While others are celebrating Christmas together, some families in Samoa will feel the hurt of missing a beloved person who died this year – like the family of Siniva Sefo.
In May, Ms Sefo was diagnosed with cancer and prescribed overseas treatment. In November, her doctor realized that she had not been able to go overseas, because she had not been able to pay for her travel documents, and wrote a letter explaining that she needed help urgently.
And with this letter, she still was wandering the streets in pain, not knowing who to turn to…. Finally, through publishing her plight in the Observer, help was found – but too late; I was told that she passed away a few days later.
The request for help by the doctor at National Health did not have a specific recipient, but was addressed to “whom it may concern”. This may be one reason why help came too late – there seems to be nobody designated to care for people like her; there is nobody to whom those people who are unable to cover associated expenses for prescribed overseas treatment are referred to.
This was not the only time this year where patients were desperately looking for help to get to their vital overseas treatment. Only through publishing the case in the newspaper, and the generosity of people like Tuaopepe Wallwork, patients like baby Macristmas and the young heart patient Faamaau were able to travel.
It is true that government funds the expensive treatment itself – well, correctly stated, it is not “government”, the ruling party, who pays, but taxes and overseas donations are used for this purpose; medical experts make the decision of who needs to be sent overseas to receive treatment.
Unfortunately, it does not really matter if the amount the patients themselves need to pay is only a part of a much greater package – if they cannot raise that amount, they cannot go. For a person with a good income, e.g. an Associate Minister, the cost of a passport, N.Z. visum, airport tax and transport to the airport would be nothing to worry about – but for a casual worker who earns only 100 tala a week, this is their salary for a whole month at least.
Additionally, even if an Associate Minister had no money available himself, he would be able to raise or loan the money by using his administration skills, connections or assets.
Also here, the casual worker or rural small farmer would find it much harder – not only getting access to a loan, but also approaching people and institutions who can help them. When I worked in Samoa, some people I knew - who would fish at the roaring reef in the middle of the night or climb the highest coconut tree - were extremely shy or even scared to enter a government office and ask for a simple service.
This may also have been caused by the negative attitude some office workers used to show towards people from “kua”; the experience made them lose their trust and confidence in government offices. Or rather, they thought they were not able to deal with such matters.
In the case of medical treatment, this becomes life-threatening. The longer a cancer is given time to grow, the more likely it can spread to other parts of the body; a weak heart will soon lead to damage to other vital organs.
Without help these humble people are stuck in a situation where they see the relief of their suffering so near, they are given a life-saving gift – but out of their reach. It is horrible if this chance is lost just because this person is too poor or has no connections. It is not only a disaster for this person and their family, it is also a disaster for everyone in a country which is founded on God. It is unacceptable that a life-saving treatment should be offered to a poor person like in the Samoan proverb “E togi le moa ae uu le afa”.
So may this wish come true: That the Government of Samoa establishes a clear referral system for any person who needs overseas treatment, but may find it difficult to fund and organize their travel. These patients should be immediately referred from the medical authorities to a capable government institution for fast assistance, with excellent networks to funding agencies and charities in Samoa and overseas.
I would like to suggest that this task is assigned to the Disaster Management Office. The people working in this office have the necessary skills in logistics and helping people who are in severe life-threatening situations; they already are working in a network of different departments, aid organisations and NGOs who could be asked to further assist the patient; they chose work at this place because they want to help others in need. If Samoa is truly prepared for a larger disaster, the number of staff there should be also be sufficient to immediately respond, i.e. there should be enough human resources to deal with this matter while they are “on standby” for any national emergency.
And, last not least, this would also provide good training for the involved staff in organization, counseling and in further building networks with medical personnel, aid agencies and NGOs, all of which would be of benefit if a national disaster strikes.
May the New Year bring blessings to all of us, and help and relief to all those who need it – so that next Christmas, nobody will have to weep for someone who could have been saved. Ia manuia le Kerisimasi ma le Tausaga Fou.