Every day, Dr James Fong and his team have updated the nation about new cases and our strategy to contain them. With our full support, they will continue to provide us with the best possible medical advice to keep us and our loved ones safe.
I am speaking to you now because I want to put the present and the future in perspective. I want us all to understand what we face in this current outbreak and what it will take to get us through it.
The Covid virus is deadly –– do not let anyone mislead you into thinking otherwise. But we know this virus is not invincible. There are ways we must fight it now and save lives. And we can do so without ransoming our economy, our livelihoods, and our future to the virus.
I know it may be worrying to read daily reports of new cases after we went a full year without any local transmission of the virus. You have every right to be worried –– but your concern must translate into strict adherence to our health protection measures. We will have to make adjustments, but we can do so knowing that this crisis will end. And how soon we get to the end will depend on how well all of us adjust our behavior and do our part.
I want to begin with exactly why we all have good reason to hope. As of this week, we have reserved enough vaccines for every eligible Fijian. We expect these vaccines to arrive over the coming months. These vaccines are all the AstraZeneca vaccine, the same I have received along with almost half the adults in Fiji. To be exact, 228,030 of us have received at least one dose. Some people — including frontline workers and other people who are more vulnerable to the virus because of illness or their occupation — have already received two doses. They are fully vaccinated. And it won’t be long before all of us have the chance to become fully protected as well.
From early last year, we have pressed our case to access these valuable vaccines. We had the money to pay for them, but quick access was only reserved for the wealthier nations. Thanks to the support of the Australian and New Zealand governments, Fijians now have expeditious access as well. And we must seize this chance to protect ourselves.
At this stage, it should be clear that we are not going to get through this pandemic by shutting every Fijian in their homes and shuttering the windows of every business in the country.
There are a few things we all need to understand. First, our current outbreak is localized. It is not all over Fiji. It is on Viti Levu and centered in the Central Division. The cases are also mostly occurring in known clusters, most of which are within lockdown areas. So we have managed to keep the cases at much lower levels than they could have been, and we certainly have not had the kind of rampant spread that many countries experienced a year or more ago. The growing numbers of cases are not good news, by any means, but when we look into those numbers, we can understand that as long as we can find and contain the new cases, we can contain or slow the spread by quarantining people we suspect may be positive and isolating those who have tested positive already.
So those who now call for 28 days of lockdown misunderstand the virus and disregard what that order would mean for our people. Shutting down completely is a drastic measure; one that we cannot completely guarantee would even work. Developing countries have never successfully implemented total lockdowns. Even wealthier countries, where average families have deep pockets and savings, have only rarely ever succeeded. After 28 days of total lockdown we could still see the virus re-emerge on day 30 or day 35 because of a single, undetected lapse by anyone, anywhere on Viti Levu. 28 days of a 24-hour curfew for all of Viti Levu would put all of us face to face with economic disaster and miserable isolation. If we took that route, after we spent nearly 700 hours shut in our homes, Fiji would look vastly and cruelly different when we all re-emerged. People’s jobs may never return. We’d suffer structural unemployment through the permanent loss of industries. And I cannot allow that to happen. I will not.
It is easy to call for drastic measures like 28 days of straight lockdown for the whole of Viti Levu if you are still in a high-paying job or have a healthy savings account. It is easy to call for a lockdown if you do not depend on day-to-day wages or struggle to pay bills for a business that is closed. It is easy to call for a lockdown if you don’t work at a factory that might permanently leave Fiji if they must shut down completely for 28 days; the garment factories and call centres, that cannot serve overseas clients will lose those contracts –– and the jobs they support –– forever. And businesses, large and small, that thrive because of this economic activity could shut forever as well. Those are the ordinary Fijians who we are thinking about; the factory employees, the car mechanics and washers, the market vendors, the cash crop farmers, taxi and other public service vehicle drivers, construction workers, wait staff, the micro, small and medium business operators. If they can work safely, if they choose to work safely, they should be able to work safely.
Because of vaccines and because we now know more about COVID, the world’s fight against this virus has changed, and so must our strategy. We will get through this current ordeal by an intelligent and targeted application of measures to contain the spread until we get enough of us vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. We are looking at the long-term picture. And are looking at the experience of other countries, and we believe that if we follow some sensible guidelines designed to keep us from gathering indiscriminately in large groups, we can manage this virus while protecting our health, protecting Fijian jobs and businesses and safeguarding the long-term prospects of our young nation.
We are allowing businesses that put forward clear COVID-safe operational plans to open their doors. If you are able to work -– do not take that opportunity for granted. It is a privilege that many wish they had. Make sure you are always wearing a mask. Make sure you are keeping a safe distance from others and heading straight home when your shift ends. This is not the time for socialising. Do not spend your paycheck on grog, alcohol, or cigarettes –– we know that sharing these bad habits with others can put you at risk of contracting the virus. Work smart, work safely, and save your money. Your social drinks and cigarettes can wait until the day that Fiji is safe again.
That safety will come. With the knowledge, experience, and proven means of protection that we have, we are going to manage our way out of this pandemic responsibly and set course for a recovery. With vaccines coming soon, our people can be protected, and we can prepare ourselves for the day the borders re-open and our economy switches back into full-gear. In preparation of the day, we are helping to keep our national airline afloat so as soon as our borders open, they can bring in tourists and extend opportunity to the tourism workers, the hotel staff, the chefs, the tour guides, the maids, and all others who also deserve the chance to restart their careers. Other governments have supported their airlines. Many of those fleets are now helping fuel the revival of tourism industries in their countries. We have to be ready for the day the Fiji Airways fleet will run scheduled flights again.
We’ve covered many of these issues in Parliament. But that hasn’t stopped many politicians from stepping on the shoulders of suffering Fijians to elevate themselves. We cannot afford to turn this crisis into a political personality contest. We cannot afford to formulate policy on day-to-day shifts in the political winds. We are clear-eyed about where we are headed as a nation. We are being decisive and we are being consistent about how we get there. We have to protect the health of our people and steer Fiji towards an economic recovery –– a long-term recovery. And that requires seeing further than our noses, further than a single day of headlines or the number of likes on a Facebook post. Further than a single week. It certainly requires seeing further than the next 28 days. We have to see the big picture and work towards the better and brighter future we all want for the country. When we take that view, I promise you, hope is on the horizon.
Our plan is reasonable, it is tolerable and it is built for the long-haul. And we will stick with that plan. Rather than subject the nation to a far more severe socioeconomic situation, we will continue to care for those in-need with the resources we have. People in the formal sector who cannot work are receiving unemployment benefits. In total, government has directly paid out over 161 million dollars to nearly 115,000 people in the formal sector. People in the informal sector –– for the first time –– have received 22 million dollars in assistance through the 90 and 50 dollar payments. In total, that support has reached around a quarter million people. And another 30 million dollars in assistance has gone to 5,000 micro, small and medium enterprises that qualified for concessional loans. All of that has been directly paid by government, another 150 million dollars has been made available through FNPF. Let me be clear on that, we have paid out tens of million dollars more directly from government to the people than has been accessed through FNPF accounts.
For the most good to be achieved, that assistance must go where it matters most. After we opened assistance for those in the informal sector, we received over 282,000 applications. Despite clear instructions about who can apply, more than 58,000 of these individuals were found to be already be receiving some form of government assistance. We aren’t letting anyone double-dip. Assistance must go where it is genuinely required. Please respect that. This is a difficult time, those seeking more than needed are taking directly from the pockets of the most vulnerable Fijians.
In the meantime, until many more of us are fully-vaccinated, we will have to continue doing the things that we know protect us: wear masks, maintain proper social distance of two metres and avoid any social gatherings. Wash your hands often. Make sure you have careFIJI installed with Bluetooth turned on. We will also continue to lock down areas if we see cases arise in a locality. That just makes common sense. But that is far better than locking down entire towns and cities, all of Viti Levu, or even the whole country.
So long as the virus remains in our midst, our compliance with health measures cannot wane. A report came across this week of a 50-person match of touch rugby in Lautoka. That is totally unacceptable. One game of touch, and the close person-to-person exposure it causes, could jeopardize the containment of all of the West. It could force us to implement targeted lockdowns that separate Fijians from their livelihoods. Think about that before you pick up a rugby ball or sit down to share a bowl of grog with friends. The consequences will be serious; for you personally if you are caught, and for all Fijians placed at-risk due to your reckless action.
Some of the most heart-breaking experiences of this outbreak have involved Fijians who could not get back to their homes. We have many families who are stuck on Viti Levu who wish to return to the North or to their homes in the maritime areas. We have been caring for these Fijians as best we can with food supplies and essential items. I’ve been speaking to many of these families personally. They need to go home as soon as possible. We know that. Those wishing to travel will be allowed to do so following the proper two weeks in quarantine. Dr Fong will announce the protocols that will allow them to return home safely. There is no coronavirus in the North and the maritime islands, and we want to keep it that way. So this must be done carefully.
As for our administration of vaccines, if we concentrate on Viti Levu first, we really protect the entire country. We are not ignoring the Northern and Eastern Divisions. We are vaccinating there, too. But I am sure you understand that we need to fight the virus where it lives, and right now it has made a home in Viti Levu.
Vaccines are the best path for every Fijian towards being protected from COVID-19. They are our way back to a normal life, and I want all Fijians to understand how important they are. Please listen to our medical experts when they tell you that the vaccines are safe. No one who is posting on Twitter or Facebook has their experience and knowledge. Vaccines have been with us for more than a century. It is because of vaccines that we have no smallpox and no polio. So please, get your vaccination as soon as you can. There are people who are manipulating religion to sow distrust in these vaccines. Don’t let them lead you astray. These false prophets would all happily go to the hospital to receive treatment if they were sick. They would trust that God would guide the hands of our doctors and nurses to care for them. For all other illnesses they will tell you to see a doctor.when it comes to COVID-19, they make an exception. Why this hypocrisy? The choice to protect ourselves from COVID-19 is no different than any other illness. So do not listen to their lies about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Do the right thing for yourself, for your family, and for Fiji –– be vaccinated. Be protected.
From the very start of this pandemic more than one year ago, I have said we must trust the science and the best protection it can offer us. But we cannot leave this fight to the doctors and nurses and members of our disciplined forces alone. The power to beat back this pandemic rests within each of us, and we must also trust ourselves to use our God-given sense to keep safe. We have to trust and ensure that our fellow citizens will take steps to safeguard their health and the health of those around them, and deal honestly with those in government working so hard to help them. We have to trust in a higher power that we will be guided to brighter days. And we must trust that we are not alone. This is humanity’s fight. Fijians have a place in this global effort to free ourselves from COVID’s deadly grip. And we must do our part –– alongside the wider international community –– to defeat this terrible disease, to reclaim the lives we knew, and join the world in a recovery.
As always, we must keep the faith; keep our faith in the science, keep our faith in each other, and keep our faith in our God-given strength to overcome this challenge.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you. God Bless you all.