‘Family unity keeps us alive’: The vaccine, border uncertainty and the tyranny of Pacific distance

Of all the unanswerable questions put to Rohit Kumar this pandemic, one persists above all others: ‘When will the borders reopen?’

The Fijian community leader said many from the island nation who now called Australia home would have never spent a year separated from loved ones still abroad.

That record has already gone and, for all the promising talk of travel bubbles throughout the COVID-safe Pacific, there is no way of knowing just when it will end.

Fijians Rohit and Shalini Kumar at their home in Hillside. Credit:Paul Jeffers

The delay in Australia’s vaccine rollout because of ultra-rare Astrazeneca vaccine blood clots has put more uncertainty – and stress – into the question of international borders.

“Many of us across the multicultural community have lost our jobs and are feeling financial constraints – but what keeps us alive is our family unity,” said Mr Kumar, founder of the Australian Integrated Fijian Association of Victoria.

“When we see our loved ones we can share our sadness. And in Fiji people are desperate to see us, too.

“We always look forward: ‘Okay, in six months we’ll be having a holiday. We’ll see our homeland and see our families’. At the moment, because of the uncertainty, we don’t know what will happen and when.”

For people with most or all of their family overseas, the closed international borders have felt something like an extension of the harshest of Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions on visitors and gatherings.

Mr Kumar, who lives with his wife Shalini Ashiki Kumar in the north-west suburb of Hillside, has been stranded at home during illnesses and deaths of family members in Fiji. One of them died only last week. He missed his grandmother’s funeral late last year.

“At the moment with the isolation we are chatting virtually,” Mr Kumar said. “But the people who live in the villages don’t have access to these things, especially our ageing population – our grandmothers and grandfathers – they rely on being able to actually physically see us.”

The separation was creating or exacerbating mental health problems on either side of the Pacific, he said.

Fiji has controlled COVID-19 relatively well and has not recorded a new case for almost a month. But the suspension of international tourism has caused economic carnage.

In the past, Mr Kumar’s association has travelled to Fiji with school supplies, vouchers and other items of value to support struggling families and put in work on the ground. In this crisis, Mr Kumar is powerless.

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