COVID-19 and food poverty
by Prof. Biman Prasad, NFP Leader
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 24th April 2021
Fiji is back at a critical point in the coronavirus crisis. We must take it seriously. All of us must work together to minimise danger to our people’s health and economic well-being.
All over the world countries are going through devastating second and third waves of this disease. Globally, more than three million lives have been lost. The virus itself is adapting. It is becoming easier to catch than before. And it has mutated into variants.
This critical question of which variant has the potential to have catastrophic consequences for Fiji should be answered next week when results of an analysis of samples taken from Covid patient(s) are obtained from Australia. So says the Health Ministry.
We are in a deadly race to vaccinate all our people before the virus becomes stronger than the vaccines. Ongoing vaccine shortages are possible.
In Fiji good management - and if we are honest, some good luck - spared us from the first wave. But there are no guarantees going forward.
We agree that the there is no choice but to impose lockdowns and other measures that affect people in Viti Levu. We should restrict our movements, practice social distancing in public spaces and re-focus on handwashing and sanitising. And most importantly wear clean masks.
The costly breach
There has been a breach of quarantine protocols. There will be a time for us to focus on this. The Government’s focus has been on a quarantine facility maid who apparently contracted the coronavirus from a soldier. But we have yet to establish how the solider contracted it.
We must analyse any mistakes that have been made so that we can learn from them. The Government must share these lessons with us, together with the steps it is taking to improve.
If we are asking Fiji’s people to share the burden of this crisis, the people must have confidence in Government protocols and processes. We need to be assured that nothing is hidden from us when mistakes are made.
But the last one week has proven to us beyond any doubt the price we have to pay for relaxing our guards. It shows us how deadly and costly lackadaisical attitude of any frontline worker, undoubtedly working tirelessly to protect the nation and its people, can be if he or she momentarily ignores basic protocols.
Soldiers have been applauded for their role as frontline workers. We even heard suggestions from some quarters in this government for other nations, particularly New Zealand and Australia, to learn from the highly efficient and clockwork precision like roles being played by soldiers to keep Fiji safe and Covid-free for over a year.
However, a costly slip-up, oversight, or goose-stepping of protocols, albeit by a lone soldier, has given rise to many claims and perceptions about what actually goes on in quarantine facilities.
The authorities tell us they will deal with this decisively. What is the extent of decisiveness will hopefully become clearer sooner rather than later.
Food poverty is real
But what should be Government’s priority right now, apart from primarily focusing on ensuring a Covid-free nation once again, is addressing food poverty exacerbated by the current crisis.
Income, food, and medical care support for our people right now is critical. The restrictions and lockdowns will impose further burden on the poor and those who were already struggling to make ends meet. In addition, more are likely to be affected as a result of further economic down-turn created by the restrictions.
While the Ministry of Health is fully engaged in the containment of the local transmission, the Ministry of Social Welfare as well as the Ministry of Economy must develop inter-related programmes and action plans to support those who will need assistance to survive these restrictions.
Mostly importantly, government must ensure that our poor, needy and under-privileged are able to afford basic necessities of life and put food on the table three times a day to feed the families.
We were recently told by a diplomat, that our people, particularly in economically ravaged Western Division, which was and still can be the lifeblood of Fiji’s economy and growth, are hungry and basically suffering from food poverty.
The recent poverty report based on 2019/2020 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) done before the COVID-19 pandemic showed that poverty levels did not go down as claimed previously.
A poverty rate of almost 30 percent means about 258,000 individuals are living in poverty. If we add those on the margins of the poverty line we could be looking at a poverty rate of about 50 percent right now in the country. This is a truth hard to swallow but it is very real.
It basically means Governments’ policies over the years could not bring it down. This is heartbreaking and extremely tragic for a nation that supposedly enjoyed 10 years of unprecedented economic boom until 2019. What happened to the everlasting fruits of that boom is anyone’s guess but the reality of the matter is 50% of our population is doomed unless there is immediate help.
While the boom was described as historic, food poverty, rising unemployment and deterioration of fundamentals like education and health have severe consequences on people.
If not addressed, they can be catastrophic. The last thing a government needs is an impoverished and malnourished population further straining to the sinews of already struggling public health and medical care facilities.
Act now or forever be doomed
In October 2008, The Fiji Times had a headline “Poor feed on chicken heads”. This was based on the findings by the newspaper of a town and its rural areas in the Western Division. Poverty rate was around 50%. The economy was struggling and cost of living was stratospherically high.
It was a direct result of the ramifications of he December 2006 coup.
Come 2020 and beyond, the situation is being repeated and replayed. The economy is severely depressed. Covid-19 and God knows whether it’s a deadlier variant, is here upon us.
So what is happening?
Home burglaries and robberies are happening but only cooked food and food items are stolen – not money, jeweler or any other expensive item. Just food.
The government of the day has been consecutively in power for more than 14 years since 4th January, 2007 when the current PM became head of an interim government.
Any government shouldn’t shirk its responsibility of social and economic justice to the increasingly unacceptable numbers of people in poverty. It is time, government and especially Ministry of Social Welfare work with NGOs to identify the most vulnerable and extend immediate help to them.
For once, this government must honestly demonstrate that politics is not about only elections but alleviating the plight of our people.
This is by delivering on its social and economic responsibilities particularly targeted at rejuvenating, protecting and uplifting the livelihoods so that they and their families and children have three decent meals per day.