May 16, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

Alongside the myriad stories of closed borders, unemployment, struggling health systems, surging COVID cases and accompanying increase in poverty, there is another heart-wrenching COVID-19 experience – not being able to be with loved ones in their last days on earth.

This is a Fijian story, but applicable across the globe to diaspora who left their homelands to migrate to greener pastures, for whatever reason: to escape political tyranny, hardship, or lack of opportunity at home; to seek temporary work on some labour mobility scheme; or to follow another loved one. (It is now also a domestic story of many nations, cities and states bordering each other with restrictions on movement, facing the same heart-wrenching pain of loss, suffered alone and without that final hug.)

Among the exodus that left after Fiji’s first military coup and since were the three children of my aunt and uncle. The eldest a tax accountant moved with his wife to Australia in 1997; the only daughter a BA graduate married another diaspora son in the US and moved there in 1997 too; and the youngest and his wife, both teachers, moved to New Zealand in 2006. A classic Fijian family: the children dispersed across Australia, New Zealand and the United States; only the parents left behind.

Over the years both parents and children made many trips to visit each other. There were trips into Fiji for holidays; and trips out of Fiji for the birth of grandchildren, and to utilise Australia’s superior medical service. At one stage, the parents even moved themselves to the US. But as you grow older, there is no place like home, and thus my Barima and Dadaji came back to live in Fiji, in their own home, while their children stayed abroad.

Badly managed diabetes in Fiji took the couple to Brisbane, Australia, in 2009; however, an amputation couldn’t be avoided. Despite a perfectly fitted prosthetic leg, depression set in for the golf-loving, soccer referee uncle, with life ending in 2016 due to diabetic and other complications.

It was not so long after that Barima herself began to go noticeably downhill. COVID-19 hit, and borders closed in March 2020. When we stopped by during Diwali in October of last year, she wouldn’t open the gate. When we phoned she asked who we were. Loneliness and dementia was setting in. Then a fall which wasn’t noticed by carers until too late landed her at Lautoka hospital. The extended family in Fiji did what they could, but the remaining relatives in Lautoka City are now themselves elderly, and frail. Infrequent visits were made by close relatives, the children kept daily tabs via Viber with the carers and doctors on duty, funding all that was required for their mother’s care. Barima died with one of her two carers and medical personnel at her bedside in her last days.

My cousins tried to come across to see their mother before she died. In the end, they just weren’t able to, but I have recorded some of our findings in a forthcoming blog in case it helps anyone else in a similar situation.

Barima’s death seems tragic. She died without her children holding her close in her final moments, her funeral pyre lit by another Jahaji son (a bond based on being a fellow immigrant who sailed across the seas from India and settled in Fiji) and a family friend who took it upon himself to care for her in her last years. Millions across the globe have been similarly affected in this fight against COVID-19, with closed borders, infrequent flights, expensive and hard to get quarantine facilities, all of which do not allow for timely farewells.

If you’re lucky you’ll make that flight, and quarantine for that final hug, or at least the funeral. If you’re not, you make do with a live streamed farewell. Separated by continents, it is our memories of our loved ones that causes such pain, but also that sustains us in times of grief.

We need to remember not only those we have lost to COVID-19, but also those, like my cousins and my aunt, who have suffered as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and separations, who have been isolated precisely when they are most vulnerable, and most need to be together. We owe it to the memory of the dead, and the suffering of the living, to all work together to end the scourge of COVID-19, and reopen borders with all required and tested protocols in place, just as soon but only when it is safe to do so.

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University.

Sadhana Sen is the Regional Communications Adviser at the Development Policy Centre.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji says recent locally transmitted cases and containment measures will prolong already subdued economic activity in the country.

The RBF's April statement reports that visitor arrivals were down of course, as was electricity (-13.4%) and mahogany. There was a big boost in pine log production, woodchips and sawn timber as a result of increased demand. Gold production also increased 17.5% due to higher quality ore being minded.

There were declines in net VAT collections (down 27.8%), consumer credit (down 24.1%), new vehicle sales (-17.8%) and registrations, reflecting weak consumption activity. However there was strong growth in second-hand vehicle registrations (up 122%), “driven in part by the budgetary changes around vehicle imports.”

The job market is very subdued; job adverisements declined by 75.8% for the year to March. Compulsory Fiji National Provident Fund membership dropped 64% for the same period.

Private sector credit fell 3.7% in March for the ninth consecutive month.

“In terms of the Bank’s twin objectives, inflation remains low and foreign reserves are ample” the statement says. It says inflation slipped to -1.2% due to lower prices for local food, alcohol and yaqona.

The Asian Development Bank expects Pacific Island economies to return to positive growth this year, although at different rates, and with a great deal riding on successful vaccine roll-outs.

Pacific economies contracted by an estimated 5.8% last year due to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism and trade flows, and construction activity. The region's economies are forecast to recovery to 1.4% this year, and 3.8% in 2022, although this is “contingent on improvements in tourism numbers, commencement of delayed construction projects, and resumption of labor mobility and cross-border trade,” according to the ADB.

ADB Director General for the Pacific, Leah Gutierrez says the start of vaccine rollout in many Pacific Island nations bodes well for a level of economic recovery. “However, risks to the recovery remain, particularly in tourism-oriented economies that are feeling the heaviest impacts of the pandemic crisis,” Gutierrez says.

Specific forecasts for Pacific Island nations as per the ADB’s latest outlook report are as follows:             

Cook Islands: GDP is expected to fall by more than a quarter (26%) in 2021, before recovering to growth of 6% in 2022.

Federated States of Micronesia: GDP contraction of 1.8% in 2021, 2% growth in 2022.

Fiji: 2% growth in 2021, 7.3% growth in 2022 following an “unprecedented 19% contraction last year”. The ADB says it make take some years for the economy to return to its pre-pandemic levels.

Kiribati: Small contraction of 0.2% this year, 2.3% growth next year.

Marshall Islands: Negative growth of 1.4% in 2021, 2.5% growth in 2022.

Nauru: GDP growth of 1.5%, 1% in 2022 with the impending closure of the Regional Processing Centre.

Palau: Decline of 7.8%  this year, growth of 10.4% next year.

Papua New Guinea: Moderate 2.5% growth in 2021, 3% in 2022, although the recent surge in cases threatens prospects for economic recovery.

Samoa: GDP down 9.2% in 2021, recovering to 3.1% in 2022 once full vaccine coverage is achieved.

Solomon Islands: 1% growth this year, 4.5% in 2022 as fishing and construction rebound.

Tonga: a 5.3% contraction exacerbated by Tropical Cyclone Harold in 2021, 1.8% growth in 2022.

Tuvalu: 2.5% growth in 2021, 2% next year.

Vanuatu: 2% growth in 2021 and 4% in 2022, but this is dependent on a successful vaccination rollout and establishment of travel bubbles.

Palau travel bubble hits a snag

  • May 16, 2021
  • Published in April

The travel bubble between Taiwan and Palau is in danger of popping following low interest from Taiwanese tourists to take a holiday from a year of COVID-19  border restrictions.

In an effort to revitalise Palau’s economy which was devastated by COVID-19 in 2020 (with GDP down by 9.5% according to the Asian Development Bank), Palau and Taiwan announced the launching of a travel bubble last month.

President Surangel Whipps Jr. said after months of discussions,  the bubble could finally happen. He flew to Taiwan for an official visit, returning to Palau days later with 100 tourists.

Amongst them was Hung Tzu-jen, who is the deputy superintendent at the Shin Kong Wu Ho Su Memorial Hospital. Speaking through a translator, he lauded Palau's efforts to ensure that the bubble was safe. Hung said it was his first holiday outside Taiwan since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights between Taiwan and Palau were planned twice a week under the travel bubble or "sterile corridor".

While the inaugural flight on April 1  was much celebrated by both countries—with tourists excited and energised by the trip—the interest in flights subsequently dwindled.

Just 63 tourists have arrived since then. By April 14, China Airlines had cancelled the flight, saying only two tourists were interested. 

To read on visit emag.islandsbusiness.com

 

Barter for Better Fiji celebrates its one year anniversary today. The group has 193,300 members and is still hosting trades. In December 2020 we profiled Marlene Dutta as part of our 2020 People of the Year series. We're publishing a lightly edited version of that article in full again today.

**

Marlene Dutta is the brains, and the heart, behind Barter for Better Fiji. She is also our Pacific Community Champion for 2020. 

Early this year (2020), as borders closed in response to the pandemic and Fiji’s tourism industry came to an abrupt halt, Marlene Dutta started asking herself, “what do you do when there is no more cash?” At the same time, she said she felt she was becoming a “horrible person.” 

“I was just angry all the time. Everywhere I went, I felt no one was taking coronavirus seriously, there was little to no social distancing wherever you went…and I knew something had to give, something had to change.”

Dutta turned to social media, and specifically ‘kindness pandemic’ pages which offered positive messages and stories in response to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, looking for solutions to what was clearly an impending economic crisis, Dutta started to study barter—both the historical experience of barter around the globe as a response to crisis—and how it might be modernised.

She thought it could be an easy sell for Fijians. “People here understand barter, they claim it as part of their tradition, so there is that ownership of the concept. It is something we have continually done in smaller spaces and smaller circles. So for those reasons I felt it might be something worthwhile. I had no idea it would mushroom out to what it became but I just felt like it hit a few spots that people would resonate with.”

More than six months after it launched on April 21, the Barter for Better Fiji Facebook page had over 190,000 members and by a conservative estimate, more than 30,000 successful trades. Traders range from government ministers to subsistence farmers and the page has spawned a range of more localised pages, and micro and small enterprises. 

Before launching, Dutta tested her idea with a trusted group of friends, two of whom quickly came on to help, particularly as she started as a casual Facebook user, unaware of the many features and functions the platform provides.

“I remember having a conversation and I was told, just start and you will learn. If you wait until everything is in order you will never start it, so just do it and you will learn along the way, you’ll teach yourself. That was the plan, but having 2000 member in two days meant there was a huge, steep learning curve. Luckily people were encouraging right from the first go, and a lot of them were giving me pointers, telling me what I should do to moderate and how I could do it better, and that’s how I learnt…but the taking it slow and learning to train myself, that went out of the window very fast,” she said with a big laugh.

The page grew to close to 20,000 members in seven days and that is when another two friends came on board to help. Dutta drafted some moderation guidelines which they discussed, and which were underpinned by principles of kindness.

“The majority of people liked the space, they actually liked having a space where swearing wasn’t allowed, where you couldn’t run anyone down, where you couldn’t name and shame, and just kept comments positive, you couldn’t make fun of people, and it was refreshing for a lot of people, especially for our women and our older members, you could see that coming along strongly.”

The team also had to learn about and respond to local laws such as biosecurity regulations and restrictions on the trade of Walesi (TV set top boxes), as well as comply with Facebook’s global conditions of use relating to the age of users and trade in animals.

“For our farming communities and other people, that’s what they have, whether its chickens or ducks or pigs or goats or cows. Facebook has a blanket statement that you can’t trade or sell live animals and that is to protect the endangered [species]. You understand the reasoning, but it didn’t quite fit for us. So that was really really hard.”

Dutta said positive messaging—especially if posts had to be removed—has been very important. The moderators try to provide other options or contacts if they have to remove a post that falls foul of local laws or Facebook conditions. 

Barter for Better Fiji encourages debate if it is respectful. Fiji’s social media spaces can be poisonous; a place where a small number of people display hateful, vicious behaviour. Dutta said dealing with the online trolls has been mentally and emotionally draining, but “we knew that we had to be on top of it.” 

“It was incredible, we could see the patterns, who gets attacked and then how to respond to that. So by far, Indo-Fijian females got the most attacks, by everybody, if any of them put up something that was deemed  ‘unworthy’, boy they got slammed , followed by Indo-Fijian males, followed by Fijian women. And then Fijian men just let each other do whatever each other wanted. So in that order, we could see it. So we had to ensure that we were taking note of what was happening and how to best speak to that. 

“And I keep reminding the other admin people, this is a just a cross section of society because whatever is happening there, will happen here. And that’s just a fact of life, so all we can do is encourage [kindness], and it has reduced, it really has.

“That’s why we keep going back to one statement. At this time when you have nothing, when other people have nothing, the one thing everyone has to give is kindness. It doesn’t cost anybody anything and it just lifts everybody’s spirit and other people run with that, they take it off the page.”

The biggest lesson

On May 27, the United Nations Development Programme in the Pacific announced  Barter for Better for Fiji as one of the successful initiatives in its Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge. Individuals, organisations, community groups, private sector companies and associations, research and academic institutions had been invited to pitch their ideas and innovations in response to COVID-19, with the opportunity to receive US$10,000 to support and scale their ideas.

For Barter for Better Fiji, it was an opportunity to work with local communications company, Greenhouse Studio, to build a website. Dutta said they were excited by the possibilities a website could provide in terms of back-engine management and analytics, to offer options for people who were not on (and had no intention of joining) Facebook,  as well as the possibility of making trading more inclusive, for example, for blind users. 

However their success made them a target.  “One of Fiji’s prolific trollers started attacking us online, [asking] why we got the grant, how we got the grant and so in his head we failed on many different criteria, the first one being we were not an organisation, we were not formal, we were just an ad hoc group of people with a Facebook page so how could we have gotten this grant? And it started off with just that and then it spiralled into so many other things. Why do we need $10K USD when you can build a website for $300 now and all of this.”

While the Barter for Better Fiji moderators dealt with what they say were increasingly personal attacks on their gender, ethnicity and sexuality,  it was the lack of response from the UNDP office in Suva says Dutta, that was really disheartening.

Barter for Better Fiji asked UNDP to publicly clarify its position as the attacks escalated online, but said in response it received a one-line email, “is it possible for you to register?”

“For us, what he [their troller] was doing was irrelevant. It was how they were responding that just really left a bad taste in our mouth,” Dutta  said. “Zero, zero, zero responses to us.”

Eventually Barter for Better Fiji withdrew from the UNDP fund.

“We wrote to UN, stated the reasons why; lack of care, lack of response, all of these types of things, two weeks later they responded to say we accept your withdrawal. That was it. Just one line. That was it, case closed.” 

In response to a request for comment on the matter, UNDP told Islands Business: "Barter for Better was selected by UNDP as one of the winners of the COVID-19 Pacific Response: Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge in May. We realised there was an issue in finalising the process, and while we were engaged in seeking a solution to this, Barter for Better Fiji decided to withdraw from the Challenge. We appreciate and acknowledge the great work that BBF is doing to support communities and households [to] cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. We thank them for their participation, and wish them well in their endeavours." 

“It has probably been our biggest lesson,” Dutta said. 

Many other organisations have wanted to partner with Barter for Better Fiji, both locally and overseas, and the UNDP experience has made the group’s due diligence process even more rigorous. Dutta intends to poll members on potential future models, although posts testing the waters in this discussion show a strong preference from members to keep things as they are.

“We could still move to a website, it would make management of it a lot simpler because you wouldn’t need this heavy monitoring, but of course the downsides are too high. We’d lose the sense of community...you’d lose the talanoa, you’d lose all the people who are trading one thing but write 300 or 400 words around the trade, which people like. 

“The other thing we’ve heard is that they come to our group for that mental health check, a feel good factor, and so being efficient in a really clinical way, we’d lose that and for me that is just as important as trading.”

Bartering into the future

Dutta says moderators are seeing a change in the types of trades as Fiji’s borders, and its tourism industry, remain closed.

“What we’ve really noticed is that it has really come down to serve its purpose now, where you can see the desperation in the trades, you can see people are actively looking around their house for something they can try and give to get something. Another thing is that it has given people a bit more confidence as well in terms of listing what they want specifically. Before they were happy to accept whatever came across but now the needs are specific, so it’s ‘we need three tinned fish  or two packets of milk or this size diapers.’”

Localised barter pages have also proliferated, while others have morphed into buy and sell pages. A number of pages have been established in other Pacific islands including Vanuatu, PNG and Samoa, often by the Fiji diaspora in those communities. 

Dutta says an unexpected, but heart-warming development has been the way traders have turned their talents into small and micro businesses. 

“A lot of people have actually started businesses after initially bartering. And it’s part of the confidence I think. So the bakers, the piemakers and the donut makers, because they were so popular on it, and it gave them the confidence to know, ‘hey, actually my product is good, maybe I can start selling,’” she said.

“We’ve also got these really good electricians and plumbers and stuff who operated on their own, all of a sudden their customer base has  just exploded and if they are good and they get good reviews, people request them…they become paying clients.”

Dutta still sees room for improvement. She would like to see more use of vernacular languages—iTaukei and Hindi—to educate, advocate and teach on the page. She is still keen to explore other ways the platform can be more inclusive. 

“I keep telling people we are still in infancy stage, we’re only seven months out. So I am still info gathering to see how we can refine and improve.”

And what has she learnt about herself?  

“Patience” she says, before I even finish asking that question. 

“There are certain times where I’ve had to teach myself no, don’t respond yet. Go, come back, look at it in half an hour, an hour, when you’re in a different frame of mind or something, then respond or find the right words. 

“It’s been the patience and intentional use of words, what words lift up and what words cut down, and using the words that lift up. And focussing on the issue rather than the people behind the issue. Those simple things, that’s not just for me that’s for all of us.”

Dutta has been backed by a close-knit team from the start—Veena Singh,  Tavai Bale, Lisa Savu , Talei Tora and Liku Raduva—and she is quick to acknowledge her fellow volunteers. But it is ultimately her vision,  one she has sustained through personal attacks and the mental and emotional exhaustion that has wrought, despite disappointment in partners, and in the face of endless unpaid hours moderating the page. Barter for Better Fiji has created unexpected benefits beyond meeting a need to trade in the face of job losses including the building of new relationships, the birth of new micro businesses, and a master class in how to manage online communities in Fiji. But perhaps most important of these benefits is the power of kindness and generosity at the hardest of times. 

It is for all these reasons that Marlene Dutta is our Pacific Community champion of 2020.     

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