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The Impact of Coronavirus on a Small Island Developing State - Fiji

29 June 2020

By Karin Taylor

The recovery of the tourism sector is vital to Fiji’s economic recovery following the pandemic, and planning will have a fundamental role to play in how that happens.

March 19th 2020 was a bad day for Fiji, as the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, having entered the country via a Fiji Airways cabin steward.  The small Pacific island nation had prepared for this eventuality and immediately instigated a rigorous programme of contact tracing and isolating all known cases, which over the following few weeks climbed to a total of 18 cases in four clusters.  Friday 5th June was a good day, as the Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared Fiji to be Coronavirus-free after the last patient tested clear of the virus.  The country had escaped with just a handful of cases, and no fatalities. But at considerable cost.

Fiji’s GDP is 40% dependent on tourism, which has crashed due to a complete lockdown. Soon after the first case was identified, 95% of Fiji Airways’ flights were cancelled.  Cruise ships were barred from entering Fijian ports.  Schools, universities and places of worship were closed and a night time curfew was imposed. Despite the country’s now Covid-free status, the curfew remains in place and most public buildings are still closed. The Government has recently passed an Act allowing employers to terminate employees’ contracts due to Coronavirus being “an act of God”.  More than 40,000 people (5% of the population) have already lost their jobs, many of these being from the hospitality sector.

Fiji’s economy is not strong at the best of times. Salaries are low but many Fijians count themselves blessed as they live in a beautiful country with plentiful resources. The iTaukei (native Fijian) population enjoy historic land rights and subsistence agriculture is still common in the traditional communities.  The economic impact of coronavirus is therefore likely to be felt more harshly amongst the urban populations and in other ethnic groups, such as the Indofijians, as they either cannot return to their home villages, or do not have traditional land rights. The loss of an income will hit these groups much harder.

The recovery of the tourism sector is vital to Fiji’s economic recovery following the pandemic, and planning will have a fundamental role to play in how that happens.  There are already signs of pressure to encourage economic recovery through development and new infrastructure, though there is little money to do that without overseas investment.  There will be a temptation to encourage foreign investment through what could be an unsustainable approach involving new development and infrastructure in sensitive locations, rather than a sustainable approach involving appropriate re-use of the country’s historic buildings and protection of Fiji’s natural environment in order to encourage responsible tourism.

Fundamental to such decisions will be the review of the decades-old Planning Schemes for the main settlements.  Such reviews however will also present the opportunity to re-think development planning in the post-pandemic world; to improve quality of life for residents of the squatter settlements and to create or conserve green and blue infrastructure for the benefit of general health and wellbeing. The planning profession in Fiji is small, and they will have their work cut out.

In terms of knock-on economic impacts, there are already signs that there is less money in the system and that the environment and heritage could take a hit.  The Fiji Museum, Fiji Arts Council and National Trust for Fiji, being the Government’s advisory agencies in relation to heritage, culture and the environment, have had their grants slashed and at present no money at all is forthcoming.  Yet they provide a vital role in helping to conserve what most Fijians hold dear, and what visitors could come back to experience.  Planners in Fiji will need the advice and support of their fellow experts, and will need the confidence to challenge and to innovate, in order to encourage the right development in the right place and to facilitate the resurgence of tourism and recovery of the economy generally in a way that improves quality of life and increases the future  resilience of the country.

Karin Taylor is a geographer, Chartered Town Planner and Landscape Architect specialising in landscape and heritage planning.  Until February 2020, Karin was Head of Planning for the National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and spent January to March 2020 on secondment with the National Trust for Fiji.

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