By Michael Field of The Pacific Newsroom
Fiji stands on the edge of covid-19 disaster because some 50 navy officers blatantly broke quarantine rules to hold a funeral for another officer, The Pacific Newsroom has learned.
We have received accounts of the burial at Vunivivi Hill in Nausori while even Health Permanent Secretary James Fong last night acknowledged it had happened.
The navy’s behaviour is symptomatic of a wider arrogance at top levels in government, including former naval commodore and coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama.
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On June 6 last year he announced Fiji was “covid free” and that other nations, notably New Zealand, could learn from Fiji’s success which he attributed to “answered prayers, hard work, and affirmation of science”.
He then, accurately, added: “The healthy habits we’ve picked up the past months must continue.”
Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum turned out to be the weak link. He had been in Singapore for health care and to return home he used a Fiji Airways designated freighter flight, FJ1362 arriving April 10.
On the flight, in circumstances still to be explained, were two Fiji nationals who had been in India. They reached Singapore and while tested covid free there, once in managed isolation in Fiji, they were discovered to have an Indian variant of covid-19.
Soldier, cleaner and a funeral
Through a soldier, a cleaner and a funeral, it passed into the community and is now spiking, mainly in the Suva-Nausori area.
Sayed-Khaiyum, who like Bainimarama, has been little seen as the pandemic has grown, is opposed to lockdowns. He says they do not work in developing countries.
Consequently Fiji has resorted to less than effective lockdowns and a system of area controls. Suva-Nausori, for example, has three zones: Lami, Suva and Nausori. Travel between the three is supposedly tightly controlled and enforced by police and the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, of which the navy is a part.
Early last week a navy officer died of unknown causes. On Wednesday there was a funeral service at Vunivivi Hill in Nausori – in another cell and across the border from the main Walu Bay navy base in Suva.
Under covid rules funerals could be held, but limited to 10 mourners limited to families and from within the zone.
But many people saw the Navy break rules that day.
A witness told Pacific Newsroom: “More than 50 Navy officers found a loophole. They visited the funeral gathering in batches of 20.
‘They all drank grog’
“They all drank grog from the same tanoa and used the same bilo.”
Referring to a Navy statement earlier this week, in which Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto said the virus was spread due to service on small ships, the witness said the outbreak did not occur in the officers’ ships.
“They spread it in the community.”
The obvious question was why when normal families were restricted, there were special privileges for Navy officers.
“They went from one containment area into another and came back spreading the virus.”
Opposition MP Niko Nawaikula said RFMF was limiting its isolation to two days, while everyone else had 14 days.
He quoted another, unnamed witness, to events at Vunivivi Hill involving Walu Bay officers: “First batch of 20 sit drink grog and socialize around same tanoa, one bilo the works. When the next 20 arrive then the first group leave to come to Walu Bay and the next 20 sit and drink grog.
Many more cases expected
“More and many more cases will be announced soon. What lockdown when two sets of rules for people. Same thing at [Queen Elizabeth Barracks].”
Another source asked who at Walu Bay issued more travel passes for Navy officers than were allowed to attend a funeral.
The events described here were Friday night confirmed by Dr Fong himself, although without the same detail.
“ Activities surrounding funerals appear to be the most troublesome spreader events, and this is an alarming situation,” he said.
“Everyone should recall that this latest outbreak gained momentum when one person who contracted the virus in the border quarantine area attended a funeral, yet funeral gatherings continue to be sources of spread.”
Without citing the Navy, Fong said: “Our investigations indicate that in some instances, funeral gatherings of 100 were split up into 5 so-called ‘bubbles’ of 20 persons.
‘We need good sense’
“Many of you will understand that this does not make sense. We need good sense in the common sense space.
“We need to stop twisting and turning our covid safe directives to suit our purposes.
“We need to treasure the memory of those we have lost and when more normal times return we can plan memorial events in which our loved ones are commemorated in a suitable way.”
A footnote: The Fiji military inflicted coups on the nation in 1987, 2000 and 2006.
As well as the army, the navy played key roles.
It is why Bainimarama insists on calling himself “Rear Admiral (Rtr)” even though he never quite qualified for the rank.
Republished from The Pacific Newsroom with permission.
This content originally appeared on Asia Pacific Report and was authored by APR editor.