Volunteers from Fiji’s Councils of Social Services (FCOSS) were among the first to launch risk communication and community engagement on COVID-19, as the country went into lock-down in March 2020. Engaged for three months, the volunteers transitioned into working on the response to Tropical Cyclone Harold, where they identified communities in need of food donations, clean water and sanitation, shelter support and other life-saving items. The FCOSS volunteers were also active and delivering this relief to the people affected by the cyclone. At the policy level, FCOSS engaged with decision-makers to ensure that government interventions had a people-centred approach, informed by the real experiences and needs of people in affected communities.
Under Fiji legislation, FCOSS is mandated to coordinate humanitarian response by civil society organizations.
However, COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold hitting Fiji simultaneously created a vacuum in the humanitarian space. Most international NGOs that would usually be on the frontline of emergency responses were confined to working from home, increasing pressure on local organizations. This meant that little support could be delivered in the first few days after the cyclone. Lack of personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizers also made the response more challenging.
To overcome these challenges, and thanks to support from Childfund Australia, FCOSS was able to purchase PPE for its volunteers, and support their deployment.
FCOSS volunteers were among the first on the ground in the Central, Western and Eastern divisions, and made sure to build in community feedback mechanisms into the operation: fielding questions from community members and sharing their concerns during debriefs with government counterparts.
FCOSS also used its position on the national Disaster Council to advocate for an integrated approach to COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold, to ensure that no one affected by either crisis would be left behind.
FCOSS is a decentralized affiliation of community-based organizations or branches or NGOs. Between March and July, community volunteers led the response, often doing the work usually carried out by paid NGO staff or officials. The volunteers delivered food, increased community awareness of COVID-19, supported contact tracing, found donors to help families whose homes had been destroyed in the cyclone, and conducted one of the first livelihoods impact surveys in Fiji, focusing on how to support those working in the informal sector.