By Joseph Veramu & Katy Mackey
While the pandemic ravaged the rest of the world last year, Pacific Island countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea tightened their borders and managed to remain practically coronavirus-free.
But severe outbreaks have now hit both countries. Fiji – which by March of this year had recorded only 70 cases – is now averaging over 900 new COVID-19 cases a day. In a nation of less than a million people, this is more cases per capita than most of the worst global hotspots at the height of their outbreaks.
These outbreaks have put significant pressure on governments already stretched by the economic impact of the pandemic, in a region heavily reliant on tourism.
Testing public trust
In parts of the Pacific, government responses to COVID-19 have been marked by limited transparency, oversight and public engagement.
In Fiji, this has been exemplified by ongoing media conflicts involving both the Auditor General’s Office and the CSO Alliance for COVID-19 Humanitarian Response. The CSO Alliance has repeatedly called for greater involvement of civil society in government decision-making, but claim that this has fallen on “deaf ears”.
Most controversial of all, the government this month announced a “no jab, no job” policy. They have introduced regulations through the 1996 Health and Safety at Work Act that make vaccination against COVID-19 a pre-condition of employment from 1 August. Anyone who has not received at least a first dose by then and does not have a valid exemption will not be permitted to enter their workplace. From 15 August, inspectors have the power to close businesses whose owners have not been vaccinated and employers may dismiss unvaccinated workers.
This has attracted significant controversy, with doctors, human rights lawyers and rugby players weighing in. Watched by almost the entire nation, the Fiji National Rugby team did not wear jerseys emblazoned with “Vaccinate Fiji” in their match against New Zealand’s All Blacks on 7 July. The team have subsequently agreed to wear these jerseys if an additional message is added: “It’s Your Choice”. A high-profile doctor has called the move to force vaccinations “criminal” while international human rights lawyer Imrana Jalal said the right to not be vaccinated is constitutionally protected.
A worrying expansion of government powers
Rapid and effective vaccination programmes are needed to fight COVID-19. At the same time, people’s rights must be protected. It is concerning that the Fijian government is pursuing vaccination uptake through hard-line regulations – a decision which echoes the increasingly authoritarian line many governments have taken since the onset of the pandemic.
Public health interventions in some other Pacific countries have also followed this pattern. In Papua New Guinea, civil society have raised concerns about a lack of oversight of spending during the 2020 State of Emergency, as well as the significant powers granted to the Prime Minister under the 2020 Public Health Emergency Act. The Vanuatu government also passed amendments to the penal code this year, cracking down on libel and slander in ways that civil society expect to have concerning impacts on freedom of speech and media freedoms in the country.
Around the world, from Papua New Guinea to the United Kingdom, there have been allegations of misuse of public funds, including diverting lucrative contracts to companies with ties to past and present government officials. Whilst speed is of the essence in pandemic responses and it is right that governments can quickly enact public health regulations, there must be greater transparency and civil society must be consulted.
As well as being the right thing to do – Pacific governments like many others have made binding commitments to transparency and human rights – this approach will ensure public buy-in, limit the risk of corruption and ultimately improve the efficacy of public health measures.
A time for greater transparency, not less
It is crucial that governments are able to respond quickly in times of crisis – but this is an argument for greater transparency, not less. Because governments across the Pacific have taken on a greater role during the pandemic, including in dispersing funds directly to citizens and making sweeping health decisions, there must be opportunities for additional scrutiny. This would give the public confidence that emergency funds are being spent responsibly.
While there are some worrying signs, Pacific governments have taken positive steps too. The Fijian Ministry of Economy has worked closely with vendors and our local partner Integrity Fiji to reduce opportunities for corruption in procurement processes. The Ministry of Health has been holding daily COVID-19 briefings to keep citizens up to date. The roll-out of the vaccination has been strong in Fiji: 75 per cent of the target population have now received at least one dose of the vaccine. The government appears to have heeded calls from the Youth for Integrity Network to postpone a new bill granting police additional and potentially problematic powers until proper public consultation can be undertaken.
Fiji’s civil society organisations are one of the country’s key strengths given their authenticity and independence. We call on the government to increase opportunities for civil society engagement throughout their COVID-19 response. By upholding the value of inclusivity, we will ensure sustainable recovery and that rights, particularly of those most marginalised, will be protected.
A vision for Fiji – and the wider Pacific
Leaders from Fiji and other Pacific Island countries adopted the Teieniwa Vision earlier this year, a collective aspiration to tackle corruption. At the upcoming Forum Leaders meeting in August, Transparency International and our anti-corruption allies in the Pacific will be calling for urgent and deliberate action on this vision, particularly at a time when responsible governance is needed to ensure the region recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic with integrity. Positive action now could provide lasting solutions to protect people during any future emergencies.
Joseph Veramu is Executive Director of Civic Leaders for Clean Transactions (CLCT) Integrity Fiji. Katy Mackey is the Pacific Regional Coordinator at Transparency International.
Civil society groups are calling upon Pacific leaders to do five things to empower citizens and protect essential resources from corruption and malfeasance.