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Samoan sailors abroad must not be forgotten

We have seen two recent contrasting cases of Governments acting when their citizens are abandoned at sea.

In late March this year, an Indonesian fisherman found himself stranded in between the two Samoas with officials refusing to allow him on-land as his wounds worsened and quarantine protocols toughened. 

But as the man’s injuries grew particularly grave his Government picked up the phone and called the United States of America. 

They secured his entry and his treatment to the nearest port, Pago Pago, for what was potentially life saving medical treatment.

We cannot begin to imagine what Falepau Niu Tulia of Nofoali’i and Vaipua and his eleven compatriots currently on board the MSC Armonia cruise ship in the Bahamas are going through. 

They are in the no doubt the most grinding conditions against an ironically soothing backdrop.

Falepau’s wife and mother-of-five, Vaifou Falepau Tulia, urged the Government to spare some money for their rescue. 

“We are fasting every day for our relatives at sea and our only plea to Government is please don’t forget about our loved ones out there,” said the mother from Nofoali’i. 

“I hear about the funds from overseas for COVID-19 and we hope that the Government can spare some of those funds to pay for a charter flight or even a vessel to get the sailors here.”

And indeed she has a point. 

The World Bank has so far provided more than US$8 million in funding to support Samoa’s coronavirus efforts. 

It is unclear what we have seen for this, particularly a recently unspecified US$5 million catastrophe drawdown response.

“This support from the World Bank will be an essential part of these preparations and will ensure we can respond swiftly in the event of a confirmed case,” the Finance Minister Sili Epa Tuioti said. 

The country remains one of the handful in the world free of the virus. So far the only issues we have seen locally have related to the proper maintenance of quarantine facilities.

The largest logistical task to begin so far - the repatriation of our citizens from New Zealand - will be done on commercial terms by Air New Zealand.

Meanwhile ship workers tell stories of crushing confinement. 

Of the twelve Samoan sailors stranded on the ship, all but three are reported to have been furloughed. Onshore a public curfew prevails in the country which still has more than 50 active cases, despite some international flights continuing.

What is most concerning, though, is how many cases such as Falepau’s are on the high seas there are right now and what our Government is doing to ensure their welfare. 

According to the Samoa Shipping Services update in April, there were 321 Samoan sailors on cruise ships and working container vessels overseas.

Since the utter devastation of the cruise industry that has followed the virus’ outbreak, we have received an accounting of their welfare or repatriation plans that is neither adequately frequent or public. 

Taulapapa told the Sunday Samoan the sailors are calling on Samoa Shipping Services to work with the Mediterranean Shipping Company to bring them home. 

We need to know more about what representations are being made on these Samoans' behalves and with whom. 

He said he was concerned about post-traumatic-stress due to being locked onboard with no work, but only to eat and sleep.

The answer from Samoa Shipping Services has, frankly, been inadequate. 

The General Manager of the Samoa Shipping Services, Lautimuia Afoa Vaai, has confirmed that three Samoan sailors previously working overseas, who were tested positive with the coronavirus, have all recovered.

But for the remaining 300 we have received only vague assurances that their needs will be taken care of once restrictions on the international skies are lifted. 

“Our [advice] to our sailors is to be patient and to pray that the pandemic will go away soon,” said the General Manager of the Samoa Shipping Services, Lautimuia Afoa Vaai.

But we have branches of the Government such as the Samoa Shipping Services because we don’t believe it right to simply hope for the best when the wellbeing of our fellow citizens is concerned. 

We have seen the best efforts of countries to bring home their compatriots, with charter flights being arranged for Japanese, American and European nationals out of the difficult to navigate corners of the Pacific in which we reside. 

We have seen no similar urgency from Samoa Shipping, or any other branch of our Government so far.

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