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Snapshot of Suva life during COVID and climate-fuelled disaster from Hub report reveals resilience among region’s youth despite twin crises

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Snapshot of Suva life during COVID and climate-fuelled disaster from Hub report reveals resilience among region’s youth despite twin crises

A pilot study conducted by Innovation for Change (I4C) Pacific Hub into the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 and natural disasters like Cyclone Harold in the region’s urban centres has shown while the dual crises will have a dramatic impact on some young people’s future, in terms of them being able to complete their education, many say that the events have sparked some positive factors.

A category four cyclone tore through Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga in April as Pacific Island countries had begun to combat coronavirus. Nations are still conducting natural disaster monitoring and implementing natural disaster management plans as they fight COVID-19, which has severely impacted the region’s tourism, fisheries, agriculture and remittances sectors, all major sources of income.

Only 13% of those surveyed for the report said that their family has so far not lost their job or had their work hours reduced because of COVID-19 restrictions. Respondents believed that the number of people completing their education will drop dramatically as families are unable to meet the costs of transport, school lunches and internet due to a lack of income. They suggested that a number of students will drop out altogether given the disruptions to the school year and loss of interest after a prolonged absence from classes. There were fears that those who quit may become involved in drug or alcohol use or become teenage parents.

“You can see the tension in people and some places are really badly affected and the struggle is real,” said one young person quoted in the report.

“During lockdown we didn’t go to uni, but stayed home so we could save money.”

The Pacific Islands are one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions in the world and characterised by a “youth bulge”, with the median age 25.7 years.

Some surveyed in the report, by Vivian Koster, a Pacific Hub board member, and youth researchers Fredrica Nagan and Sakiusa Siqila, conducted in the Fiji capital Suva between June 15 and 24, noted an increase in substance abuse.

“There has been an increase in marijuana use because people are bored. Also, a lot of heavy drinking is happening in the community,” another participant said.

Coping throughout the storms

Throughout twin crises there have some positive outcomes

Some study participants said that their families were eating more locally-grown foods including vegetables, staples like root crops and seafood, and setting up cottage businesses selling food parcels. Some overwhelmingly agreed that families were connecting more with villages primarily through the traditional barter system where city dwellers exchange foods such as rice, flour and sugar for root crops dalo and tavioka plus fish. The popular Facebook page “Barter for a Better Fiji” had been used by some participants young and old.

More young people had turned to farming to survive, with some families sending members or even moving the whole family to the village to farm land available to them, the report found.

Some participants said that they were taking more advice from elders about traditional events, obligations and time management. They are exercising more, while some are also coping using traditional herbal medicine and prayer during these troubled times.

“We have all connected with our villages,” said one respondent. “It’s an opportunity to learn traditions and practice your dialect. We are also strengthening our family ties.”

They cited forming youth clubs and teaching financial literacy like budgeting as ways of supporting the youth.

Participants listed coping strategies ranging from talking with family and friends to making TikTok videos. “These coping strategies indicate resilience and sustainability even in the face of severe challenges such as dual crises of COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold,” said the report.

Ms. Koster said that while the full effects of coronavirus won’t be seen yet, she was surprised to find while carrying out the research that some youth were still upbeat, even after losing jobs.

“I was actually struck by how positive people were rather than negative,” she said.

“Some said ‘this pandemic is preparing me for the next one. Next time I will know what to do.”

Researcher Saki Siqila, 20, a student from the island of Lomanikoro Bau in Tailevu, said that there had been both good and bad outcomes from COVID-19.

“The breadwinners of the family have started to lose their jobs,” she said.

“But families have started to spend more time together. I can see hope in the youth of the Pacific Islands.”

The research aimed to provide a snapshot of the impact of the crises on urban youth, to inform responses to youth concerns and to contribute to the knowledge and literature on youth in these countries. The study is strengthening civil society in the Pacific by contributing to its knowledge base around the impact of the pandemic, said Ms. Koster.

“Pacific traditional knowledge systems focus on sustainability and building resilience against crises,” the report said.

The report was conducted using Talanoa or “storying”, an Indigenous way of gathering information that can involve formal or informal conversation, for instance participants lying on a mat or consuming “yagona” (kava).

It’s hoped that similar reports may be conducted in at least four other Pacific countries.

The study is an extension of the Hub’s previous work in partnership with the Pacific Youth Council, which featured an online discussion in May with psychologist Dr. Gaylene Osborne-Finekaso in Fiji on coping skills for young people in times of stress and uncertainty. A factsheet was produced on this and distributed across the Pacific Islands region following the talk.

The Pacific Hub is the newest 14C Hub and was created after a youth workshop took place in Fiji during International Civil Society Week (ICSW) 2017.

What the researchers say

Saki Siqila, 20, a student from the island of Lomanikoro Bau in Tailevu.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been both good and bad outcomes. It has been great because we get to spend more time with family, doing activities and chores around the house and backyard together. But when the cyclone hit at the same time it brought chaos to the family. I’m happy that we were able to go through the problem together. “The breadwinners of the family have started to lose their jobs. But families have started to spend more time together. I can see hope in the youth of the Pacific Islands.”

Fredrica Nagan, 21, an international business and marketing and tourism management student from Valelevu.

“At first it was quite challenging having to change our daily routines to adapt to the restrictions and the 'new normal' especially when it came to school, with everything shifting online. As time rolled over, the restrictions became a part of our daily routines and brought great discipline to most people, that is curfews and physical distancing etc. Seeing firsthand what COVID did to families - people losing jobs, conflicts, struggling to keep food on the table - and not knowing what tomorrow brings was very frustrating and sad. Later being hit by the cyclone, causing more chaos and worry, was just awful.

There has been some good that came out of this crisis like encouraging discipline - being home before curfews, adhering to COVID physical distancing, people learning to budget and save more money for rainy days, more togetherness, genuine care and love seen between people, lending a helping hand to families that need support. There’s also been more creative jobs openings and entrepreneurship, and a greater move towards God and faith.

There is a great increase in youths enrolling in universities this semester. I do think that they are more hopeful. As a youth, I am more hopeful as I would not want to face a situation similar to this in the near future and I hope to be of more help to my parents and family financially in times of need. Despite financial constraints, youths are breaking barriers, going back to school to pursue their education and trying to make a difference today as they have seen the struggles caused by these crises within their families and communities.”

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