Fiji announced it was coronavirus free Friday after the island nation’s last known infected patient was given the all-clear, continuing the Pacific’s remarkable record of success against the virus.
There was panic among Fiji’s 930,000 population when the first COVID-19 case was reported in mid-March, but strict isolation measures and border controls kept a lid on infections, which peaked at 18 confirmed cases.
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama attributed the country’s virus-free status to “answered prayers, hard work, and affirmation of science.”
“Fiji has just cleared the last of our active COVID-19 patients,” he tweeted.
“And even with our testing numbers climbing by the day, it’s now been 45 days since we recorded our last case. With no deaths, our recovery rate is 100 percent.”
The Pacific islands were initially seen as among the world’s most vulnerable to the virus because of under-resourced health infrastructure and high rates of health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
There were also fears geographic isolation could turn the islands into infection incubators, like when a measles epidemic in Samoa late last year killed 83 people, most of them babies and toddlers.
However, nations in the region acted swiftly and made the costly decision to seal borders and shut down the tourism trade that sustains their economies, in order to protect their populations.
‘Lifted the drawbridge’
As a result, many have not recorded a single case of the virus, including Palau, Tonga, the Solomons Islands, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and Micronesia.
“They went beyond the strategy of elimination and aimed for exclusion — they lifted the drawbridge,” epidemiologist Michael Baker from Otago University said.
“In the case of Fiji, they did have cases but they’ve now achieved elimination, so in some ways you could say they’ve done better than New Zealand.”
New Zealand appears on the cusp of eliminating the virus, with health authorities reporting Friday there had been no new infections for two weeks and only one virus case remained active.
Fiji has already expressed interest in joining a quarantine-free travel “bubble” with Australia and New Zealand, two nations that supply the bulk of the tropical idyll’s tourists.
Despite Fiji’s success against COVID-19, officials worried about a possible second wave of the disease and insisted social-distancing restrictions remain in place.
“To avoid of any risk of a second wave, the healthy habits we’ve picked up the past months must continue,” Bainimarama said in a Facebook video on Friday.
“Wash your hands, wear face masks if you’re feeling unwell and maintain a safe physical distance from others as much as possible,” he said.
Health Minister Ifereimi Waqainabete said a night-time curfew bans on gatherings of more than 20 people would remain for now.
“We cannot drop our guard,” he said.
The Cooks, which was one of the first countries in the world to declare itself virus-free in mid-April, has announced measures to cautiously reopen its borders.
Prime Minister Henry Puna said citizens and those with work permits who had been in New Zealand for 30 days would soon be allowed to return home without going into quarantine.
The Cook Islands News described the move as “the first step in bringing back the tourists”.
Image: Fiji has expressed interest in joining a quarantine-free travel ‘bubble’ with Australia and New Zealand, which account for many of the tropical idyll’s tourists. (AFP/File / TORSTEN BLACKWOOD)