Cafe crowd a question of commitment, leadership

At a time when great misfortune has been visited upon the rest of the world, Samoa has, up until now, found itself fortunate.

Only 15 nations in the world are yet to register a confirmed case of the virus that has caused more than 100,000 deaths worldwide and turned life as we know it on its head.

Or have we been protected deftly by our Government?

We have given the Government its due praise in these pages for acting early to prevent the arrival of the virus on our shores. 

But to the extent we can credit their actions, rather than good fortune, for having kept the virus from reaching our shores must now be open for question. 

Photographs in the pages of this newspaper last week raised questions about whether the Coffee Roaster cafe had properly applied state of emergency rules that had applied until Wednesday this week: namely, that only takeaway service be provided and dining-in be entirely prohibited. 

Last week, we saw customers freely mingling in groups inside the cafe, making conversation and apparently drinking their coffee. 

Attempts to secure a comment from the cafe’s owner, Phillip Moore, about whether his business has been in breach of the rules during the state of emergency have been unsuccessful. 

We also failed to have requests for comment returned from the Police about whether or not such actions constituted breaches of the order.

With Tuesday's relaxation of the laws concerning cafe dining, the issue at Coffe Roaster has fast become academic. 

But the point of story is not one of law but of moral authority: while the Government has been at pains to present the image of being occupied with the public health at all costs, its actions have told a different story. 

That two of this nation’s leaders were on the scene of a potential breach last Wednesday, undermines this narrative. 

Among the customers captured milling around outside the cafe were two Ministers: of particular note, the Police and Prisons Minister, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, and the Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti. 

In times of crisis, when the Government is asking citizens to change their behaviour, to have members of Cabinet within sight of arguably questionable practice does its moral authority no favours at a time when it needs it most.  

The international experience of coronavirus quarantine programmes has shown us that political leaders - such as the New Zealand Health Minister who lost his job for a prohibited walk on the beach - must be held to higher standards than others. 

It has also shown that the entire point of measures such as the state of emergency restrictions is that they be applied universally.

The odd minor breach of rules meant to be applied universally has been traced back to so many instances of cases of the virus spreading internationally.

A failure to properly quarantine a flight attendant apparently has led to the spread of the virus across Fiji, one of the Pacific’s hardest hit countries with 16 cases. A single Zumba gym class attended by a patient carrying the virus has become the focus of an investigation into how the disease has spread so widely across the country. 

To put it simply, successful quarantining or social isolation policies do not allow for exemptions. They are universal or they are useless. 

Across the country, Samoans and Samoan businesses have shown themselves to be admirably proactive in preventing the potential spread of the virus, even though we had no confirmed cases on island.

From stores carefully rationing the number of customers who could pass through their doors, to supermarkets that have laid down lines at the checkout to facilitate queueing at a safe distance, to those that have sprayed customers with sanitiser upon walking into their premises, many businesses have gone above and beyond.

We applaud them for doing so.

But why the Government has not been more proactive about inquiring into the possibility of a breach is curious. 

Some of the Government’s quarantining and isolation measures have been more than severe.

In February, due to regulatory changes that were perhaps passed while they were still in transit, on their way home from receiving medical treatment in India, eight Samoan nationals found themselves refused entry home. 

Here was the Government displaying an ostensible commitment to protecting the public health that was so absolute it even left it in a grey area of international law. 

The front page of this newspaper yesterday (“Supermarkets liable for $5,000 tala fine) referenced a disagreement between the Police Commissioner and the Prime Minister over the minutiae of what constituted a supermarket so far as state of emergency orders were concerned.

This followed, of course, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, weighing in to overrule the Commissioner Fuiavailili Egon Keil on what constituted a store of appropriate size to be allowed a trading exemption.

But how easily this week the perception that this is a Government occupied with the public health can be undone.

The crowded cafe incident also reminds of the botched quarantine of an Air New Zealand flight which allowed one passenger to evade the compulsory quarantine requirements imposed on all other passengers in favour of self-quarantining at home. What “confusion” led to that passenger receiving this special treatment is something the Government has not adequately explained.

Exceptions and exemptions are by definition minor and they fast fade from memories. But in times of a blanket response to crisis they are also the standard by which we judge a Government's true committments. 

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