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Connecting from afar while Fiji 'big gatherings' are on hold

3 June 2020

Last week a woman broke down crying on the phone, telling a RISE community fieldworker of the difficulties she has been facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband and son have been terminated from work and she does not know where their next meal is coming from.

Deeply affected by the woman’s story, the community fieldworker asked a colleague to join him to help, the two turning up later that day to the elderly woman’s house with a shopping bag of groceries.

‘Upon seeing the fieldworkers with the groceries, she could not hold back her tears – she broke down crying and thanking God for answering their prayers,’ says Autiko Tela, RISE Fiji’s Assessment Team Leader.

Tela and RISE Fiji Coordinator Isoa Vakarewa are overseeing a ‘call centre’, a brain child of the RISE Fiji team, who wanted to reach out and stay connected with residents in our informal settlements, who RISE has not been able to meet with face-to-face due to restrictions on public gatherings.

RISE Community Fieldworkers Mere Jane (left) and Nirai Ravulo (right)
check in with informal settlement residents via phone.

‘Before COVID-19, RISE held what we call ‘big gatherings’ – a common way of bringing people together in the Pacific – to sit down and share stories, to find out about their water and sanitation needs, and how RISE’s infrastructure can help,’ Tela says.

‘With big group gatherings banned for health and safety reasons, the next best thing we can do is get on the phone and check in from a distance. We are contacting the households taking part in RISE to see how they are coping, and what they need’.

This is a first step to potentially rolling out a more extensive phone survey in the future, to continue RISE's important research even in the face of the COVID-19 constraints, and also build resilience into RISE systems, so that when the next crisis strikes – a cyclone or other – RISE has the infrastructure to continue working efficiently.

Since last week, the RISE Fiji team has tasked themselves with contacting 856 households across 12 informal settlements. Armed with tablets and headsets, staff are calling households to verify peoples’ contact details, ask how they are coping, and what their biggest challenges are right now.

A Facebook group, Barter for Better Fiji, has attracted 168,000 members, and is helping Fijians
get what they need by trading goods and services without spending money.

Residents have said that many people have lost their jobs or had their working hours reduced. People are also struggling to pay bills, and there have been some reports of increased thefts in settlements – especially food supplies.

In some cases, feeding families has had to take priority over investing in healthcare, with residents having to prioritise buying food items over toiletries.

But Tela says households are also banding together in traditional and innovative ways to get through the tough times. ‘In Kinoya settlement, for example, residents are sharing food items with their neighbours. The bartering system has also returned, with some families trading their skills and services for groceries’.

Small businesses are also sprouting up in the settlements, with food stalls of fresh fish and produce from family gardens helping put a bit of money in pockets.

Residents have been happy to hear from the RISE program, and conversations about community living and the spirit of sharing continue to highlight Fiji’s resilience.

Community Fieldworkers Pita Tamani (left), Meiva Setoka (centre) and Filise Volavola (right)
check in with informal settlement residents via phone.