Govt. owes more than an explanation on restrictions

Not long after most people were rising or going to church on Sunday, Police were already out in force enforcing the latest variation to the state of emergency regulations.

At least one small shop was being shut down by Police on Vailoa Street just after 9am, with a Police car’s lights flashing and all.

This action, of course, follows the change of regulations to ban previously allowed trading of small shops on Sunday mornings, while supermarkets were closed. 

But as a story on the front page of Sunday’s Samoa Observer noted (“Samoa Law Society demands transparency”) that the Government had not played an open hand behind its decision to amend the state of emergency restrictions in these ways.

The Government has now amended its original March orders dozens of times over the past five months. Very few have been announced with an accompanying explanation. 

Sunday trading has become a political preoccupation of the Government’s at a time when we are facing perhaps the worst global economic recession of our lifetime.

As the President of the Samoa Law Society, Leiataualesa Komisi Koria, said on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Samoa Observer (“Samoa Law Society demands transparency”) we were yet to receive a rationale for crackdowns on activities such as selling small snacks and drinks on Sunday mornings, or swimming on weekends.

Leiataualesa argued that orders should match the severity of the threat.

We agree. And it is more than clear that in this case we see the Government has been overreaching its mandate and that more than some of these regulations have a sense of arbitrariness to them. 

There are just nine nation states who have not been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Samoa must count itself fortunate to be among them.

And yet our state of emergency restrictions are among the tightest in the world. 

In Australia and the United Kingdom, two countries battling with serious outbreaks of the virus, stores have reopened with a serious virus. 

Why then, should the selling of simple necessities such as milk, have become a Police matter here in Samoa?

“I would like to see more transparency about the science that is being used as the foundation for these different orders,” Leiataualesa said. 

“If I had nothing else to go on except for the orders being published, I could be forgiven for thinking based on whatever science the Government is looking at, COVID-19 comes out after 7pm [and that] you can catch it if you go swimming on a Sunday in the sea.”

This disconnect between the purpose and the effect of the new restrictions is not just a case of the Government exercising its power in an overbearing and senseless matter.

It is potentially much more significant than that.

For one thing, the democratically elected Government of Samoa owes the people an explanation for its actions.

In March, when the state of emergency restrictions began the Government made a promise to people that it would now be empowered to make restrictions more easily.

When it did so it made a compact with the people.

The Cabinet said it was relaxing typical law making procedures for the purposes of passing regulations, rules or orders for the purposes of maintaining the safety, best interests and the welfare of the country. 

How do so many of the restrictions that the Government has passed, then, match up with the purposes they announced?

The logical link is simply unclear.

As the Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury’s School of Health Sciences, Arindam Basu, told the Samoa Observer, COVID-19 droplets are in no way dependent on time.

“There is no reason to believe that [...] COVID-19 [behaves] differently depending on the time of the day either in terms of growth rate of the virus or intensity of symptoms,” Professor Basu said. 

“You may see a drop in the number of cases during weekends; this is possibly explained by slow activity of case detection and testing over the weekend; also people may have a higher chance of coming in contact with each other in the weekends and hence when the week opens a higher risk of new infections being reported.” 

In the light of this expert advice it is clear that the Government has broken the pledge it made to the people of Samoa.

This is simply unacceptable for a democratically elected Government; to say one thing and act in another way. 

But the ramifications run deeper than a failure of democracy. The Government may be exposing itself and its people to serious repercussions by passing regulations as erratically as it has.

To shut down the economy for much of Sunday at a time when the economy is shrinking defies sheer logic.

As the President of the Samoa Association Manufacturers and Exporters (S.A.M.E.), Tagaloa Eddie Wilson, said this week, business in this country can only take so much. 

And, as Tagaloa said, if the Government does not start to change its manner or its policies on Sunday trading a private sector that has been brought to its knees will be forced to act.

There is a serious legal question hanging over the passage of this stream of regulation since the passage of the state of emergency order in March.

Orders which do not specifically relate to the protection of Samoa from COVID-19 could be struck down by a judge.

An explanation may not be all that we are owed by this Government. 

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