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Protecting vulnerable families during the economic downturn

It was an Easter weekend like no other with the state of emergency (S.O.E.) ensuring everyone solemnly marked the occasion in the privacy of their own homes.

Some churches reached out to their congregation through their television stations and social media, the change in the Gospel’s mode of delivery breaking new ground in Christianity’s 190-year history in Samoa.

And the announcement by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi on Saturday, confirming the negative test results of the last 12 outstanding suspected cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19), would have been the icing on the cake for the patients and their families as well as the public.

“The Director General of Health and his staff had not slept well while waiting for the results, in case it came back positive and we would have to trace those that were in contact with suspects,” said the Prime Minister. 

“Because all of the cases [being reported] were contracted by those that traveled and it is good news that none of our cases are positive.” 

Sadly, the same Sunday Samoan edition that reported on the negative COVID-19 test samples, also reported on the grim realities facing our tourism industry today.

Over 500 workers in the sector have been laid off, following the closure of over 50 hotels and resorts on the islands of Upolu and Savai’i, with the Samoa Hotel Association projecting more job losses this week.

“We are still trying to update our database but we have about 55 hotels and resorts altogether that are temporarily closed from Upolu and Savaii,” said the Association’s President, Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaai. “A lot of the hotels will be making drastic decisions by next week (this week) and saying that tourism is in trouble is an understatement.”

A lot of families will, no doubt, are starting to feel the pinch of increasing job losses from the tourism sector. Their form of income through the employment of either a mother or a father or a son or a daughter gone. 

But the sector also has indirect beneficiaries, such as farmers who sell their produce directly to the hotels and resorts as well as to the fishermen, who were their long-term clients for fresh fish prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

That is to say the closure of all hotels and resorts nationally will have a significant effect on thousands of workers and their families, leaving them insecure and vulnerable, due to their loss of income and the absence of alternate income generation options.

Unfortunately, the interventions announced by the Government last week, through its $12.5 million tala stimulus package targeting the private sector falls short of offering tangible assistance to the tourism sector.

Consequently, the Prime Minister’s declaration last Saturday that Samoa remains one of few COVID-19 free states in the world, is timely as his Government’s review of the S.O.E. orders might want to consider calls for selected local businesses to operate at half-capacity to avoid a complete economic shutdown. 

Local businessman, Papali’i Grant Percival, has called for restaurants, bars, public transport and churches to be reopened but in compliance with strict operating conditions. 

“You say: if you want to be open you will put in hygiene measures to keep everything sterile, you make sure anyone who comes in is appropriately distanced so they don’t infringe on personal space and people wear masks unless they are eating or drinking,” he said. 

“Then you keep the economy afloat. We have lost our tourism sector and it was only accommodation but now it’s also the food and beverage sector, it’s a lot more, and we didn’t need to.”

Hence with the reopening of selected businesses, extension of trading hours, and the continued closure of our international borders (except for vessels laden with essential supplies), there is a chance the Government and the private sector can work to keep our economy ticking long enough to ride out the COVID-19 storm while keeping Samoa safe.

But should a Government-review of the S.O.E. orders opt to maintain the status quo, then the Ministry of Women Community and Social Development should consider a food rationing assistance programme in consultation with the village councils, to ensure families that are vulnerable due to the immediate loss of employment continue to provide for their children.

Keep safe Samoa and continue to maintain adequate social distancing and hygiene.

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