Union solidarity as two cyclones hit the Pacific island

Education unions in the Pacific Rim have gotten involved to support Fijian counterparts in a country devastated by two tropical cyclones in December and January.

On December 17, 2020, a severe tropical category 5 cyclone, Yasa, hit the island of Vanua Levu north of the capital Suva in Fiji. According to the government, it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, buildings, schools, homes and farmland.

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

In addition, the Fiji Ministry of Education conducted an assessment which found that 85 schools were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone. That means 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 teachers' homes have been badly damaged or destroyed.

High-level cooperation in disaster relief

During the visit to the devastated island in Labasa, the Secretary General of the Fiji Teachers Union (FTU), Agni Deo Singh, met with Education Minister Rosy Akbar, TISI Sangam – an organization promoting the Indian language and culture – and other stakeholders and private sector organizations who are interested in helping students in the areas affected by Yasa.

The meeting was an opportunity to work together to provide efficient and effective support to the affected areas.

Schools resumed on January 18 and many children were housed in tents hastily erected by the Australian Armed Forces, noted Govind Singh. School accommodation facilities have yet to be remodeled and boarding school students rely on the generosity of relatives and friends who live near schools.

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

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

Practical support from the 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 Secretary General. "Back to school will provide a sense of security and help children overcome the emotional trauma and devastation caused by tropical cyclone Yasa."

As with children of parents who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FTU plans to provide lunches three days a week for four weeks for four elementary schools and one secondary school in the hardest-hit region. Other schools are expected to have similar requests to improve school attendance and avoid absenteeism and school dropouts, Govind Singh said.

On behalf of Development Partners – Other Education International member organizations in the region: New Zealand Te Riu Roa Education Institute (NZEI), New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA), Australian Education Union (AEU), Independent Education Union of Australia (IEUA) – COPE sponsored the FTU and the Fiji Teachers Association (FTA) for the first round of stationery support for students.

Second natural disaster kickback aid from the first

Unfortunately, on January 30th and 31st, a second deadly tropical cyclone hit Ana, Fiji. While this cyclone was classified as Category 2/3, the heavy rain caused severe flooding on both of the main islands of the Fiji archipelago. This prevented the country from recovering further from the Yasa disaster, Govind Singh said.

The National Disaster Management Office reported that 10,259 people sought refuge in 318 evacuation centers across the country, with 5,776 in Fiji's northern division already badly hit by December's tropical cyclone, Yasa. Heavy rain and wind caused severe flooding and widespread damage to buildings, plants and public infrastructure. Singh added that most of the country has been without electricity since January 31, and there have also been reports of widespread water disruptions.

He went on to explain that schools in Fiji closed from January 29th and reopened on February 8th, with many serving as evacuation centers. However, schools in the Northern Division will remain closed until further notice by the Department of Education. Fiji's cyclone season, which runs from November to April, has three months left.

Poverty as an area also struggles with pandemic

As in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasa, the COPE Solidarity Fund, to which the development cooperation partners contributed, was used to provide financial support to FTU and free trade agreements to help them work towards recovery.

Both Fijian unions have applied for more funding to organize a feeding program in schools for at least three months before life returns to some sort of normal, the COPE leader stressed. The significant impact of the COVID-19 crisis and tropical cyclones, which resulted in massive flooding within two months, has exacerbated an already precarious situation on the ground and left the school population in considerable poverty, he concluded.

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