Ministry of Health screens Faleolo passengers

The Ministry of Health has begun screening passengers arriving at Faleolo Airport for symptoms of the novel coronavirus 209-nCoV with staff on site since Wednesday.

Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Airports Authority Silimanai Ueta Solomona, while referring most questions to the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.), confirmed a security committee met on Thursday afternoon, and that M.O.H personnel were on the ground at Faleolo.

A passenger arriving from American Samoa on Wednesday morning said they were screened by staff after disembarking from the flight. She declined to be named for this story.

When asked for more details, M.O.H. Director General Leausa Dr. Take Naseri told the Samoa Observer: “No, sorry, I don’t want to talk to you,” and disconnected the call. He did not say why.

Two to three hours after attempts by this newspaper to get a comment from Leausa, the Government released a statement after 7pm local time advising that all passengers arriving in Samoa are required to fill in health declaration forms, and get medical clearance three days prior to travelling to Samoa.

But the President of the Journalism Association of Samoa (J.A.W.S.), Rudy Bartley, told the Samoa Observer that getting a "no answer" from officials on matters of public importance does not help and only opens the door to misinformation.

“There needs to be a free flow of information, even if nothing is happening, all you need to say is ‘we are working on it'. Give us an answer, not no answer," he said. 

Mr. Bartley said when Government stems the flow of information it sets the stage for misinformation to flow.

“We need to provide the public with information that can answer the questions they have. There is a lot of anxiety right now because there is no information provided.

“After the measles epidemic, they should have learned their lessons from that, the first one being they should have gotten the media involved and let the people know what is happening right from the start.”

He said ideally the public could be informed without all media ringing the M.O.H. at once, but in the absence of a communications system the leadership should respond to queries. 

When the measles epidemic triggered a state of emergency, M.O.H through the National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.), began distributing daily situation reports. When the state of emergency was lifted on December 29, the regular communication ceased, though the epidemic itself was ongoing.

Mr. Bartley said the absence of communication during a crisis doesn’t do the Ministry’s reputation any favours. 

“It doesn’t do anyone any good, it doesn’t look like they are responding to what is happening, that they are not on the ball and doing what they are supposed to do.”

This snowballs into a worse situation for the public, Mr. Bartley said, who then seek to fill the information void however they can. 

“People will begin to doubt whether the Ministry is actually doing anything because there is no information. That creates a lot of misinformation because people will start making things up.

“Like any responsible media we have a job to do, we need to find out what is happening for the interest of the public. There is a lot of interest right now in the coronavirus and the public needs to know what is happening.”

Earlier this month when M.O.H. employees began charging $40 for vaccination records, the matter was widely reported in the news media. Afterwards, Leausa expressed disappointment that news outlets did not afford him a chance to speak to the issue. 

“I am very disappointed that M.O.H. was never afforded the opportunity by the media to address these concerns,” he said, in a press release issued by the Government. “There was no single media clarification to the effect.”

Despite his claims, reporters from television and newspaper outlets did in fact seek comment from both himself and Deputy Director General Tagaloa Dr. Robert Thomsen. Neither answered calls to their office or mobile phones. 

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