Many have faulted Fiji’s government for its handling of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. The argue that the refusal to lock the nation down hard allowed it to get a foothold. They highlight what they now see as the Fiji First government’s hubris at claiming victory over the virus, the way they offered themselves as an example for the Pacific to follow.
Fiji hide inside its shell, they say, and didn’t move when it should have. There should have been less of the tortoise, and more of the hare.
Fiji’s experience has been a bitter one, it’s true. But as Fiji, and Australia, New Zealand, and countless other nations have learned, the Delta variant is an entirely different thing from the virus we were fighting earlier on.
Not that further evidence was needed, but the startling number of cases in the French Pacific territories should make it clear that the Delta variant has created a more urgent kind of crisis for the Pacific.
New Caledonia was arguably just as successful—if not as quick to advertise it—as Fiji in maintaining a strict cordon, willing even to openly oppose Paris in the process.
Until recently, their experience was markedly different from French Polynesia, which suffered massive infection rates in the early days of the pandemic.
In barely the space of a week, the territory passed through dismay at finding three unrelated COVID cases in the wild, to the horror of nearly 600 cases. Half of those cases were recorded between Friday and Saturday alone.
None of the remaining COVID-free enclaves are better positioned to fight the virus than Fiji or New Caledonia. We’re not better; we’re just luckier. For now.
Pacific island governments ignore this warning their peril: We cannot continue to rely on closed borders to safeguard ourselves. Complacence is a threat to the safety of our nations.
Closed borders are a brittle defence. Castle walls failed to protect European warlords once cannons began to appear. The Maginot line fell in a week. Network firewalls have proven useless against the more sophisticated forms of computer attack we’re seeing these days.
The reason is the same in every case: It only takes one tiny breach to allow the invader to come pouring in. Border defence means that you have to win every time. The bad guy only has to win once to defeat you entirely.
That’s not to say we should give up and open our borders. Not at all. What we need is something called defence in depth. As Churchill might have said, we must fight the virus on the borders. We must fight it in our towns and villages. We must fight it in every building, and every home.
We must never give up. We must never surrender an inch to the virus.
So what do we do?
The time for hiding inside our shell has passed. Now we have to run as fast as we can to keep ahead of the virus.
The first and most obvious step is to treat vaccination with the urgency it deserves. It’s no longer sufficient to saunter along a years-long path toward total coverage. That’s a fool’s errand now. We have to accept that it could be mere months, possibly weeks, before the virus starts appearing within our borders.
Churches, schools, stores, airlines, shipping and other places where people gather need to make vaccination mandatory for their staff, and as soon as reasonably possible, for their attendees.
Governments need to use their emergency powers to ensure that organisations are empowered to mandate vaccination. We have never baulked at making vaccination a prerequisite for travel or education before. We can’t allow anti-logic to do it now.
Whether they admit it or not, anyone who tries to justify opposition to universal vaccination is advocating for the illness and death for their compatriots. If we leave some or most of our society unprotected because of ignorance and fear, we will have failed the most basic test of governance—to protect the lives of our people.
But as the UK, Israel and countless other nations have learned, widespread vaccination is only part of the problem. We need to prepare for our hospitals to be overwhelmed. We need to commit massive resources to scaling up our treatment facilities now, while we still can. This means buildings, cots, medical supplies, and the rarest of all commodities, medical professionals.
We are guaranteed to need them. Vaccination massively reduces the hospitalisation rates for COVID sufferers. It slows the spread of the virus, but it doesn’t stop it.
We need to get past our lackadaisical, minimalist approach to masking and sanitation. We’re fortunate to have decent ventilation in most of our buildings, but governments should be seeking expert advice concerning masking and surface sanitation from other countries that are grappling with the Delta variant now.
We need to know what works, and we need to start acting as if the virus is already here. The bitter truth is that for some of us, it may already be.
Virus-free Pacific countries have days, perhaps weeks to get moving. If we don’t mobilise now for this massive threat, we’ll have nobody but ourselves to blame when—not if—we’re reduced to storing bodies in shipping containers.
It happened to Fiji. We’d be fools to think it won’t happen to us.
COVAX, the WHO and other international stakeholders are being challenged now more than ever before. But they’ve had a year and a half to learn the most bitter lessons and hone their tools. They have a chance now to save at least one tiny corner of the planet from the ravages of this disease.
It makes sense to do it, too. We’re literally the last place on earth that can be used as a control group to develop the tools and techniques the world will need to win against the next outbreak.
Our top priority has to be the protection of our children. Evidence of so-called ‘slow COVID’ is rising. Children in the Pacific islands are already among the most disadvantaged in the world. The last thing any of them needs is to spend a lifetime burdened by a legacy of disease.
Everyone, from the top on down, needs to realise that the time to save Pacific lives is now. This emphatically is a race. It always was. It’s a race against time.
We have to stop being the tortoise, content to hide inside our shell. It’s time to start being the hare. Our lives depend on it.