Jan 23, 2021 Last Updated 1:01 AM, Jan 23, 2021

When Marnette Aggabao died from apparent COVID-19 related complications in Guam recently, she joined a tragic tally of health workers all over the world who have died during the pandemic.

Aggabao, a 62-year-old registered nurse originally from the Philippines, was admitted to hospital for other medical problems and with a COVID diagnosis. She spent more than spent six weeks there before she died.

Local media quoted her friends as saying Aggabao had talked of retiring, but “then this thing happened.”

This ‘thing’ is COVID-19, and the response of our health frontliners in working so hard to treat COVID patients, test and screen many of us, undertake contact tracing, communicate new behaviours (extended hand washing, sanitiser user, social distancing), and deliver usual health services—all in the face of their own fears and exhaustion— is why they are our Pacific People of the Year.

In some Pacific states and territories, health workers also represent a significant number of patients. 60 Guam Memorial Hospital staffers had tested positive for COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic to October. In Papua New Guinea, a large number of healthcare workers who had been stationed at a COVID-19 testing lab were exposed, and their family members along with them.

Prime Minister James Marape ordered an inquiry, saying: “All healthcare workers are supposed to be equipped and all health facilities have been supplied with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Something went wrong somewhere.”

But in most Pacific nations, health workers have escaped infection through the application of strict protocols including the donning of PPE.

“I think our health care workers have done very, very well,” says Fiji’s health minister Dr. Ifereimi Waqainabete. “They’ve actually shown what I’ve known all along. What has actually worked in our favour is that over the last few years the government has actually invested a lot in opening more positions for health workers, making sure there are a lot of scholarships available…That coupled with the fact that there has been sufficient renumeration of doctors and other staff in the ministry of health have actually prepared us really well for the challenges we have faced this year and they’ve been able to answer the call and in some cases, above and beyond what is expected.”

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Marlene Dutta is the brains, and the heart, behind Barter for Better Fiji. She is also our Pacific Community Champion for 2020.

Early this year, as borders closed in response to the pandemic and Fiji’s tourism industry came to an abrupt halt, Marlene Dutta started asking herself, “what do you do when there is no more cash?” At the same time, she said she felt she was becoming a “horrible person.”

“I was just angry all the time. Everywhere I went, I felt no one was taking coronavirus seriously, there was little to no social distancing wherever you went…and I knew something had to give, something had to change.”

Dutta turned to social media, and specifically ‘kindness pandemic’ pages which offered positive messages and stories in response to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, looking for solutions to what was clearly an impending economic crisis, Dutta started to study barter—both the historical experience of barter around the globe as a response to crisis—and how it might be modernised.

She thought it could be an easy sell for Fijians. “People here understand barter, they claim it as part of their tradition, so there is that ownership of the concept. It is something we have continually done in smaller spaces and smaller circles. So for those reasons I felt it might be something worthwhile. I had no idea it would mushroom out to what it became but I just felt like it hit a few spots that people would resonate with.”

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The flip side of RAMSI

MY frame of reference for RAMSI always goes back to June 2003 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney, Australia, when I listened carefully to Minister Lawrey Chan described how bad things had become in Solomon Islands and especially how difficult it had been for government to rule because militants and criminals had basically taken over the treasury and compromised its ability to enforce the rule of law.

At that time, I was International Legal Adviser to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and we were involved with the organisation of that meeting which was convened under the auspices of the Biketawa Declaration. It was the first time that a regional intervention under the Biketawa Declaration was invoked.

I could sympathise with much of what Minister Lawrey Chan said and could associate myself with his sentiments because I lived through those difficult times in Honiara, and had to deal with the insecurity of the environment including being unduly accused of having colluded with the militants, an accusation that I vehemently denied and denounced. I saw the undue influence of the militants and threats that they posed.  

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