No room for quarantine error
All over the world countries which thought they had beaten coronavirus are seeing it come back into resurgence.
Many of these instances of the virus’ second wave have been caused by a common failure: lax quarantine.
As Samoa recently undertook a programme of repatriating foreign workers to the country, we have begun to see failures of quarantine of our own. We cannot afford any more.
The Prime Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi recognises the magnitude of such a threat.
He has threatened to cut off what had been regular flights to return Samoan Recognised Seasonal Employment scheme members continue to pose problems.
We believe that the Prime Minister is right to canvass an option of this magnitude, even if it may leave overseas citizens cut off from the country.
But failures to keep people in quarantine facilities elsewhere in the world have been linked to massive outbreaks of the coronavirus.
We cannot allow this to occur in Samoa.
A major failure of the quarantine system could be caused by a single person with the virus, many of whom do not have symptoms, leaving their lockdown facilities and infecting others. That could set off a chain reaction that our health system cannot withstand.
And so far, the signs of the integrity of our quarantine system are not encouraging.
Last week two passengers from the same repatriation flight were part of a drunken brawl that resulted in one being admitted in the hospital, exposing, potentially, health workers, to the virus.
The Government has told us that alcohol will no longer be allowed in quarantine facilities in response to the incident. In fact, it never was supposed to be allowed.
More worryingly, on Wednesday, an individual in quarantine slipped through the trees and the fence during heavy rain to escape the facility.
He jumped in a passing taxi and evaded security guards who were patrolling the facility’s perimeter.
Other countries overseas have undergone the same pattern: placing citizens in quarantine facilities, finding that they are inadequately guarded by private security and scrambling to contain a subsequent outbreak.
We simply cannot afford to follow the same.
In Melbourne, Australia, which is slowly being isolated from the rest of the country, private security has been responsible for the negligence that posed serious problems to the public health.
This includes failures of the most basic kind: guards coming into personal contact with guests without wearing protective equipment, sharing confined spaces and in some extraordinary cases guards having sex with guests.
Some security employees told the media they had been entrusted to guarding the health of the nation after only “five minutes’” training.
How much training have the security guards in charge of the security at our more than a dozen facilities had? We need to know.
Similarly, in New Zealand two quarantined patients - later found to have been infected with the virus - were given compassionate leave to attend a funeral, exposing an untold number of people to infection. The country’s Health Minister, David Clark, was forced to resign in large part because of this lax approach to quarantine.
It is only human nature that a certain number of people, when kept in a confined space are going to try and find ways to push the boundaries - out of boredom, loneliness, or a desire to reconnect to people.
But the Australian and New Zealand Governments spent hundreds of millions of tala on isolation programmes and they were still inadequate. Our budgets are doubtlessly a fraction of that.
Health authorities in those countries have requested 24/7 patrols of isolation facilities by Police; while drones are now being used to enable round-the-clock monitoring.
New Zealand has called in the military and given it full power to manage entry and exit to the country’s borders, but also the quarantine facilities and the people being isolated within them.
Samoa has been one of a handful of nations to have avoided any case of the coronavirus. We owe this to closing our borders down early as well as our geographic isolation.
But now our clean record is being tested with the repatriation of Samoan citizens from New Zealand and their quarantining.
So far, like our counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, we are failing to adequately manage our facilities.
The risk of the coronavirus, we have long known, lies not in its mortality rate. It is the disease’s potential to spread and peak suddenly, overwhelming a country’s emergency medical facilities where the real danger lies.
We know all too well from last year’s epidemic that our emergency departments are under resourced.
Failure of quarantine would present an enormous risk here.
We applaud Ulu Bismarck Crawley, the head of the National Emergency Operation Centre, for responding to our so far botched approach and acknowledging it.
He has told us 13 separate facilities are in operation across Samoa.
And he has said the Government has beefed up security to assist the Samoa Police Services in securing the site to prevent future such incidents.
But how many Police will be on patrol at each of these quarantine sites?
Samoa is happy to welcome back its citizens from foreign lands. But it also deserves peace of mind and the Government should be forthcoming about what measures it is taking to ease the public’s fears.
We can ill-afford to repeat the mistakes of our neighbours to the south and have private security firms let the nation down. Unlike those countries, our medical systems simply won’t be able to shoulder the load.
On Friday a new planeload of passengers, many to be quarantined in their local village hall in Poutasi.
We have reservations about this experiment and if locals might secure special treatment from village authorities.
It is incumbent on the Government to show us how its quarantine hall is going to ensure that there are no escapes or violations of quarantine protocol.
The Prime Minister has said that he would be open to considering shutting down repatriation flights if ongoing problems with quarantine persist.
It is in his hands for the Government to assure us that quarantine measures are adequate.
But given the sheer size of the stake of a coronavirus outbreak here that option must be on the table.