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Inaction the contradiction in Govt.'s coronavirus response

A contradiction appears to be at the heart of our Government's response to the threat of the coronavirus and it’s one shining through in its actions and words. 

The people of Samoa have been changing their lives to make themselves fit in with the regular passage of new regulations in the name of upholding the state of emergency and keeping the virus out. 

It is less obvious that our Government has been doing its part to prepare for the possible arrival of a case of a virus - and that is concerning. 

The state of emergency measures restrict our liberties; they impose contrary restrictions on our economy at the depth of the world’s worst economic recession in the modern era; and they are simply difficult for business-owners to keep track of, changing, as they do, so quickly. 

We naturally support those measures that directly help to maintain our blessed status as one of a handful of nation states in the world free of the coronavirus, such as border restrictions. 

But a state of emergency does not mean that we suspend our critical faculties as a newspaper.

It is our belief that everything in the world can be made better by the asking of questions. Nothing, certainly, can be made worse.

Our questions about the logic - and the legal basis for - underpinning so many of these more recently passed restrictions have been well rehearsed in these pages. We expect to have more to say about this as the time developments. 

But apart from these regulations, recent behaviour from certain branches of the Government raises serious questions about how seriously they are taking the task of taking steps of their own to help the national effort to keep out the coronavirus. 

Two recent episodes make us ask what role the Government is playing when ordinary Samoans are so regularly complying with their edicts. 

The first was on the frontpage of Friday’s Samoa Observer (“Ministry staff quarantined after violating restricted site”).

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, has complained often about the extent to which the Government has invested in a water-tight quarantine programme, one that it has to fit a not inconsiderable bill of $2 million tala for.

And yet this week we read reports the Ministry of Customs and Revenue has denied  three of its residents forced their way into a quarantine facility at the Insel Ferhman Hotel. 

But it is not in dispute that the employees breached the quarantine barriers, forcing themselves to enter two weeks of quarantine themselves. 

But this is the second recent episode where we have seen a quarantine site violated.

The Revenue Commissioner, Matafeo Avalisa Viali-Fautuaali'i, said they had come to the hotel on official Government business.

“They were delivering letters informing the businesses of the ongoing training for the tax invoice monitoring system,” said Matafeo.

This raises a question: to what extent has the Government been briefing its own agencies on the nature of our response to the coronavirus.

We know the Tax Invoice Monitoring System (T.I.M.S.) to which the Commissioner refers, will ultimately not have been completely rolled out across the nation until mid-2021.

How is it that a Ministry, such as Customs and Revenue (one of the most internationally-facing in our Government) could not have been known about the importance of quarantine procedure for our national security?

As the Minister of Customs and Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt said, it appears these employees were not aware of proper procedure to be followed.

“They should have never entered or attempted to enter any site. It’s frustrating when people don’t use their common sense,” he said. 

“These sites are on lockdown for a reason and that is to keep everyone safe and we will not take any risks.

Is the Government itself briefing and preparing its employees about the nature of the coronavirus as it passes new regulations impacting on the lives of Samoans in the name of keeping them safe from the virus?

Earlier this week, the Director General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, appeared to almost confirm they were not when he said the Ministry was not proactively making plans for the possible arrival of the virus

Leausa did concede the Government’s National Emergency Operations Centre was at an early stage discussing a Pacific-wide mobile phone application for the purposes of contact tracing. 

The Director General said there was no point panicking the Samoan public with preparatory planning information for an outbreak that was yet to happen. 

But in remarks reported by Radio New Zealand, Leausa said the Government had prepared a site near the old Tafa'igata prison in case there was a local outbreak of the coronavirus which led to mass casualties.

(How Leausa can announce a plan for mass burials shortly after emphasising the need to moderate the public's mood strains our credulity).  

Nonetheless, the comments appear to confirm that the Government has shown little regard for emergency planning, only for the passage of restrictive regulations before a case has even arrived in Samoa.  It must keep up its end of the bargain, too; there is a lot more the Government could and should be doing about the looming pandemic. 

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