Accountability critical as nation grapples with aftermath of the measles epidemic
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and his Government’s reluctance to initiate a Commission of Inquiry into the measles crisis is telling.
It speaks volumes about the state of Samoa as a nation today. It is also symptomatic of a one-party state.
In any normal democracy hit by a crisis of this magnitude where lives are lost, a Commission of Inquiry naturally follows. It’s part of good governance; it’s about accountability and transparency.
In Samoa today, the facts speak for themselves. Eighty-three people – the majority being innocent children who had no control over the virus - died.
Thousands of Samoans in this country and abroad are in mourning. Families have been torn apart, relationships severed forever. Parents are without children; brothers and sisters have lost beloved siblings. In some cases, children are without parents and so forth.
But the devastating impact of the measles epidemic does not end there. Read the pages of your newspaper over the past few days and you will find that education has been affected in a major way.
Coupled with the Government’s decision to devote so much time, money and energy to the Pacific Games last year, the measles compounded problems so that the exam results for many students are disappointing. In some cases woeful.
The epidemic and the fatalities that followed cannot be ignored. The fatalities were mainly children who are the future of Samoa, the young generation of this country, whose educational prospects have been negatively impacted. You cannot put a value on that and nothing can bring back the time.
Where we can estimate a value, the tourism industry is more than $10 million in the red. We did not make up that figure, it came from the Samoa Tourism Authority, the government body responsible for driving the tourism industry, which is, suppose to be the mainstay of the economy.
The worst part is that we know these deaths and the adverse impact it has brought, could have been prevented, had the Government paid attention and acted on the alarm bells that had been rung months before the tragedy.
International agencies including the World Health Organisation, warned Samoa about its low immunisation rates well in advance. These warnings were issued at meetings attended by Government officials, who are paid ridiculous high salaries to protect the interests of Samoa – let alone lives.
The measles epidemic in New Zealand was another major warning, given the frequency of travel between the two countries. That too was not taken seriously.
Even when measles cases started surfacing in Samoa, the local authorities still did their best to downplay them. Some people at the Ministry of Health, who thought they were powerful, did the best they could to insult reporters from this newspaper – who insisted on questioning the response, given the severity of the situation then.
And how can we forget? While the epidemic escalated, the Minister of Health was not in the country. She was instead attending a women's empowerment conference somewhere in Australia. When her absence was questioned, her response was incredibly outrageous; it’s not even worth repeating here.
Other senior health officials were away in Africa, somewhere. Really?
We can go on and on but you get our drift. Suffice to say, if all the reasons above are not sufficient enough to warrant a Commission of Inquiry, we don’t know what will.
In Parliament on Tuesday, that lone opposition Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Va’ai, revisited the issue. He debunked the Government’s myth that parents are to blame for the deaths.
“Why is the Government blaming the parents now? Everything starts from here,” Olo asked. Prime Minister Tuilaepa obviously was not impressed.
“Can I ask the member; is it your wish that the Police go out and lock up all the parents who did not want to vaccinate their children?”
“Mr. Speaker,” Olo responded, “why should the Police go out?
“Who stopped the vaccination programme that prevented the children from being vaccinated? It’s you [Prime Minister Tuilaepa]. The vaccination programme lapsed for a whole year, that’s why these children died. That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
When the Prime Minister insisted that “kids have died because the parents did not want them to get vaccination” Olo responded: “Mr. Speaker, it’s not that the parents did not want to take their kids to get vaccinated. The Government stopped the vaccination programme. That’s the truth.”
Olo’s response is something we should all think about very carefully today.
At the end of the day, this country deserves nothing but the truth, about what happened and how this Government failed them. Anywhere else in a normal democracy, an investigation would already be underway and heads would roll.
And yet here we are in Samoa where the Government continues to make excuses after excuses, in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility, and being transparent and accountable. What are they afraid of? And what does this say about the kind of democracy we have in Samoa?
Don’t rush over that.
Have a productive Thursday Samoa, God bless!