Medical Services Pacific provides legal assistance, sexual and reproductive health and other related services to the communities as part of the REACH project. (Photo: Medical Services Pacific).

As I drove up from the main corridor connecting Suva to it satellite town of Nasinu, the sun poked gently through deeply charcoaled clouds, creating just a little patch of blue sky while rain fell heavily.  Making a site visit to Wainibuku just outside of Nasinu, I arrived to find a village packed onto a muddy hillside, as if threatened by a potential landslide in the rain. Wainibuku is the mission site for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation’s REACH Project. REACH is an integrated awareness raising and service delivery platform of cooperation between the Government of Fiji, civil society service providers and UNDP, targeting the most vulnerable in society in urban and rural area. It aims to reach the furthest behind first to ensure that no one is left behind.

On arrival, I went through the standard and mandatory COVID-19 protocol – a thorough 20 seconds hand washing using the mobile touchless handwashing station (courtesy of Field Ready), had my temperature recorded with an infrared thermometer, and my contact details were recorded in a ledger to facilitate contact tracing should it be necessary.  Once cleared to join, I started meeting with our team – a diverse but cohesive group of government and non-government actors on-site to raise awareness on people’s rights and responsibilities, and to provide vital services to them right on their doorsteps. 

I was about to see this powerful modality pay off in a very concrete and immediate way to serve one of Fiji’s most vulnerable group of citizens.

Ms W. (not her real name) has reached the ripe age of 74 years old.  It is obvious she has worked very hard during her life but this has not slowed her down mentally.  She walks slowly and with a major limp.  I watched as she slowly navigated the flowing mud-gauntlet of her village towards the building where Medical Services Pacific (MSP) had set up. MSP provides sexual, reproductive health and pretty much most other basic medical diagnostics and, they had been provided a separate building for medical privacy, especially in relation to sensitive tests like Pap smears, as well as breast and prostate examinations. 

Ms. W’s movement was complicated by the green sheet of paper she clutched, and which was clearly her focus of attention moving forward.  Another team member and I helped her gingerly cross the last and most challenging steps through the muck and she walked inside. 

Once inside, she met with Elizabeth Rova- Colati, once the Medical Services Pacific team member as she, proudly places the green paper on the table.  Elizabeth wears a number of hats inside the Medical Services Pacific, one of those being a practising lawyer which enables her to sign legal documents.  After only a few minutes which included an inordinate number of smiles that makes Fiji famous, Ms. W. emerged from the building clutching that green paper with an obvious air of excitement. 

We helped her back down the few meters into the main building where the rest of the REACH team had been stationed.  She dutifully washed her hands, had her temperature taken by infrared thermometer and she went in as quickly as she could. Standing on the doorstep, I saw her coming and offered to help her back across the mud.  She was obviously happy with what had happened - she was visibly beaming. 

I started to engage her.  What had she come here for?  Ms. W. told me that she had just undergone a major throat surgery during the previous month and was a pensioner – that pension was her monthly lifeline, her existence tied to reliably receiving pension payments each month.  Her medical issues and COVID-19 related impacts meant that she had not been able to renew it.  She knew it was due for renewal, and this required completion of a new form with a legal attestation. The fear of losing monthly payment had caused her extreme stress.  Getting it renewed, however, was not an easy task.  Despite living in the Suva area, Wainabuku village is 15 minutes up an unsealed road and her disability meant it was a near impossible undertaking to get into town.  Further, due to COVID-19 and related circumstances, many offices and businesses were closed unannounced.   Despite this, she had made the challenging trip into the nearby town of Nasinu looking for a justice of the peace to sign off on her renewal.  She was unsuccessful both times, sacrificing huge physical efforts, extensive time, and money.  She had nearly given up hope.

Today was different though.  Word of the REACH team being on site all day reached her in the afternoon and she made her way down to the team as quickly as she could – a difficult trip down the muddy hill from her house.  Once there, and having gone through the mandatory handwashing, temperature screening and contact recording, she went straight to the Social Welfare Division Officer from Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation to get the renewal form completed – that green paper she was clutching.  Elizabeth from MSP was able to certify it on the spot as a licensed lawyer.  She then filled in the form with the help of the Social Welfare officer. 

And that was it.  What had caused a huge stress in her life, taken up a tremendous amount of her time and resources to attempt – and failed to do, had been accomplished in the span of a few minutes, almost literally on her doorstep. Her big smile beamed at me, almost as bright as the sun which poked again through the thick black clouds while the rain continued to fall.  I helped her back across the muddy stream and watched her make her way slowly back home, moving just that little bit faster without the burden of stress on her back.  To say the least, this was a humbling experience, one small but incredible success story for the REACH team that day – only one of many.

This is the power of the REACH modality, a revised COVID-19 centred integrated service delivery model that brings key government and non-government service providers and their services to people’s doorsteps.  Operating in Fiji since 2015, with small pilots undertaken in Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga, the modality and composition of the REACH approach has been shifted to respond to COVID-19.   While the world continues to suffer through the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, REACH is a little ray of light, breaking through to bring that small bit of blue skies to people’s lives.

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