Stimulus package fizzling out? Empathy vital to save families

The release of the amended state of emergency (S.O.E.) orders by the Government recently points to a gradual return to normalcy for the country after a two-month lockdown.

Public buses are back on the road, school children have returned to classes, and struggling businesses in the hospitality industry have reopened, but operate with strict conditions in line with the S.O.E. orders.

Samoa is one of few countries in the world that remains free of the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic. But our isolation in the Pacific and virus-free status has not spared us of its global impact. COVID-19 landed a final blow to our tourism industry already crippled by the 2019 measles epidemic, and slashed Government revenue in the process.

To appreciate the seriousness of the situation, you have to read the story of the desperate plea by the Samoa Hotels Association (S.H.A.) President, Tupa'i Saleimoa Vaai. 

Tupa'i lamented the loss of over 1,100 jobs in the industry due to the global pandemic, in the May 13, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer, and revealed they made a submission to the Government for a range of assistance including financial support.

“The reality is that tourism income has stopped. There is a chance that businesses can be lost,” he said. “It is a threat that may lead to a lot of hotels going bankrupt if no assistance is provided.”

The appeal by the S.H.A. President, comes over a month after the Government brought down a T$66 million supplementary budget. It included about T$12.5 million earmarked for the private sector.

You would think assistance for the tourism industry could come from the T$12.5 million. But it appears portions of that funding is yet to get to the industry – in light of the recent appeal by the S.H.A. President – who by the way represents an industry that is currently the largest private sector employer in Samoa.

As the country’s tourism operators continue the countdown to their demise, we notice the Ministry of Finance (M.O.F.) early this week criticising commercial banks, for not doing enough for their customers through their individual stimulus packages.

“In actual fact, we are saddened that the banks are not doing enough to assist their customers,” said M.O.F. Chief Executive Officer, Leasiosiofaasisisna Oscar Malielegaoi, in an interview with Samoa Observer.

“Yet [in light of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown] they look at the Government instead; they should ask what they can do for their customers. They have been earning millions of profits.”

Leasiosio warned that the people did not need extra loans from banks, and emphasised that they instead should be assisted with longer grace periods for loan repayments as well as have access to their interests.

But it is not within the remit of the M.O.F. to question how privately-owned commercial banks should roll out their stimulus packages. They are private entities and already pay taxes to the Government in various forms.

In fact Samoa’s four commercial banks – Bank South Pacific (B.S.P.) Samoa, Samoa Commercial Bank, National Bank of Samoa and A.N.Z. Pacific – announced relief packages for their respective customers last month.

Ironically, if the Ministry is concerned that the commercial banks are not doing enough, perhaps they should first look at their own as well as the Government's track record to assist ordinary citizens cushion the impact of COVID-19.

The key question now for the M.O.F. and the Government is how they can share or better still take on the burden of the 1,100 tourism industry workers who were laid off after the sector collapsed? 

And if we add the families of these laid off workers to the equation, then you can imagine how many men, women and children literally lost weekly income brought into their homes by their breadwinners, and must now look around for alternative sources of income.

Tragically, workers in the hospitality sector aren't the only ones affected by this economic recession, brought on by the global pandemic. There are hundreds of others laid off by other sectors, including retail outlets or lost the opportunity to sell their produce, due to the shutdown of public markets.

And despite explicit S.O.E. orders prohibiting sales outside shops in town and Vaitele by children street vendors, their human instinct to survive the harsh realities of life without an income, is forcing them to risk arrest by continuing to ply their trade.

Every time our technocrats in Government put pen to paper to formulate policies to improve our peoples’ lives – or in this case intervene to save families on the verge of poverty brought on by the global pandemic – they should have empathy and put themselves in the people’s shoes to appreciate their challenges and act quickly to save families.

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