The search for answers is apolitical
Is it wrong to seek answers and demand the truth about the deaths of 83 innocent people?
We do not think so.
In Samoa today we find ourselves in the most wrenchingly ironic situation, where a shortage of pathologists means a single death cannot be buried, sometimes for two months, but when more than 80 children die the causes remain unexamined.
In the storm of issues that had struck the beginning of 2019, Samoa had almost forgotten last year’s measles epidemic.
It took the former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, to renew the call last week.
“It is noticed that in matters which are trifling, you Tuilaepa are so ready to call a Commission of Inquiry,” Tui Atua said.
“Why is there no Commission of Inquiry into the measles epidemic in Samoa where 81 children died and where there is compelling evidence about the lack of preparation?”
But the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, has dismissed these calls as mere polticking.
Remember that several highly qualified Samoan experts made these very same calls in the afterglow of this horrible national nightmare.
The current Vice Chancellor of the Oceania University of Medicine, Toleafoa Manufalealili Dr. Viali Lameko, was the first member of Samoa’s medical fraternity to speak out and call for an inquiry into the epidemic’s causes.
It would be extremely difficult to paint Toleafoa’s contributions as politically motivated.
The Samoa Association of General Practitioners’ President last year said that the group would lead their own review and decided against supporting a Government inquiry because they wanted to focus on “achievable” outcomes. What that means, we shall leave open to interpretation.
Speaking on state-owned media he implied that someone had been putting ideas in Tui Atua’s head:
“I’m assuming [it is] that fat pretty reporter from the Samoa Observer that’s encouraging him,” he said.
But Tuilaepa’s speech was a rhetorical sleight of hand and a litany of non-reasons for holding an inquiry.
First, he noted inquiries are expensive.
How much value can we place on human lives?
The Prime Minister noted that two recent Commissions of Inquiries had been held based on issued such as the re-merger of the National Health Service and the Ministry of Health and the tragic 2018 incident in which a misprepared vaccine led to two children’s deaths.
Inquiries have also been held into the leakage of money from the nation’s customs services.
As worthy as these causes are, it is difficult to suggest they outweigh the importance to this nation and its history last year’s devastating epidemic.
Tuilaepa, who had earlier blamed parents, for failing to get their children vaccinated. He then noted that measles had been brought to Samoa by a woman from New Zealand.
On his programme he said the only remaining question an inquiry could answer was why Samoa’s death rate from the illness was so high: “Everyone knew the answer to that [...] I doubt he watched the TV and the vaccination campaigns”.
But in truth some questions remain outstanding - and so too do answers.
Samoa had plenty of warning measles outbreaks were making their way around the world. Cases in Europe alone trebled in 2017. In the Philippines, which had suffered a similar vaccine scandal to Samoa early in the year was decimated by more than 570 deaths.
One question the Prime Minister does not seem to be prepared to answer is the most crucial: With all this writing on the wall, why did the Government fail to spring into action to lift our vaccination rates, especially when New Zealand had an epidemic of massive proportions.
The Government’s eventual shutdown of the nation and eventual vaccination campaign showed that an incredible number of people can be vaccinated in an incredibly short period of time.
Why were they not?
Our Pacific neighbors such as American Samoa and Tonga all enjoyed incredibly high vaccination rates that provided them with protection during the global epidemic. Why Samoa is an exception is something that has never been adequately explained.
Another question the Government owes is why the rate at which Samoa’s newborns stopped being vaccinated after reaching highs in 2015.
In 2013, some 90 per cent of Samoan infants received their first routine Measles, Mumps and Rubella (M.M.R.) vaccines.
In 2018, that figure fell to just 31 per cent, according to the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) and U.N.I.C.E.F.
Something happened to change our vaccination policy and we are owed an explanation.
Inquiries should not be about pointing fingers and casting blame but establishing truth. Last year’s measles epidemic is still a raw wound for this nation and it will be for some time. The very least solace we can offer it is an explanation.