For the Fiji’s men’s and women’s rugby sides, sealing their emotional medal wins at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were about more than just sport; they played a big part in lifting the island nation’s spirits at a time when it is struggling to get on top of its deadly second wave of COVID-19. 

Fijians, living under tight government mandated restrictions and curfews, were glued to their TV screens throughout the Games, though some had to improvise.

“My husband took the antenna to work to watch the games, so I had to live stream the event. We both couldn’t miss it. We are still very happy and proud,” said Torika Kumar from Nadi, a town on the western side of the main island.

“All the kids above 12, 13, 14 years of age love to go to the rugby playground and play with their little groups. Sometimes if they don’t have a ball they use the small dried coconut. This really inspired them to continue to want to play even in this hard time.

“After the Fijiana’s win, the majority of the girls in the community… now also want to play, all they talk about (is) how one day they want to try out for the Fijiana team.” 

Suva local Imran Shah could not contain his excitement, saying: “To be a small country and to get a gold and bronze medal is something we are very proud of. There was a lot of shouting and cheering in my house and all over Suva when the teams won, fireworks lit up the sky.

“Even though there(s) a curfew, I still celebrated Fiji style with a bowl of Kava and had video call sessions with my family and friends. Covid has been really tough on the people of Fiji and this win really gave us all hope.”

While the wins have given some respite to the nation of approx. 900,000 people, the latest figures released by the Ministry of Health and Medical Services record close to 700 Covid-19 cases daily. Nearly doubling the rate of new infections from July onwards, with the rate of death also on an upward trend.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the players endured a four month slog of isolated training camps and quarantine bubbles in both Fiji and Australia to protect them and their loved ones from the virus whilst preparing for the games. 

They returned victorious, with the Olympic Men’s Rugby Sevens team maintaining their dominance by beating New Zealand 27-12 in the final to follow their success five years earlier in Rio and win back to back golds. The Fiji Women’s Sevens Rugby won bronze, their first medal, beating Great Britain 21-12.

The mens rugby team, celebrating

The Flying Fijians, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. Photo courtesy of Fiji Rugby

Though the Olympics have ended, the teams separation from their families is not over yet. Both teams must quarantine in Fiji  for 14 days before they are able to go home. 

First time Olympian and gold medalist, Ratu Meli Derenalagi was glad to be back and share the win with his country.

“It was a tough game, to be honest there were lots of difficulties and hardship. We were banding together, eating together, even sleeping together just to prepare,” he said.

“We trained as hard as we could. Because of COVID a lot of our families were affected, so sometimes you could see (it) on the boys’ faces. But we all came together and knew we just wanted to put a smile on peoples face(s) back home.

Regardless of the curfew people celebrated all over Fiji. You could say that we did our job and put a smile on their faces, even in these hard times.

“After we beat Australia, we were hungry to win and we knew we only had two games left. We put our feet down and stood like a hard solid wall, so that no one could get across.

“Now we can celebrate this win with them and the people of Fiji. When we got back to the (Olympic) village after winning, on our face(s) you could see the amount of happiness we felt to represent our country. Regardless of the curfew people celebrated all over Fiji. You could say that we did our job and put a smile on their faces, even in these hard times.”

The Fiji government’s main strategy to combat the virus continues to be vaccination, despite vaccine hesitancy the roll out is gaining momentum. 

Last month the government announced a “no jab, no job” policy, introducing regulations through the 1996 Health and Safety at Work Act that mandate getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19  a pre-condition of employment from the start of this month. 

In a statement, Secretary for Health, Doctor James Fong said as of August 7, 87.3 per cent of the target population had received their first dose of vaccines and 30.4 per cent are now fully vaccinated nationwide.

Police mandated COVID-19 check point in Fiji. Photo courtesy of Uzma Rehman

The government chose not to introduce widespread lockdowns, instead putting in place social distancing measures, restriction mandates and non essential venue closures. Additional measures to restrict movement included curfews and police manned check points.

“Our experts tell us [a lockdown] would not kill off the virus. But it would kill jobs and it could kill our country’s future,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said.

The sentiments seemed to be echoed by some members of the community, with many concerned that a hard lockdown would lead to increased rates of unemployment and instability. 

“At this time everyone is doing everything they can to put food on the table and pay (their) bills,” said community member Poate Naivalulevu whose locality of Sabeto was under strict lockdown in July. 

People are already struggling, so many find it hard to put food on the table for their families.

“The people of Fiji know very well that a hard lockdown will help decrease the number of positive cases but I don’t think it’s possible for Fiji. Unless we can get some sort of assistance from the government or other organisations.

“You (have) got to remember, people are already struggling, so many find it hard to put food on the table for their families.” 

The move has been criticised by opposition National Federation Party leader Professor Biman Prasad, who said the decision worsened the COVID-19 crisis. 

In the meantime Fiji is drawing some hope from the success of its rugby sides.

“The young ones in my village can’t wait to get back on the playground and play rugby,” said Mr Naivalulevu.

“The win gave [us] hope, for a normal life like it was before the virus.” 

Main picture courtesy Fiji Rugby.