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NSW mistakes are lessons for Fiji (FT24/7/21)


With the Bainimarama Government obstinately refusing to lockdown, Fiji is now suffering the worst medical, social and economic crisis since the measles epidemic of 1875 which led to the deaths of a third of Fiji’s population.

Today’s COVID crisis has led to thousands of seriously ill people and hundreds dying, all totally unnecessary, had the rulers of Fiji listened to the best medical advice not just in Fiji but also our nearest developed neighbors in Australia and NZ.

Last year, when there had been only one COVID case in Fiji, Fiji Times had published (FT 21 March 2020) my article “Australia’s mistakes are lessons for Fiji” in which I had pointed out how dilly dallying by the federal Australian government had endangered the Australian population, in contrast to the firm approach taken by the NZ Government.

Australia for the last year has been saved by most State government Premiers following the advice of the expert epidemiologists, rather than a federal Prime Minister and his Treasurer whose sole concerns were to save the livelihoods of Australians and not their lives.

The federal Australian Government not only failed last year to secure vaccine supplies for Australia when they had the opportunity, but have also failed to build a dedicated quarantine facility to safely house international travelers, including the thousands of Australian citizens trapped abroad.

But Australia has the good fortune that, after its initial gross failures in its aged care system (a federal responsibility) its health system has now geared up to care for those who fall ill and the number of deaths have been limited, though still high compared to NZ.

Fiji’s tragedy is that its perpetually underfunded Fiji heath system and health staff are totally unable to cope with the COVID crisis and deaths have soared to over a hundred and still climbing.

In Australia, the federal and state governments have stepped up to provide budgetary support for some (not all) those whose livelihoods have been adversely affected.

In contrast the Bainimarama Government has vigorously looked after the corporate interests who fund their political party, poured hundreds of millions down the open throats of a grounded Fiji Airways and bankrupts FSC, and beg donors (Australia and NZ) and NGOs to see to the welfare of those badly affected.

While the NZ Prime Minister Jacinta Arden politely informed that it was up to individual governments to decide on whether to lock-down or not, she could easily have said, that beggars should help themselves first, before holding their hands out.

Sadly, there is no sign that the Fiji Government is going to lock down as responsible citizens are calling for or even rein in its expenditure, casually passing on today’s burdens to future generations.

Let me start with the 1875 measles epidemic when the British Government similarly also tried to pass the buck, as Fiji authorities are doing today.

The 1875 Measles epidemic

The measles epidemic came to Fiji after the most powerful Fijian then, Ratu Cakobau, had been persuaded by the British authorities to visit the Governor of NSW.

Unfortunately, he and his entourage caught the measles there, and brought it back to Fiji without full recovery, thereby passing it on to the general population.

The indigenous Fijians applied traditional medicines and methods in total futility and died in their tens of thousands- a third of Fiji’s population and an international historical disaster by any standards.

The British Government tried to shift the blame to the ship’s doctor and the captain for not quarantining the diseased passengers.

Similarly today, an international flight bringing back one of the most powerful men in Fiji also brought a businessman who had been in India and who had the highly infectious delta variant of COVID.

Soldiers who were supposed to quarantine international travelers apparently had a party and the delta variant of COVID was set loose into Fiji.

Despite public calls from knowledgeable health experts for total lock down (as had worked in NZ and elsewhere), the Bainimarama Government refused to do so, with the result we see today.

Fiji, Australia and NZ

As an island nation extremely easy to quarantine from the world, Fiji can look at the experience of similar island neighbors like New Zealand and even the faltering giant Australia over this last year.

Students might want to go to this website which gives up-to-date COVID statistics internationally:

Australia looks good (and Australian politicians are quick to point it out) if one compares Australia with the even worse experiences of UK, US and Canada.

But not if you compare Australia to NZ which I do here, and with the sad case of Fiji.

Graph 1 shows horrific Fiji is (as of 22 July 2021) with 22,632 cases per million population compared to 1,250 in Australia and the even lower 565 in NZ.

Graph 2 shows a similar degree of relativity in deaths per million with New Zealand having only 5 deaths per million population, Australia having seven times higher with 35 per million, and Fiji having a horrific thirty times higher with 162 deaths per million (and still rising).

There can be little doubt that the Fiji Government has totally failed the Fiji people in contrast to the state authorities in Australia and the great NZ government of Jacinta Arden.

It is no surprise to me that many health professionals I have talked to  Melbourne in the last few months would love to emigrate to NZ.

But Fiji people have no such luxury, even for temporary travel, as the Pacific Bubble has been pricked by the Fiji Government’s failure to keep COVID out of Fiji which they so easily could have.

Why does my article title say that Fiji should learn from NSW and not from Australia?

Why learn from the mistakes of NSW?

Making international comparisons between different countries is fraught with difficulty because of different health systems and a host of other factors such as economy and society.

But global epidemiologists are going to learn enormously by contrasting the paths of COVID in different Australian states which have followed quite different health protocols to control COVID, all within the same national boundary of Australia, a veritable living experiment.

For almost a year, some Liberal states (like NSW) and their politicians have been sledging off at Labour led Victoria for applying lock down after lock down to control the virus, which they eventually did, even allowing Victoria to open up to other States at different times.

Most Victorians have been grateful to the Labour Premier of Victoria (Daniel Andrews) for  firmly listening to his health experts in mounting lock-downs despite virulent attacks by the Liberal federal Government and even a few liberal premiers, like that of NSW, who all wanted Victoria to open up for economic reasons.

Sadly, after virtually eliminating new cases for months, COVID was reintroduced into Victoria by careless removalists from NSW and Victoria is now again in a two week lock-down. So also are South Australia and Western Australia.

But in NSW, COVID is raging out of control, with the Liberal NSW Premier (Gladys Berejiklian) dilly dallying for weeks trying to avoid a lockdown despite the health advice from epidemiologists.

The NSW Premier has finally given in and started to tighten the lock down, after daily cases rose to over 100 per day (and it is still rising as I write).

Fiji should closely monitor what is happening in NSW and Victoria as these two states have great lessons for Fiji.

Will NSW and Victoria painfully bring COVID under control over the next few month or will COVID rage out of control, as it has in Fiji.

All here recognize that the only long term solution will be comprehensive national vaccination to over 90% of the 12 and over population, probably not achievable until the end of next year.

What Medical Advice?

Fiji people should understand that to counter this COVID-19 pandemic, the Government should listen not just to any old “health expert” but to “epidemiologists”.

Epidemiologists are health and statistically trained professional who study outbreaks of diseases (like flu or SARS or Ebola or COVID-19), identify the causes, how it spreads, how it can be controlled and hopefully eliminated, and how future outbreaks can be discouraged (such as through vaccines).

All professional epidemiologists in Australia have consistently pointed to the importance of “locking down” the population to stop them from moving around and thereby spreading the virus.  They have consistently said that lives must be saved first before livelihoods can be saved.

It has been a tragedy that in Fiji, the top health professional fronting up to the media, while having many good messages initially, unfortunately became ambivalent about the efficacy of “lock-downs” (Fiji Village report, 1 July 2021).

In replying to the clear advice from the NZ PM Ardern on the efficacy of lockdowns, Fong publicly worried about the willingness of the Fiji public to comply and whether there would be adequate resources made available.

But many wise public commentators have pointed out Fiji’s rulers, often military commanders, have never had any difficulty enforcing national curfews to suit themselves or to make available billions of taxpayers’ funds for their political priorities.

While some commentators have also pointed out that Dr James Fong is not an epidemiologist but a gynecologist, surely there is no excuse for the abject failure of the Fiji media to ensure that the Fiji public gets the best advice from Australian and NZ epidemiologists.

Fiji’s irresponsible media

During national crises such as the COVID pandemic, the national media have a sacred responsibility to ensure that the public is educated about the nature of the crisis, what the international experts are advising, whether the national authorities are appropriately responding and what the public ought to be doing to protect themselves and their families.

Schools of journalism (if they had any initiative) would have already investigated why three of the most important media in Fiji (with the sole exclusion of The Fiji Times), have utterly failed in their responsibility to educate the Fiji public about the importance of lockdowns in tacklimg the COVID crisis.

One print media and two television  networks have chosen to cravenly follow the Government line rather than fulfil  their broad responsibility to the public.

Given these days of Zoom, there is no reason why the two television stations in Fiji, could not transmitted consultations with reputable Australian or NZ epidemiologists who would have no hesitation in giving free interviews, as they do on a daily basis here in Australia (or NZ).

Fiji does not have to rely on the advice of its national health expert, a gynecologist and a civil servant who probably has to toe the line set  by his political masters (as virtually every Fiji civil servant does today).

The vaccination solution

The pain of all the Australian states has been sharpened because the federal Government of Scott Morrison failed abjectly to take up the international offers of vaccines when they appeared early last year.

His airy comments last year (“we are not in a race to obtain vaccines”) have come back to haunt him, probably till the next election in 2022.  Australia is now at the bottom of the pile among the OECD countries in population vaccination rates, although there is an accelerated attempt to  obtain more vaccine supplies.

While China is able to build a 3000 bed COVID facility in less than a month, the federal Australian Government has failed for more than a year to build a dedicated quarantine facility which would not have the weaknesses of hotel quarantine, as pointed out by the epidemiologists.

But they apparently have little difficulty in spending billions on establishing military bases in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in scandalously spending more than a billion without tender in imprisoning a hundred asylum seekers on Nauru (currently breaking news in Australia).

It is now recognized in Australia that in addition to the periodic lock-downs to ensure that COVID cases do not overpower the health system to breaking point, the only long term solution will be to vaccinate the entire population (or at least 80% of the over 12 population).

There are ongoing debates about the efficacy of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, the Sinovac and others, but all experts say that some vaccine is better than none, especially as the world can expect more mutations of the virus making even current vaccines ineffective.

What now for Fiji?

Because of the failure of Fiji’s arrogant rulers to impose a national lockdown, the options for the people are now terribly limited.

The Fiji NGOs, unions and community leaders can call for the people to themselves impose a lock-down on themselves, as many sensible families are doing already.

But there is no alternative but for the health authorities to embark on a systematic campaign to vaccinate the entire nation.

Fiji is lucky that there are many donors (Australia, NZ, China and India) who are willing to give vaccines as aid and hopefully there will be no shortages.

But to stop people travelling to centers to receive their jabs, mobile clinics need to go from town to town, suburb to suburb, and village to village, until the whole nation is vaccinated.

By which time, almost certainly and tragically, Fiji will have suffered thousands more infections and hundreds more deaths.

The Bainimarama Government can blame the current COVD crisis on the ordinary population for “not following the Government’s rules”, as did the British Government in 1875.  But our simple comparison with NZ above shows clearly the responsibility of Fiji’s rulers for the COVID disaster its citizens face today.

The Bainimarama Government threatens civil servants with a loss of their jobs if they do not vaccinate.

But who in the Bainimarama Government will ever lose his job, because of the failure of Government to prevent the hundreds of unnecessary deaths and thousands of unnecessary COVID cases unable to be cared for by Fiji’s faltering health system?

Time will tell, but don’t hold your breath.

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