Since my last update on Fiji’s recovery from Cyclone Harold and COVID-19, we’ve made great progress in both fronts.
Assistance has made its way to the hardest-hit areas across Fiji, with thousands of food ration packs and other supplies being delivered to even the most remote corners of the country.
And our on-the-ground assessment of TC Harold’s devastation is showing just how hard-hit some of these communities and islands are. NDMO’s latest survey now shows that 635 homes across the country were destroyed by the storm, with over 2,100 suffering damage.
Under our Rural Housing Assistance programme, the Ministry of Housing and Community Development is working to provide relief to high-need households as quickly as possible. As has been the case in the wake of previous cyclones, we’ll be subsidising the cost of government-procured building materials for eligible households – those making less than $15,000 a year – on a one-third, two-thirds basis.
Alternately, those applying for assistance can cover the cost of all building materials, but pay more affordable rates thanks to government bulk-buying, and then have those discounted materials delivered to them with all shipping costs covered – even in our most remote maritime communities. Trees felled by the cyclone are also being repurposed into timber that will be provided free-of-charge for impacted homes by the Ministry of Forestry.
For anyone benefiting from this programme who cannot secure carpenters of their own, the Ministry of Housing and Community Development’s carpentry team – assisted by the Public Rental Board – will be provided free of charge for repairs and reconstruction. They will also be assisting with building plans to ensure the new homes are cyclone-resilient, and they’ll also be carrying out site inspections to keep everything up to standard.
But as we rebuild from this storm, we are seeing a rise in illnesses that have the potential to prove deadlier than the storm itself – those that thrive in the wet environments left behind by tropical cyclones. That’s why the Ministry of Health is now launching a door-to-door campaign to combat LTDD: Leptospirosis, Typhoid, Dengue, and Diarrhea.
So while coronavirus will dominate headlines, we also need to stay alert of these other ailments, as they can also kill. But unlike COVID-19, we’ve dealt with these challenges before – and experience has taught us that public cooperation is critical to keeping Fijians healthy. That’s why, if an official from the Ministry of Health visits your door to check for symptoms, we need to remain just as diligent as we have during our nationwide COVID screening efforts.
This said, coronavirus is still public enemy number one, and I’m sure it’s what is on the top of all of your minds today. Since this Monday, the 20th of April, we’ve tested 114 more samples for COVID-19, and all have returned negative – meaning that again, we have zero new cases to report. Our health screening effort in Ba is progressing extremely well. Nationwide, we’ve restocked with thousands of COVID-19 tests – a step critical to boosting confidence in the success of our containment efforts.
Since our first cases were confirmed in Fiji, the first question I’ve asked our health team in our morning COVID-19 briefings has been the same: “How are our patients?” And for weeks, the answer has remained the same – “they are in stable condition”. While this was always welcome news, it still left me, and all Fijians, anxious for their wellbeing.
Only in the past few days have our patients begun finally testing negative for the virus. Today, I’m grateful to announce that 10 of our 18 patients have made full recoveries from the virus. So now, there are eight active cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Fiji – meaning that, for the first time, more Fijians have recovered than are currently still living with the virus.
Our nation has prayed for these recoveries, our healthcare heroes have provided the weeks of care-giving it’s taken to heal these Fijians, and – given the vast unknowns surrounding coronavirus – we are all grateful to see them cleared to leave isolation. I applaud every Fijian responsible for aiding these recoveries and delivering us this beacon of hope.
But as relieved as we all are, we must still reckon with some sobering realities.
No confirmed case of coronavirus in Fiji has been in a person over the age of 65. Most of our patients have had no underlying health conditions. We know that these factors – age and health – are directly linked to a patient’s chances of survival.
My point is, in Fiji, so far we have been blessed by demographics, and more vulnerable Fijians have been spared. But if we lull ourselves into complacency, that could all too tragically change. Across the world, over 186,000 lives have been lost to this virus. Every day, tens of thousands more add to the total. We cannot allow Fiji to fall victim to the same fate.
We’ve all seen a sevens side – after a comfortable half-time lead – go on to lose the game because they got cocky, let their guard down, and failed to see victory through to its end. Well, the stakes of this virus are far higher than a rugby match – they are life or death. I’ve said many times before: We are at war with COVID-19. We must stay vigilant. We must stay disciplined. We must keep ourselves one step ahead of this killer virus.
If we keep the course, we will be able to confidently rank ourselves among the nations leading the world in stomping out coronavirus. Our success so far leaves us reason for cautious optimism. We have isolated every close contact of every case of the virus in our country –l– a world-leading feat. Of the over 900 samples we’ve tested in Fiji – only two per cent have returned positive, compared from up to 19% or even higher in harder-hit countries.
Every decision we have made has been informed by the best available science and the direction of our medical experts – and our adherence to health advice will continue to guide every step we take. Operating with caution and armed with good information, we have identified a few safe ways we can return some measure of normalcy to our society.
But it’s important we match any relaxation of health protection directives with greater diligence in our day to day lives. That is why I am declaring this weekend as Fiji’s Weekend of Readiness and Responsibility. Through the weekend, we need to see Fijians take greater ownership over our containment measures. As we see that happen, we plan to gradually scale back a handful of our health protection measures.
From the evening of Saturday the 25th of April, which is tomorrow, the nationwide curfew will begin at 10pm and go until 5am. From Sunday the 26th of April we will resume all passenger inter-island travel, by air and sea. And from Monday, the 27th of April, we will allow social gatherings of 20 people or fewer.
Nightclubs, swimming pools, cinemas, and gyms will all continue to remain closed. Houses of worship, as well, will remain closed until further notice. Our schools will remain closed as well until the 12th of June 2020.
Our Weekend of Readiness and Responsibility starts with our LTDD campaign. Every Fijian should spend this weekend tracking down breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Empty out containers, tyres or rubbish that hold water. And if medical teams conduct screenings in your area, cooperate.
From Sunday morning, as inter-island travel resumes, all transportation vehicles, whether that’s taxis, mini-buses, buses, boats or planes, are encouraged to provide hand sanitiser to passengers upon boarding, and members of the public are encouraged to wear masks while travelling.
Through the weekend, all of our advice remains in effect. Physical distancing of two metres should be maintained at all times. Do not share cigarettes, or takis or bilos during grog sessions. Limit unnecessary person-to-person contact as much as humanly possible.
And, as health screening efforts continue across the country, all Fijians should cooperate with our medical teams for the few easy minutes it takes to be screened – whether that’s for LTTD or COVID-19.
Through the weekend, our coronavirus testing will press ahead. If even one new case is detected, our most stringent health protection measures will snap right back into place.
As we see some of our restrictions lifted, it’s vital the Fijian public go about their lives responsibly, in ways that do not compromise the practice of physical distancing and put Fijian lives at risk. If we do, I’m confident we can welcome back these freedoms without giving ground in the campaign against this virus.
Vinaka vakalevu. God bless you all.