The Minister for Health & Medical Services, Doctor Ifereimi Waqainabete;
The UN Resident Coordinator, Mr Sanaka Samarasinha;
The UNICEF Representative, Mr Sheldon Yett;
Dr Akeem Ali, The Acting Officer in Charge of WHO-South Pacific;
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps;

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka and a very good evening to everyone.

Tonight, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Fiji. We have received 12,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX Facility – a global alliance working to ensure that citizens of all nations are protected from this pandemic. It’s a small step but an important start towards protecting Fijians from a plague that has claimed more than two and a half million lives around the world.

The AstraZeneca Vaccine has shown to be safe and it has shown to be effective. It is one of three COVID-19 vaccines that have been recommended by the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. This specific vaccine has also been approved by the health boards of the United Kingdom, European Union and at least 14 other countries, including India, Australia and, most recently, by the Fiji Pharmaceuticals Board. Millions of doses of this vaccine have been administered around the world. The data shows it is reducing case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths due to this virus.

This first batch of vaccines is designated for doctors, nurses, health inspectors, quarantine facility staff, aviation and maritime staff, and members of our disciplined forces who have defended our border through this pandemic. These Fijians serve on the frontlines of our COVID Containment Strategy. They are first priority for the obvious reason that they face the highest risk of exposure to the virus.

Like many of the other available vaccines, the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses. That means we have to maintain a careful record of who has been vaccinated and when they are due for dose number two. Under the digitalFIJI umbrella, we have built an online registration portal that will give us the data we need to ensure a smooth nationwide rollout. For now, that portal is limited to 6,000 of our frontline workers who will receive this first batch of vaccines. Once that phase is complete, we will announce the next phase of the rollout, and more Fijians will be able to use the portal to register so that they too can be protected through vaccinations.

All told, the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines will be the most complex logistical effort in Fijian history. We have the organizational capacity to pull it off. And we have real-life superheroes within the Ministry of Health who have the experience and know-how to lead this campaign. But they can’t achieve that mission alone. This must be a truly national effort to succeed.

Fiji is a COVID-Contained country and has been for more than 320 days. I know we have not seen the same tragic loss of life that our friends have endured around the world. Our hospitals have not been flooded by COVID-stricken patients. The short lockdowns we experienced last year may feel like a distant memory. But no one should forget how serious this pandemic continues to be. They certainly should not pretend it does not and cannot affect us. We must not become an island of vulnerability in a sea of safely immunised societies. The only way we can ensure every Fijian’s health and wellbeing is to see our people vaccinated along with the rest of the world.

These first jabs most certainly belong in the arms of the frontline workers who put their health and wellbeing on the line to keep the rest of us safe. But I do plan to register myself on the portal to arrange for my own vaccination as soon as I become eligible. I urge every Fijian to do the same. It is important that we all register so that we can roll out the vaccines on the timeline that makes them most effective.

Ladies and gentleman. Tonight marks an important start for COVAX in the Pacific, but it is just that – a start. Fiji is not a big country, yet we are only guaranteed enough vaccines for 20% of our population through COVAX, and the timeline for when all of those vaccines arrive is uncertain. Tonight, we’ve received a small box of vaccines. We’re grateful for it, but we need many more boxes to catch up to the developed nations which already have public immunization campaigns well underway. That is why we are working on a bilateral basis with our development partners, as well as with the vaccine manufacturers, to procure more safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as soon as we can. Fiji is prepared to pay for those doses if need be.

My fellow Fijians, there will be no waiting out this pandemic. Like measles and other illnesses, we may always have to contend with COVID-19. These vaccines represent more than the way back to normal life; they are the shot of life our economy, our industries, and thousands of Fijian breadwinners need. It is about bringing back jobs, reconnecting families across borders, and re-claiming Fiji’s rightful place in the world.

I want everyone watching to know that we will only ever secure vaccines that are proven to be safe and which are proven to do what they are meant to do, and that is to protect us from the coronavirus. I want to thank the organisations behind the COVAX Facility, including GAVI, the WHO, UNICEF, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiatives and to our development partners that have contributed to COVAX to help bring these vaccines to Fiji. And thank you to all of our frontline workers. There is a statue back in Suva that stands in honour of their service and sacrifice. But we all know the debt we owe them is unpayable. For them and for all Fijians, there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and that glimmer of hope shines brightly this evening. But again, tonight is only the start.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

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