Shine A Light: Family Of 15-Year-Old COVID-Fatality Tells

In his statement, Dr Fong said Sema was declared dead on arrival by the attending medical officer at the Raiwaqa Health Centre.
04 Aug 2021 15:11
Shine A Light: Family Of 15-Year-Old COVID-Fatality Tells
The hearse carrying the casket of the late Semaema Rabukawaqa on july 16, 2021, with her grieving father, Ratu Saila Mavileko, sitting on the passenger seat. Photo: Leon Lord. Inset: Semaema Rabukawaqa.

It just took one day for Semaema Rabukawaqa to succumb to the global killer virus – COVID-19.

She was 15. Her parents maintain their daughter did not die of coronavirus.

However, her death certificate indicated that she suffered from a severe form of COVID-19.

The death certificate recorded that COVID-19 caused DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation – a condition in which small blood clots develop throughout the bloodstream, blocking small blood vessels), which led to severe hemorrhagic pneumonia.

Severe COVID-19 causes pneumonia-infection in the lungs and DIC, which can further complicate the condition of the patient.

Semaema, fondly known as Sema, fell ill on Wednesday, July 7 at her home in Colo-i-Suva Village. She was coughing. The next day, she complained of chest pain.

Her parents rushed her to the Raiwaqa Health Centre, where she later passed away. She was then swabbed and tested positive for COVID-19.

In any mass pandemic, it is part of protocols that every health facility swabs those who have died to determine the cause of death.

COVID-19 is no different. Given its severity, the deceased are swabbed to determine whether COVID contributes to the death, is the cause of death or is not one of the contributors to the death.

Swabbing helps provide answers to why there are increasing numbers of deaths in a certain period of time, especially during a viral outbreak.

In this Shine a Light edition, we tell the story of young Sema and a COVID positive patient.

Sema is the second COVID case below the age of 18 to have passed away.

She was not part of the herd immunity target population of 18 years and above to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On Friday, July 9, permanent secretary for Health and Medical Service Dr James Fong had announced they were investigating Sema’s cause of death.

Two days later, on Sunday July 11, her death was classified as a COVID-19 death.

In his statement, Dr Fong said Sema was declared dead on arrival by the attending medical officer at the Raiwaqa Health Centre.

“This means that she either died at home or on her way to the health facility,” Dr Fong said.

“Her family reported that she had been feeling unwell for two days. Her symptoms included a cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.”

Sema’s parents were also swabbed on Thursday, July 8.

Their results came out positive on Saturday. When Shine A Light visited their residence at Colo-i-Suva Village, there was no isolation, except for funeral preparations.

She was laid to rest yesterday.

Questions sent to Dr Fong were not answered when this edition went to press.

Questions sent to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Fiji were also not answered when this edition went to press.



Sema’s father Ratu Saila Mavileko fell sick on the evening of Monday, July 5 after working in the rain during the day.

He was coughing and had body pains. He was still not fully recovered during the interview.

Ratu Saila is a Methodist church steward at the Colo-i-Suva Methodist Church. He was posted there in 2019, and has been there since with his family.

On Wednesday of the same week, Sema became ill. She was only coughing, until she complained of chest pain the next morning.

“I thought that she was experiencing chest pain because of her boil under her right arm,” her mother Jimaima Vakasese said.

But the pain grew worse. It was after midday when her family took her to the Raiwaqa Health Centre, by which she was unresponsive.

The doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate her, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

Sema’s parents were informed that she had passed away at around 1:30pm. In line with COVID-19 protocols, Sema’s parents were advised not to touch her body, before or after testing positive.

Her devastated father couldn’t resist not holding her eldest child’s hand one last time. The tears were unstoppable. Her body was taken by the COVID-19 response team at around 5pm.

Sema was an active and healthy girl. She was a student of DAV Girls. She had hopes of becoming a teacher.

Her normal routine would be to train early every morning at 4:30 am. She was a soccer player. Sema was also part of the church choir and her family worship team on the Proverbs 31 Ministry Facebook page.

She had her whole life ahead of her. Ms Vakasese said they had accepted that God had called Sema back.

“But it brings shame to us as her parents and our family that her death has been labeled as a COVID death because now people see us as a COVID positive family,” Ms Vakasese said.



Sema’s parents want proof that they’ve tested positive.

“I disputed the result because I wanted them to show me the proof that I’m positive, and not just because our daughter was positive,” he said.

People who have tested positive are usually given a letter indicating they’ve tested positive. Most times swab results are communicated verbally over the phone to ensure COVID safe procedures are always practiced.

Colo-i-Suva Village was COVID free until Sema’s positive result. At the entry to the village is a checkpoint, where movements of people in and out of the village are closely and strictly monitored.



She is the eldest of five siblings.

She is from Navakasiga, Bua with maternal links to Yadrana, Lau.

Sema is fond of her siblings, in particular her 11-month-old sister.

“She’s always with her sister, most of the time they are together, she looks up to her as her mother,”  Ms Vakasese said.

The news of their eldest sister’s passing broke the hearts of their siblings. Sunday was usually the day that Sema would bath and dress them up.



Now here’s another reality check for those who still dispute the reality of the COVID-19 delta variant that is running havoc across the Suva-Nausori corridor.

Imagine you’re fatally ill, on your sick bed in a COVID-19 facility.

There’s no one by your side, not your friend, relative or family.

It’s just you – surrounded by health workers walking around in their space like personal protective equipment suits and carrying notepads and medical equipment. On either side are COVID positive patients, some of them more severe, gasping for breath.

That’s the reality for Laisiasa Rupeni (not his real name). It’s now his 18th day inside the Rabuka Gym in Laucala Bay.

He tested positive on Thursday July 1, three days after his partner passed away because of COVID-19.

Mr Rupeni was at home when he started to experience flu-like symptoms – shortness of breath, tightness of chest, mild headaches.

That was the first attack.

He was taken to the Wainibokasi Health Centre, swabbed and tested positive.

Ten days later while self-isolating at home, his symptoms worsened.

He was rushed to the Vodafone Arena in Laucala Bay.

He was admitted for another 10 days. He was later discharged because he wasstable. But after just one day at home, he had the second attack.

“The second time I had an attack that’s when it felt like I was swallowing needles, and I was gasping for oxygen, my throat felt like it
was closing up, my chest was tight, I lost my sense of taste,” he said.

“When you have the attack, it’s like having asthma, there’s no oxygen in the brain and you have to calm yourself. It’s harder when you
are alone.”

The pain is different. With every injection, the pain gets more excruciating. Because of how severe his symptoms were, he had to be inject-
ed with strong antibiotics.

He also used the oxygen machine to help him breathe.

“Struggling to breathe through your mask is nothing compared to breathing through the oxygen ma-
chine or the ventilator,” Mr Rupeni said.

For the 30-year-old, he was ready to accept his fate. He knew the virus was merciless. It took away his partner.

He didn’t have the chance to say goodbye or ask for her forgiveness.

“All she said was ‘I am going under the ventilator; I’ll talk to you soon’. But she never came back home.

“So I was calling up everybody thanking them for everything and asking for their forgiveness, telling them that I love them and appreci-
ate them in life.”

Mr Rupeni is fighting three battles on his COVID-19 bed – physically, emotionally and mentally – and no one is beside him to console him.

“First is I’m fighting COVID-19, two is the most important per-
son in my life, who actually saw me as an individual and accepted me for who I am, she passed away and I had to bury her onTuesday, even though I wasn’t there, I had to watch through her Facebook stream, and three I have people calling me up swearing at me, telling me that I put their family, friends, loved ones, children at risk of the virus,” he said.

The journey has been painful. But he is thankful to God for his grace that he’s alive today. Mr Rupeni is a living witness of God’s miraculous wonders.

“Out of nowhere, while I was gasping for oxygen, a lady called me and said she needed to pray and prophesy over me. She said God
wanted me to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, my chest pain was gone,” he said.

“This virus is real, but you must not lose your faith in God.”



COVID-19 separates you from your loved ones without any notification. There’s no closure when someone you love passes away.

When you fall victim of COVID-19, the key is to have a positive mindset, he said. “This is not like any normal sickness, this is an assassin. If your mind loses the battle, you’re gone.”

Mr Rupeni said we needed to break the stigma around COVID-positive patients. “We are human beings, we have feelings.”

His advice is for everyone to follow the COVID safety measures.

Mr Rupeni said now is the time for Fijians to come together as a nation, despite our differences.

“We have to show this virus, that it’s still a virus, and we are humans. We can do this; we have more recoveries than deaths.

“If you feel the symptoms, go get tested. Early detection is key. Do look after your elders in the family, they are the most vulnerable.”


Mr Rupeni has seen firsthand nurses and doctors falling ill, but still turn up to work.

“They put their lives on the line and they put their family on hold and they come,” he said.

“I just want to thank them for their great service. They are stretched here. I have told myself I am coming right back to volunteer,
because they need help.”

He is also thankful to his family, friends and loved ones who have been comforting him through continuous phone calls.



Mr Rupeni said he was still unsure of when he would be discharged as he was still classified as a severe case.

For now he is now able to actually taste food again and eat well.

Mr Rupeni is a former employee of the Ministry of Fisheries. As his partner’s last wish, he is pursuing his artistic passion in music.


Edited by Rosi Doviverata

Feedback: ivamere.nataro@fijisun.com.fj

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