Late last month Fiji ordered two of its largest cities into lockdown after the Pacific Island nation recorded its first cases of community transmission of COVID-19 since a handful of cases were identified early on in the pandemic.
With cases only reported in hotel quarantine in the past 12 months, the new community transmission caught many Fijian’s by surprise. Confirmed cases have risen steadily since a Fijian soldier was infected at a quarantine facility, with active cases jumping to 50 in the two weeks since. While seemingly trivial compared to the 400,000 recorded daily in India or the 300,000 cases recorded daily in the U.S. back in January, it’s a huge hit to a country that had high hopes of making it through the pandemic unscathed.
Health authorities believe the virus found its way back into the community after a soldier providing security at a quarantine facility became infected and passed the virus onto a maid, who infected several of her family members and other soldiers at the facility. More than 330 people who were believed to have come into contact with the woman were forced into isolation while police began to enforce a strict 24-hour curfew in Fiji’s largest cities and surrounding towns, with no one allowed to leave their home unless it is a medical emergency.
Despite contact tracing efforts and the snap lockdown of urban hubs, cases have continued to rise, with new areas being forced into lockdown and existing lockdowns being extended. In addition to the increase in cases in the community, cases inside quarantine have also risen due to soldiers who had recently returned to the country after serving on a United Nationals peacekeeping mission “fraternizing” with one another, according to Fiji’s Permanent Secretary of Health Dr. James Fong.
Upon confirming that it is the Indian variant of COVID-19 that has begun to spread in Fiji, Fong told Fijians not to underestimate the threat posed.
“We cannot let that nightmare happen in Fiji. We still have time to stop it happening, but a single misstep will bring about the same COVID tsunami that our friends in India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States are enduring,” he said.
While Fiji has fared well so far in not allowing the virus to take hold, the economic impact of the pandemic has been severe. Fiji’s economy contracted by 19 percent in 2020 – the most severe contraction in Fiji’s history – while unemployment rose to 27 percent, according to the World Bank. Fiji’s tourism industry, which pre-COVID-19 contributed 39 percent of GDP, came to a standstill.
Fiji’s projected return to growth in 2021 assumed visitor arrivals would rebound to half of 2019 levels and with Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand close to agreeing on a “travel bubble” between them, hopes were high. But the recent spike in cases in Fiji has made that outcome all the more uncertain.
Furthermore, the lockdown in Nadi, Fiji’s third largest city, has led to about 80 percent of businesses closing, Nadi’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) said.
“Hardships are likely to be felt across the society if the lockdown and restrictions continue,” president of the NCCI, Dr Ram Raju, told the Fiji Times.
Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji John Feakes late last week announced that Australia would provide an additional 55 million Australian dollars (US$42.5 million) in general budget support to assist the Fijian government in their efforts to manage the current outbreak.