The questions that must be answered

Was it worth it?

That will be the question on everyone’s minds this evening at the conclusion of two days of an unprecedented shutdown of all commerce and Government in this nation.

We’ll come to that. But another relevant question must follow this one; one that is now beginning to be raised: How did we come to need such a drastic measure to begin with?

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, and the legendary British investigative reporter, Brian Deer, butted heads over that very issue yesterday and it must be addressed. 

The answer is complex but the way Deer’s questions were dismissed was telling.

But first: Was it worth it?

On the numbers, it appears so. 

Early data suggests about 17,500 people received vaccines on Thursday.

If we presume the same number again are reached today, that suggests the total number of people to have now been vaccinated in Samoa - and these precise figures have been difficult to obtain - was raised by roughly one-third. That is no small thing. 

We have said in these pages before the Government deserves praise for reaching so many people so quickly with its mass vaccination drive declared on November 20. Government data suggested that 50,000 people were vaccinated inside a fortnight. That is before yesterday’s door-to-door campaign began.

We cannot deny the success of this programme. What’s more, those reached over these past two days have been among the most difficult for the Government to vaccinate. Also, two days of focusing the nation’s mind on the need for vaccination. 

The example set by Tuilaepa and Government Ministry C.E.O.s was invaluable, too, for setting an example for a nation that, since the Savai’i tragedy last year, has been suspicious of vaccinations.

Vaccinations take two weeks to kick in. We may not see the results of these efforts reflected in the national death toll until Christmas. 

But we acknowledge the powerful feat of administration and bold leadership shown in this decision. 

Now, to the more difficult question of why such drastic action was needful. 

To say that the potential threat of a measles outbreak in Samoa could be seen coming a long way off would be to understate matters. 

Measles has been making tracks around the world for more than one year. It has spread from Europe (where cases doubled between January and June); to the Philippines; Africa; and eventually to New Zealand. 

It was more than three months ago that the front page of this newspaper warned that the arrival of an epidemic on Samoan shores was now inevitable.

Given our extremely low national vaccine rates the potential for massive loss of life was also obvious. We said as much on these very pages, again  more than three months ago:

“The potential implications of Samoa's falling vaccination numbers are are chilling

“[As measles’ spread] now seems inevitable to reach Samoa, the lives of [the nation’s] children are now seriously at risk.

“The looming human cost is now too high for anything less than a transparent and proactive overhaul of the Government’s approach”.

Why, then, did it take the Ministry of Health nearly three months to enact a mass vaccination initiative, only once the death toll began to rise toward its current level of 63?

As we have written before, it was this newspaper that exposed the arrival of measles in this country and the first loss of life. 

The Government’s recent transparency in the form of daily updates on casualties is to be commended, but it has come too late.

But the causes of low vaccination rates in Samoa have been obscured. Between 28 to 40 per cent of our population was vaccinated against measles by the start of this year. 

Our neighbours in Tonga and American Samoa have vaccination rates well over 95 per cent.

How did this disparity  come to pass?

This is the line of questioning pursued by Deer on Thursday.

The Brit was criticised for his aggressive style of questioning and even pointing. The Communications Minister even attempted to stop him from continuing. 

A clash of cultures was on display yesterday.

Deer, who exposed, over many years, the bogus data behind claims that measles vaccines caused autism in a series of award-winning investigations for the Sunday Times, comes from a culture where journalists are hard-charging and aggressive. Evasions and equivocations by politicians are not accepted. 

That British approach to questioning politicians stands out for its pointedness, even in countries founded by Britain such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada. That it was received poorly in Samoa is understandable. 

But nothing changes the fact that questions Deer was asking are necessary and the answers he received are inadequate. 

Tuilaepa said that vaccination was perceived differently by parents here who had been opposed to vaccinations (or not educated about them) before, something Deer could not understand because he is “not a Samoan”.


Why, then, are the same factors not at play in American Samoa? How did Samoa, five years ago, achieve a vaccination rate among one-year-olds of 85 per cent before it began dropping massively year after year. How were cultural factors overcome in the year of 2014 and why did that suddenly stop?

Deer may have been perceived as rude. But Tuilaepa was dismissive. 

He suggested that it was not right for Deer to come to Samoa to ask such questions when his own country faces a political fiasco over the British withdrawal from the European Union (also known as 'Brexit').

That is a non-sequitur. 

We understand that the nation’s focus, for now, is on responding to a national crisis.

But Deer was asking about matters to which an elected Government should be accountable and transparent. The people of Samoa deserve to hear the answers to his questions. That's what good governance, which Prime Minister Tuilaepa himself gloats about all time, is about. Isn't it?


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