Voices from the field during COVID-19

A group of five women help fit a young girl with a new wheelchair.

“It’s what you do for a child with a disability who doesn’t have a voice and whose family is in the dark about their rights” says Sylvina Reddy, reflecting on her role as a Physiotherapist for Frank Hilton Organization (FHO) in Fiji.

FHO provides rehabilitation and support for children with disabilities and their families. Alongside a team of passionate allied health professionals, Sylvina worked tirelessly to provide support to children and their families during the three-month COVID-19 lock down.

New ways of working

Each week we provided support to the families over the phone, ensuring they were keeping up with their child’s exercises and therapy by asking them to take videos of their daily stretches, and giving them guidance over video calls. We also developed short videos on positioning and wheelchair maintenance which we posted on our Facebook and YouTube channels … We had to find new ways of communicating, but for many of the families without internet or phone reception, there was only so much we could do.

Sazmin Nisha, Programme Coordinator and Community Rehabilitation Aid for FHO, Fiji

Sylvina and Nisha pose outside in the sun smiling with a colourful child-sized wheelchair.

Long-term impacts across the region

These new ways of working were further disrupted when Fiji and its neighbours were hit by Cyclone Harold in early April. The cyclone caused significant damage and displacement, leaving Fiji with no power for five days, and the team at Frank Hilton cut off from the children they work with.

The impact of COVID-19 on Motivation Australia’s partners in the Pacific will have long-term effects on the health and well-being of the communities in which they work. In some countries, inpatients have been discharged and community services reduced or cancelled. Partner staff have reported high levels of stress and anxiety in delivering services, as they worry about contracting the virus, and in many instances, are unclear about what they can do to safely support their clients.

Even for countries like Tonga, where there are currently no confirmed cases, the impacts are apparent.

Interrupted services

Last year, with the support of Motivation Australia, a new rehabilitation department at Viaola Hospital began providing patients with a range of treatment and rehabilitation.

But then COVID hit and people stopped coming to the clinic, for fear of catching the virus… The people we work with are the most vulnerable to COVID so they want to keep as far away from the hospital as possible.

John Po’uliva’ati, Lead Physiotherapist of Vaiola Hospital’s Rehabilitation Department, Tonga

Many clients across the region have been unable to attend services, whether for fear of infection, reduced transport services, loss of income or community lock-downs.

A woman stands, supporting herself with a chair and helped by a man sitting at her side. Another woman sits close by, observing. A walking frame is parked nearby.

Trending towards community outreach

Both teams are conducting outreach services to remote communities where residents have been unable to travel to receive vital care. In Fiji, the team has visited the Western Division kitted with personal protective equipment and adhering to strict social distancing measures to protect both themselves and the communities. In Tonga, John and his team are hoping to expand their work to two islands where there are currently no health services. This focus on outreach has been a trend across the region with the easing of restrictions.

An opportunity for reflection

Despite the challenges our partners face, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for reflection and in some cases positive change.

Sylvina explained that “for many families their experience in lock-down has been positive. With children and parents at home all day, parents have become confident in providing rehabilitation for their child … reliance on physios and technicians from Frank Hilton, has now been replaced by confidence in their own ability to care for their child.”

This has been the catalyst for a shift in approach for the organisation, who are now placing a greater emphasis on family-based care and group sessions, rather than focusing primarily on the child.

There are only a few parents who are confident to talk about their child’s disability or take them out in public. Our role is to build the confidence of the family.

Sylvina Reddy

What we are doing

Although travel restrictions have prevented Motivation Australia from supporting in person, in consultation with our partners, we have developed new initiatives for remote support. These include:

  • Increased focus on 1:1 mentoring
  • Development of a suite of online, context-specific training materials
  • Procurement of much needed resources.

Motivation Australia will continue to support and empower the health, rehabilitation and assistive technology workforce in the Pacific, in line with the needs of our partners.

We stand in solidarity with our partners and our neighbours in the Pacific during COVID-19 which is why we have pledged our support to the #EndCOVIDforAll campaign.


Thank you to Sylvina and Nisha of Frank Hilton Organization, and John of Vaiola Hospital for their time and insight into their work.