Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua - Response to H.E. the President's 2020-2021 Opening of Parliament Speech
Wednesday 9th December 2020
Response by NFP VP Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua
Debate on His Excellency’s Address
Parliament of the Republic of Fiji
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
By Hon Lenora Qereqeretabua
I first of all want to congratulate Hon Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu on his election to the position of Leader of the Opposition and pay tribute to the former Leader of Opposition, Mr Sitiveni Rabuka for his leadership over the past two years.
I welcome to the House Honorable Virendra Lal, a former workmate, and Hon Tanya Waqanika, the 11thWoman MP in Fiji’s Parliament and a daughter of Kadavu.
I now wish to turn my attention to His Excellency the President’s address. In his most gracious speech, H.E. alluded to the direction government will be taking during this new session of Parliament saying that “as we press ahead in our work to drive bluer, greener, more inclusive, and more sustainable development, the government’s focus in this parliamentary session will be centred on three key priorities:
1 - Our containment of COVID-19;
2 - Our economy’s recovery; and
3 - Our response to the climate, oceans and biodiversity crises.
His Excellency lauded the efforts of our Health workers, our Disciplined Forces; and all those on the frontline in keeping us COVID-19 contained and enabling the nation to mark the Golden Jubilee of our Independence.
His Excellency is right that we bit the bullet early to keep our people safe. Most admirable and indeed worthy of praise.
But Mr Speaker, the true test of our mettle will come once the borders re-open and efforts are ramped up to kick-start the economy through tourism—whether or not we are prepared for what lies ahead largely depends on the people of Fiji; the populations of our most lucrative markets; and whether we and they have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
But more locally Mr Speaker, achieving all this largely depends on the unequivocal success of the contact tracing features of the highly recommended government Care Fiji App that we have all been asked to download and activate on our mobile phones.
A few days ago, we had the first taste of what could happen when the borders re-open, when the Health Ministry scrambled to isolate health personnel and others who had come into contact with Covid-19 positive crew members of a cargo ship that berthed both in the Lautoka and Suva ports.
The point that stood out like a sore thumb was that in briefings by the health ministry, there was no mention of contact tracing efforts through the Care Fiji App to track down and isolate those who had come into contact with these health personnel.
Why Mr Speaker? This App was designed for this purpose—that is precisely what we were told by the honourable Attorney General, Fiji Sun and FBC who, without checking, admonished Members of the Parliamentary Opposition as being unpatriotic for failing to download and install the App.
And on the topic of Patriotism—whatever has happened to the promised $10, 000 prize money for the best-decorated home for Fiji Day? According to the Fiji Government advert, the winner would be announced on Fiji Day, October 10th; which has come and gone. November 10th has come and gone. Tomorrow is December 10th. What are we waiting for – Christmas? For a photo opportunity with a family who could have done with their prize money much earlier?
Bringing it back to COVID-19; why aren’t the people of Fiji being told to breathe easy because all our health professionals and citizens who have come into contact with the affected crew and with each other have been identified and isolated for safety reasons because the Care Fiji App has worked?
One would have thought that the Care Fiji App would have made contact tracing a swift and decisively effective tool to prevent fear, panic and a rise in rumours.
There has been no demonstration of the effectiveness of the App for the purpose it has been supposedly designed for, which is swift and decisive contact tracing.
Putting the blame on COVID-19 for Fiji’s current state will not fix our health woes.
It will not alleviate concerns surrounding Fiji’s ability to handle a health crisis arising out of border re-opening.
And worst of all, the long-standing problems within our public health and medical system and infrastructure cannot be blamed on Covid.
Hon Speaker, during the Opposition Leaders’ Listening tour in late September, early October, I found out that many Village nurses all over Fiji were still owed pay, some for months! I am happy that 2 of the nurses I contacted yesterday told me that they have since been fully paid, but why did it have to take my intervention? One of them had not been paid since November 2019. 2019 Mr Speaker, let that sink in. Is it because the office responsible is under-resourced? If so, I urge the Ministry of Health and Medical Services to look into this immediately so it is not repeated. It shouldn’t take Opposition members to raise these issues publicly before it is addressed. Government needs to do right by its employees and honour its commitments.
Hon Speaker, His Excellency touched on Kidney Dialysis –which I will speak about shortly. Like Kidney Dialysis, Anti-Retroviral therapy (ART) is a life-saving treatment for people living with HIV. This is a daily dose of Anti-Retroviral drugs. The HIV/AIDS Act 2011, as I am sure you are aware of, being an ambassador for HIV, ensures access to HIV tests, accessibility to treatment and protection from discrimination.
One of the instructions from HIV clinicians is to adhere to Anti - Retroviral Therapy (ART); by taking HIV medicine daily. The goal of ART is to, 1) boost the immune system and, 2) reduce the quantity of the virus. And to determine this, two tests are needed – CD4 count (checking the strength of a patient’s immune system) and the viral load test (to determine the quantity of the virus). These drugs are provided at no cost.
Unfortunately, many people living with HIV have been having annual drug holidays, not by choice but because stock of medication is intermittently available. This is the case for a person living with HIV who I know. This person’s most recent drug holiday lasted a little over 7 weeks long. After 5 weeks, when he was told to pick up his drugs, they were missing one of the combinations. Almost three weeks later, the third of his drug combination arrived, after being out of stock.
When this happens, one needs a blood test to determine the best combination to continue treatment. But both the CD4 count test and the viral load test were out of stock and, I have been reliably told, only arrived into Fiji in late October – HOWEVER – upon this patient’s last visits to his Suva-based doctor (at the Oceania Hospital), on the 23rd and 30th November, these two tests were still not available to be used on the patient despite the kits being in stock.
Why is this happening so often, putting the lives of people living with HIV at stake? I plead with the Ministry to please close the loopholes that are allowing these forced medication holidays.
People living with HIV must be able to access the correct, consistent and monitored medical treatment.
Mr Speaker, I wish to speak about broken promises relating to subsidising kidney dialysis treatment—a matter that NFP has continued to bring to Parliament.
On 29th July, 2020, when I moved a motion during the 2020-21 budget debate to have the dialysis subsidy increased from $100,000 to $3.5 million to ensure low-income families pay only $75 per session for dialysis instead of $150, $200 or even $250, the honourable Minister for Health assured Parliament that the National Dialysis and Kidney Research Centre would be fully operational in November 2020.
Once again, it looks like “fully operational” is still in the pipeline and may finally exit this pipeline as we approach the next general elections!
On that night in July, the Health Minister, in his response, blamed the supply of equipment as the reason for the delay in making the centre fully operational. He said machines had been ordered and the nephrologist had already identified 40 patients who were to undergo treatment.
So I ask Mr Speaker, why is the Centre still closed? Why is there still no subsidised dialysis for patients in the Western, Central and Eastern Divisions?
Why is government treating with contempt, the lives of our dialysis patients by continually breaking promises year in and year out?
Mr Speaker, tomorrow, the 10th of December marks the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based violence. Everywhere around the world numbers of domestic violence cases have risen as COVID-19 lockdowns have meant that many victims are forced to live in close quarters with their abusers.
GENDER-BASED violence and violence against women and girls is a global pandemic—exacerbated further by COVID-19, and it affects one in three women in their lifetime. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Fiji also face challenges not experienced by non-LGBT people—what is Government doing to address these issues? I am grateful for organisations including the Rainbow Pride Foundation and Haus of Chameleon to name just two, for the work they are doing for the community.
Addressing the issues of another group of our citizens must also be prioritized—those living with disabilities.
To quote Mr Setareki Macanawai, CEO, Pacific Disability Forum, “Persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic due to a combination of higher health-related risks, loss of income, and disruption to their support systems”.
Mr Speaker, I fully believe that our economy’s recovery depends greatly on how we treat each other now, it depends on full and fair Consultation, on Empathy and on Compassion.
There is no doubt that leadership will be one of the most heavily tested skills throughout the coronavirus pandemic, here and abroad. In Fiji we see a wide range of leaders facing a range of challenges: There are those running businesses and organizations, who are trying to save jobs, stop the bleeding out of cash and savings, and innovate. School Heads working out new processes for ensuring student progress and holding graduations. Public health workers making recommendations for people in poverty-stricken areas, where social distancing or hand washing with clean, safe water with soap are luxuries, and are struggling to share honest information while keeping fear at bay. And then there are the Leaders or Heads of families trying to put food on the table when jobs have been lost and tummies are empty and there are extra mouths to feed.
Yesterday I drove past a huge group of taxi drivers having a meeting in a Suva car-park and an hour later I was able to ask a driver what the gathering was about. He told me that the drivers were being encouraged to accept E-Ticketing in their taxis – something none of them are in favour of. I asked him why and he told me that from a day’s cash takings, a driver can top up his/her fuel tank whenever needed, get something for the family for lunch or dinner, pay base-fees and do any number of things with ease because of the availability of cash. E-ticketing in taxis would end this freedom. Now if this taxi driver does not properly understand how E-ticketing would work IF implemented in taxis – then a huge exercise in communications is needed from Govt. This would be Leadership.
As Leaders, Emotional intelligence is at the core of being able to make these behavioral shifts in the people you lead, or purport to lead; Empathy, Communication (what you say, how you say it), and a physical aspect (observation of tone, gestures) are key.
Now on our response to the climate, oceans and biodiversity crises, I say; Fiji needs to see a commitment to protecting our environment translated into more action; and I quote the Honorable Prime Minister in early April last year, after the arrest and release of three Kiwi journalists who were carrying out investigations on Malolo Island in the Mamanuca’s:-
“We will continue to lead from the front on this issue, at home and abroad. We will continue to walk the talk, for the sake of our environment, for the sake of our way of life, and for the sake of all those who come after us.”
And in this respect, I turn my attention to The Department of Environment, in particular, it’s Waste Management and Pollution Control Unit which is responsible for waste and pollution control in Fiji Solid Waste, Liquid Waste, Air Pollution, Hazardous and Chemical Waste.
The basic functions of this unit presently are to look after all waste and pollution control matters including; complaints & Enforcement of waste laws and regulation.
I have spoken about the Department’s website on several occasions in this august house, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday when I went on the website, it highlighted, as it has done for years – Challenges faced by the Waste Management and Pollution Control Unit and I quote:-
“One of the major challenges is the lack of financial and technical resources; currently there are about 5-6 staff who handle waste and pollution-related matters Fiji-wide.”
Mr Speaker, last Sunday morning Northerly winds pushed diesel and debris onto the Nasese shoreline. The usual South Easterly Tradewinds would take this fuel and debris into Draunibota Bay, the village of Muaivuso, and further afield, impacting coral reefs, costal fisheries, mangroves and the livelihoods and health of seaside communities. Now what is concerning is there is no information on the website on who we should contact at the Department in the event of an environmental emergency.
May I suggest proper patrols in our harbours to monitor the oil spills because this is how you can see which vessel it is coming from, often under the cover of darkness. Stricter Enforcement and Harsher Fines are a must.
Mr Speaker, if Fiji is to earn its title as a global environmental champion, I think we must at the very least give more financial and technical resources to the Waste Management and Pollution Control Unit of the Department responsible for safeguarding Fiji’s environment.
Mr Speaker, Most of us in Fiji absolutely love our fresh fish from the ocean; whether simply boiled or Curried with surwa; Fried for chaser; Steamed Chinese style; Vakalolo; Sashimi; Poke; or good old Kokoda. And we especially love Parrotfish also known as Ulavi, Kakarawa or Kamotu in some places. Herbivorous fish including Ulavi, Balagi, Nuqa and Ta feed on the algae that grow on corals. By eating the algae, these fish play a big role in the conservation of coral reefs and the survival of the entire ecosystem. But they are being overfished, causing a dangerous imbalance to occur on our reefs; algae thriving on reefs, blocking life-giving sunlight from reaching the coral, ultimately resulting in their deaths.
Last Friday, In order to build my own capacity around conservation efforts, I attended a one-day Coral Restoration programme, funded by the US Embassy and run by Dr Victor Bonito, head-scientist of the Reef Explorer Fiji, in Votua, in the Tikina of Korolevu-i-Wai. I learned so much and I am so enthused that I now want to implement what I have learned.
Mr Speaker, Dr Victor Bonito, a coral reef scientist, who has been working in Fiji for more than 15 years has been working closely with the community to restore coral reefs.
The development of small-scale coral cultivation and restoration efforts is one of the activities that Reef Explorer has been assisting district villages with since 2006. This initiative began in village Marine Protected Areas or MPAs, largely as an educational and economic tool, but has evolved to become an integral and growing part of management activities, particularly as a climate change measure and to engage village youth in marine ecotourism and conservation.
The four villages of the Tikina of Korolevu I Wai each now have a permanent Tabu MPA, vital for communities exposed to the ravages of human activity including tourism, growing village populations and farming.
Mr Speaker, Wow! The beauty and the health of the Coral, and the variety and number of fish
in the Coral Restoration area where we snorkelled, is a sight I wish everyone could see, to appreciate the importance of our Coral Reefs to our biodiversity, our fish stocks and our fight against climate change.
Some 6 to 10 years after their establishment, the Marine Protected Areas or Tabu have 500% more live coral cover and 50% greater species richness of coral than adjacent fished areas, little to no seaweeds, and 30% more food fish, 50% more species of food fish, and 500% more biomass of food fish than the adjacent fished or Tara areas.
Similar Coral Restoration work is taking place in a few other locations in Fiji led or mentored by both Dr Victor and by Dr Austin Bowden-Kerby, a renowned coral reef restoration expert also known as the “Coral Gardener” promoting a high level of community participation in the management of natural resources.
I thank HE The President for his most gracious speech, and I underscore the points I have highlighted in my reply with a well known quote; “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
May this Christmas renew in us a love for our fellow Fijians; for those who are struggling and downtrodden, and remember that Jesus is the reason for the season.