8 Jul 2021

Worst yet to come in Fiji with Covid-19 - former Health Minister

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 8 July 2021

The Covid-19 crisis in Fiji is "mind boggling" and a "sickening environment to be in," a former Fiji Health Minister says.

Dr Neil Sharma told Checkpoint the worst is yet to come for the island nation, as people run short on food, the morgue is full, and body bags run out.

Yesterday Fiji recorded 791 new Covid-19 cases and three deaths from the virus. The Covid-19 death toll is now 42.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has resisted calls for a one-month lockdown. He said it would completely cripple Fiji economically. Instead people were being told to socially distance and wear masks.

But Dr Neil Sharma, who served as Fiji's Health Minister between 2009 and 2014, describes an island nation that is already crippled.

'Hospitals are full, the mortuary is full, we're running low on body bags'

"We are overwhelmed with the situation here. The numbers of positive cases daily is on the increase and as a consequence there's a lot of concern in the community. There's a lot of fear.

"It's a massive situation with an increasing number of cases and increasing number of deaths which are being recorded.

"The health system is quite battered, being hammered every day. Hospitals are full, the mortuary is full, we're running low on body bags. It's not a very good situation to be in."

The question of lockdown is a catch-22, Dr Sharma said, as about 20 percent of Suva's population lived in poor, crowded conditions.

Many are being laid off from work due to the virus and are struggling to get food on the table. Some are able to take money our of their superannuation fund, but there is a limit to what the government can provide.

"The NGOs are working very hard, providing food in small amounts… but when you're living in these squalid conditions social distancing is thrown out the window," Dr Sharma said.

"You have six, seven people living in one room. A lean-to shed. So how you separate, how you socially distance is a problem. 

"Then you've got to get out and earn some money. So if you can't earn money, you beg, borrow or steal. 

"You climb somebody's coconut tree and you get all the coconuts and sit on the roadside and sell the coconuts.

"It's not an impressive scene, you feel very sad, the children are going hungry as a consequence. It's a very compounded position we are in.

"The hospital system is overloaded, full, we've got people in home confinement, but then again with this sort of situation… and our people don't have that health-seeking behaviour.

"They only arrive when they're gasping, or they're dead."

The long waiting lines put people off coming to hospital earlier, he said.

'It's bound to get worse, cases are escalating'

"At the same time then you have to look at the cultural part of it. People believe in traditional medicine… and they don't turn up adequately in time.

"When they don't turn up in time it's something everybody needs to be concerned about, because it affects the socially deprived. They don't turn up, maybe they don't have a taxi fare or they ring and the ambulance service is not able to provide its service.

"It's a mind-boggling and a very sickening environment to be in.

"It's bound to get worse, because cases are escalating and then obviously if you look at international data the deaths follow in a week, 10 days' time.

"So you're going to get more deaths, you're going to get more cases. And with this sort of scenario it'll spread into the community.

"Then without a lockdown we've got another problem. And the vaccinations are coming in dribs and drabs."

Dr Sharma said Fiji needed an effective vaccination programme preceded by good public awareness, with churches, faith groups and NGOs involved.

"At this stage the social platform is not strong enough to provide food, and as a consequence the government is hesitating to lockdown, because then it will not have the finances to provide the food and nourishment people need."

He is advising people to gather food, isolate and stay at home.

"We need the vaccines. If we get the vaccines in time, within a three month period, if we get the herd immunity with 60, 70 percent of our population covered, we would be able to avoid further lockdowns."

Dr Sharma said those in Suva living in slum conditions were most in need of support.  

"I think New Zealand and Australia bring so much for Fiji. I think your efforts should be targeted to non-governmental organisations to be able to distribute, food and rations… the most important thing at this point.

"Our health systems are under a lot of strain and they need to be able to identify what the needs are. We have one of the highest incidences of NCDs in the world - kidney failure, heart disease, so we're running low on medication.

"I wish there would be some means of being able to look after these people a lot more effectively, because the hospitals are closed, being sanitised, disinfected. The clinics are closed, the pharmacies are closed, so these people are wandering around without medication.

"So we are going to get a high incidence of unexplained deaths to other causes such as non-communicable diseases.

"I think we're going to lose a lot of people. If there's no clear national plan, a lot more people will die."