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From government to grassroots: responding to COVID-19 in Fiji’s informal settlements

5 May 2020

The coronavirus is one challenge among many for Fijians living urban informal settlements. For these residents – who make up about 20 per cent of the urban population – staying home during a lockdown period is a risk: densely populated areas with inadequate household water and sanitation are conditions that invite the disease to flourish.

The economical dangers of staying home see incomes suffer, with many residents having minimal savings to afford essential goods and medical treatment.

RISE is working in partnership with UN-Habitat and Fiji Government agencies to provide rapid response support to more than 70 informal settlements to help alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on informal settlement households.

Raising awareness of safe hygiene

While Fiji’s situation has improved with no new cases at the moment, the Ministry for Housing and Community Development says that safe practices must continue in order to keep control of the disease’s spread. This means that getting the word out to communities about continuing to practise safe hand washing and physical distancing is critical.

With this goal in mind, council health inspectors will soon start visiting settlements to hand out information materials and soap.

The information is targeted specifically at people living in informal settlements and poor urban communities. Leaflets include practical tips on how to practise social distancing when living in a one-room house with a dozen people, to how to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water.

UN-Habitat Team Leader for Urban Climate Resilience Ms Inga Korte says the campaign supports settlement residents to follow government guidelines who are living in very difficult circumstances. ‘We believe it is absolutely crucial to get a head start in these communities in terms of awareness raising on safe hygiene, like handwashing and cleaning household items’, she says.

Tackling the ‘infodemic’

With close living conditions and constant movement, misleading information about the pandemic can spread rapidly in informal settlements. For RISE Fiji Coordinator Isoa Vakarewa, providing trusted and useful information is just as important as handing out soap.

‘Many residents in settlements browse social media for their news, and there can be a lot of misinformation out there about the disease and how to effectively manage it,’ he says. ‘These communities have a strong capacity to self-organise if given the right tools and information – it’s a matter of providing that access’.

The rapid response program is currently designing community engagement materials together with Fiji’s Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO), with consistent and coherent messages for communities. A communication and training package will also be made available to stakeholders running awareness-raising activities.

Enlisting and supporting community leaders

‘Right now, there is a lot of high-level messaging at national level, and it needs to be brought down to the grassroots level,’ Vakarewa points out.

Community leaders are being looked to as representatives of their communities, to share information with residents, and monitor the COVID-19 situation in their neighbourhoods. The program will support local groups to identify which homes are self-isolating, and who requires support (e.g. collecting food, water etc.)

Vakarewa believes that community leaders also provide great promise for two-way feedback from communities back to authorities, in a time where real-time monitoring is critical.

‘One of the main ways RISE is supporting this rapid response program is providing the contacts of our trusted Community Engagement Council (CEC) members,’ he says.  ‘We have been working with CECs for a few years now on RISE: through them we could gain a better understanding of what information is resonating within their communities.

'Do people understand the difference between social distancing and the Suva curfew? People might be washing their hands, but do they know to do it thoroughly for 20 seconds? This is as much a chance for us to learn about what is working in the settlements, as for communities to learn about what they can do too’.

Balancing the immediate response with longer-term needs

Along with information flyers and soap, government ministries are helping convert communal spaces in settlements into isolation units, and moving micro-markets to urban locations to help residents safely sell vegetables and fruit away from crowded areas and support livelihoods.

While the rapid response involves immediate support to settlements, RISE, the UN agencies and the Fiji Government know that ongoing housing challenges must not lose prominence.

‘This response has a three-month focus,’ Korte says, ‘But we need to make sure we continue to support the wider housing needs that build resilience longer-term. We are addressing this through longer-term strategies in partnership with the Ministry of Housing and Community Development’.