Samoa's emergency restrictions raise eyebrows

Samoa's coronavirus restrictions, including a ban on swimming and alcohol sale at hotels on Sunday, have raised eyebrows among leading epidemiologists.

In response to questions from the Samoa Observer, Professor Nick Wilson, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, said that while Samoa deserves to be congratulated for keeping deadly virus at bay, he is surprised by some of restrictions.  

“Given the success of Samoa’s border closures I am a bit surprised that you are not enjoying normal life within your country with no internal restrictions,” he said in an email.

“This is the case in New Zealand – where we are also COVID-19 free and are relying on good border controls with quarantine (in fact it is permitted to have a rugby match in a stadium with 40,000 people attending).”

Samoa is entering its fifth month under a national state of emergency, and so far has had no cases of the coronavirus COVID-19. 

In neighbouring New Zealand, a severe lockdown and testing regime helped eliminate community transmission of the virus by May and the country managed to ease nearly all restrictions by the beginning of June. 

Samoa’s state of emergency orders maintain strict restrictions on the size and manner of gatherings, trade hours and even ban swimming at the beach on a Sunday.

Weddings and cultural ceremonies must be no larger than 50 couples and be wrapped up by 10pm, while funerals are still limited to five people only.

Supermarkets have to close by 7pm every day, and on Sundays are restricted to just four hours of trade in the afternoons. Every business except for hotels and restaurants (who are also subject to restrictions) are banned from operating on a Sunday – to some surprise, this includes service stations. 

Professor Wilson said he would support physical distancing measures like closing bars, restaurants and nightclubs should a case slip through the border and cause an outbreak.

“I know that Samoan society is a religious one and so that explains some of the rules around Sunday. It might also be good from a health perspective to limit alcohol sales in various ways. But any government should be transparent about its reasons for restricting human freedoms and not use the COVID-19 threat as an excuse.”

He said if New Zealand was to suffer a border control failure he anticipates people will be asked to wear masks, and manage a localised lockdown, rather than be asked to contend with a national Level Four again.

Professor of Infectious Disease David Murdoch, Dean of the University of Otago said the only reason to place restrictions on movement on particular days or at particular times of the day is to limit large gatherings, which is useful if there is a fear of community transmission.

But limiting restrictions to the evenings or Sundays is not necessarily useful.

“Transmission occurs when people are in close contact, particularly in closed spaces like large indoor gatherings or public transport,” he explained, on the phone to Samoa Observer.

“Is it going to be more transmissible at night? No, I don’t think so. Is there something unique about the day or night or different times of the week? No.”

Professor Murdoch, who is also a Senior Associate in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said New Zealand took its time to move out of its most restrictive measures, but that there were clear guidelines around it.

Firstly community transmission – cases of the coronavirus passing between people that had not travelled to COVID-19 infected countries – had to be eliminated. 

Then, a system of contact tracing, testing and managed quarantine had to be established and proven to work. 

With these two elements locked in, New Zealand moved out of Alert Level Four, the strictest conditions, at the end of April, just over a month after it began.

Then two weeks later, the country moved down again into Level Two, where it stayed for little less than a month before going to Level One where it remains today, with restrictions on public life only at the border.

“Quite naturally there was a bit of conservatism about that decision to be really sure,” Professor Murdoch said.

“There was pressure from people wanting to open up the economy again, but in the end there was a lot of support for a cautious approach. 

“If there is a long period of time with no evidence of community transmission and you are confident you are going to detect cases as they appear and border security is there, you could open up a bit more.”

Professor Murdoch did however advocate for “small reminders” that all is not normal, even if the country has successfully dealt with the pandemic. 

Globally, the disease has claimed over 600,000 lives and infected 17.5 million.

New Zealand’s contact tracing mobile application, though controversial, has been a useful reminder to keep records of ones movements and people met in case you should need to rapidly find them all and test them, he said.

“What is happening in Australia, in Victoria, has worried us all. Though it’s terrible what is happening there it does remind other countries what can happen very quickly if things are not managed.”

Last week, New Zealand watched as a landmark court case into the legality of Alert Level One – the nationwide shutdown of all but essential operations. While some have argued against putting such a matter before the courts, the case has been described as a meaningful check on the Government’s emergency powers.

Writing in The Spinoff, University of Otago Law Professor Andrew Geddis said the court case is a demonstration of “society taking its basic governing commitments seriously.

The case, which is between Andrew Borrowdale and the Director General of Health and Attorney General, examines whether the extent of restrictions during Level Four were legal.

The High Court may agree with Borrowdale, or it may not. But as Professor Geddis says, the results of the hearing are an essential check on the emergency powers of Government, regardless of whether they succeeded in stamping out COVID-19.

“A rule of law society doesn’t then just shrug and say “no harm, no foul” in the face of such a judicial finding,” he said.

“Because, a governing system that says to those with power “only act as the law requires, unless you really think you don’t have to” quickly is going to develop problems.”

Professor Murdoch said he absolutely agrees there should be checks on the Government, and that the media and opposition parties play a significant role in making this happen.

“A shut down on a country is a major, major intervention and you do need checks on it,” he said.

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