to be declared for COVID-19 and for TC Harold within the same week. Although Fiji is used to cyclones, prevention and movement restriction measures in place for COVID-19 made it difficult to respond to the trail of destruction left by the Category 4 cyclone. A total of 250 evacuation centres were opened in all four divisions and around 10,000 people were displaced.
Two weeks later on 21 April, 1,310 people were still sheltering in 105 evacuation centres in the Eastern and Central divisions with the majority of them (1,116) in 92 evacuation centres in the Eastern Division.
Data regarding people with disabilities who were affected by the cyclone has not been reported.
Ships were sent to Kadavu and Lau in the Eastern Division and the Yasawa group, Mamanuca group and Vatulele in the Western Division for the distribution of relief items including food rations by officials who also conducted damage assessments. In addition to widespread damage to infrastructure, schools and health centres, particularly to the Kadavu and Lau islands, farms and food gardens in affected areas also suffered extensive damage, with the final agriculture assessment reporting that at least 53,000 farmers were affected by TC Harold.
While the multiple impacts of COVID-19 and TC Harold are significant, they follow and compound the impacts of two Category 2 cyclones - TC Sarai in late December 2019 and TC Tino in mid- January 2020 – which had previously affected agriculture and other sectors. This poses extra challenges for Fiji’s development as cyclones and flood losses have been estimated to translate into an average of 25,700 people being pushed into poverty every year in Fiji.Whilst there is no reported change to the division of labour between men and women, women have increased responsibilities due to TC Harold impacts and COVID 19 lockdown measures as they are largely responsible for care-giving (of children, ill or elderly family members, and people with disabilities) and household work. The closure of schools and workplaces and bans on social gathering have meant that everyone has had to stay home. This has doubled burdens for many women, particularly for those with paid jobs who are working from home and with schools closed, this has become a triple burden as many women are also expected to be responsible for their children’s education.
Women are also more at risk of contracting COVID-19 as there are more women on the frontline with 63% of Fiji’s health sector being comprised of women. This includes 55% of medical staff 89% of nursing staff 77% of lab workers and 98% of midwives.Fiji has extremely high rates of violence against women and girls with 64% of women who have ever been in an intimate relationship having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime. A rise in violence has been one of the COVID-19 impacts, with a significant increase in calls received by the National Domestic Violence helpline in April, 50% of them related to COVID-19.9 According to Fiji’s 2017 census, 13.7% of Fijians experience disability. People with disabilities are not a homogenous group, and men and women of different ages, in urban and rural areas and with different impairments will experience COVID-19 differently. People with disabilities in Fiji already experience barriers to health services compared to those without disabilities due to stigma, discrimination and barriers in the built environment; for those with underlying health conditions, COVID-19 could result in a higher mortality rate. Girls and boys with disabilities may be at further risk of exclusion from education if remote/ distance learning programmes are not accessible or they do not have assistive devices to allow participation and accommodate learning needs. Children with disabilities are less likely than others to return to school once schools reopen. People with disabilities and their families are disproportionately represented amongst people living in poverty. Poverty will limit the ability of people with disabilities to put in place measures to respond to the outbreak, increasing their vulnerability. A secondary impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities may include increased and disproportionate effects on livelihoods as a result of measures to restrict movement, as people with disabilities who work are more likely to be in informal work or self-employed, with less access to labour protections.
The Fiji Government response included public health messaging to raise awareness of COVID-19 and preventative measures such as social distancing and handwashing. Like many other countries, Fiji also developed travel restrictions and 14-day quarantine upon arrival for travellers from abroad. Affected areas were locked down and country-wide measures included a ban on social gatherings, the closure of schools, houses of worship, nightclubs, cinemas, gyms, and swimming pools, and a nationwide curfew. In March the Government also passed a COVID-19 Response Budget which outlined support measures including a one-off relief payments for street vendors within the lockdown areas, 21-day paid leave and a one-off payment of $1,000 for low income Fijians who test positive for COVID-19, and the suspension of water meter disconnection for non-payment of bills until 31 December 2020. For affected workers with Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) accounts, the Government made up to 30% of their superannuation funds accessible, with top ups for those with limited funds. In addition, Fiji has a number of social protection schemes aimed at reducing poverty and vulnerability for target population groups such as those who are pregnant, elderly, rural, young, destitute or have a disability. Although these schemes provide a vital safety net, they remain limited. In addition, women in Fiji are more vulnerable as they earn less, save less and are employed in less secure jobs than men. Women comprise 38% of FNPF’s compulsory active members compared to 62% for men. As women in Fiji provide the bulk of care for their family members, any reduction in household expenditure on health, education and other services means increased burdens for women and girls.
Fiji’s Ministry of Education, Heritage and the Arts supported remote learning through the delivery of lessons via radio and television broadcast; some of the television-based lessons were translated into sign language to ensure deaf students could participate. In regard to decision-making, the activities of many community level groups such as disaster and health committees and women, church and youth groups were suspended due to COVID-19 social gathering restrictions. Decisions are therefore largely being made by the Turaga ni Koro (village headman) without the input of women and representatives of community groups. In response to COVID-19, the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation released a Resource kit for Fiji Helpline Workers. This supplements the Fiji National Service Delivery Protocol for Responding to Cases of Gender Based Violence: Standard Operating Procedures for Interagency Response among Social Service, Police, Health and Legal/Justice. The materials in the resource kit have been developed to ensure information is easily accessible while responding to women and children survivors of violence during the COVID-19 situation in Fiji, and includes information for people with disabilities.