Fiji: Trade union solidarity as two cyclones hit Pacific island

published 16 February 2021 updated 25 February 2021

Education unions in the Pacific region have stepped in to support Fijian colleagues in a country devastated by two tropical cyclones in December and January.

On 17 December 2020 in Fiji, a Category 5 severe tropical cyclone, Yasa, hit the island of Vanua Levu, north of the capital city, Suva. It caused hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage to infrastructure, buildings, schools, homes, and agricultural areas, according to the Government.

According to Govind Singh, General Secretary of the Council of Pacific Education (COPE), the UNICEF Pacific December report said an estimated 93,000 people, including 32,500 children, were directly affected.

In addition, Fiji’s Education Ministry performed an assessment that showed that 85 schools were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone. That means that around 1,000 students from these schools in Bua, Macuata, and Cakaudrove were affected, said Govind Singh. He added that, in these areas, most of the homes of teachers were badly damaged or destroyed.

High-level collaboration around disaster relief

While visiting the devastated island, in Labasa, the Fiji Teachers Union (FTU) General Secretary, Agni Deo Singh, met with the Minister for Education, Rosy Akbar, TISI Sangam – an organisation promoting Indian language and culture – and other stakeholders and private sector organisations interested in supporting students in the areas affected by Yasa.

The meeting was an opportunity to collaborate to assist and support the affected areas in an efficient and effective way.

Schools resumed on 18 January, with many children accommodated in tents hastily put up by the Australian Defence Forces, noted Govind Singh. School accommodation facilities have yet to be rebuilt, and the boarding students depend on the generosity of relatives and friends living near the schools.

It was agreed that FTU and TISI Sangam would give school backpacks for around 1,600 children in seven primary schools and one college. Each pack consisted of stationery and school bags. These supplies ensured that children were equipped with the resources they needed to attend school, learn, and grow, Govind Singh reported.

He also stressed that many of the affected children are located in remote communities, where most of these families had lost all their crops, large numbers of livestock, as well as their homes. The majority are still living in temporary shelters or tents provided by AUSAID, and basic needs like water or electricity will take weeks – in some cases months – to restore.

Practical support from trade union

“The opening of schools in areas affected by the tropical cyclone was an important step in the recovery process for our children,” said the COPE General Secretary. “Going back to school will provide a sense of security and help children overcome the emotional trauma and devastation caused by tropical cyclone Yasa.”

As they did for children of parents who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FTU is planning to provide lunches to four primary schools and one secondary school in the worst-affected area for three days a week for four weeks. It is anticipated that other schools will have similar requests to improve attendance and avoid school absenteeism and dropouts, Govind Singh highlighted.

On behalf of development partners - other Education International member organisations in the region: the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI), the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA), the Australian Education Union (AEU), the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEUA) – COPE gave financial support to FTU and the Fiji Teachers Association (FTA), for the first round of assistance with stationery for students.

Second natural disaster setback relief efforts from the first one

Unfortunately, a second deadly tropical cyclone, Ana, struck Fiji on 30-31 January. While this cyclone was ranked as a Category 2/3, the heavy rain caused serious floods to both the main islands in the Fiji archipelago. This prevented the country from further recovering from the Yasa catastrophe, Govind Singh said.

The National Disaster Management Office reported that 10,259 people were sheltering in 318 evacuation centres across the country, with 5,776 in Fiji’s northern division already badly hit by the December tropical cyclone, Yasa. Torrential rain and strong winds caused severe flooding and widespread damage to buildings, crops, and public infrastructure. Singh added that most of the country has been without electricity since 31 January, and there were also reports of widespread water disruptions.

He went on to explain that schools in Fiji were closed from 29 January and reopened on 8 February with many serving as evacuation centres. However, schools in the Northern Division remain closed until further notice by the Education Ministry. There are still three months remaining in Fiji’s cyclone season, which lasts from November to April.

Poverty as area also struggles with pandemic

As was the case after the cyclone Yasa, the COPE solidarity fund, to which development cooperation partners contributed, was used to bring financial assistance for FTU and FTA to be able to work towards the recovery.

Both Fijian unions have requested further funding to organise a food programme in schools for at least three months, before life returns to some sort of normality, the COPE leader underlined. The significant impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the tropical cyclones leading to massive flooding within a period of two months have aggravated an already precarious situation on the ground, leaving the school population in significant poverty, he concluded.