Leausa defends COVID-19 plan, hits out at Samoa Observer

The Director-General of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri has criticised reports in the Samoa Observer that the country is not actively planning for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, Samoa Observer reported that Leausa confirmed there are currently no plans for widespread testing, contact tracing, or lockdown measures while Samoa remains COVID-19 free.

During his first press conference since the beginning of the state of emergency, this newspaper asked Leausa whether he wants to prepare Samoa for the possibility of a lockdown and to begin practicing contact tracing efforts like logging activities and interactions. 

Leausa said he does not wish to “panic” Samoa and said no.

But in an article titled ‘Inform not to Inflame; replies M.O.H. Chief Executive’ published in the Government newspaper Savali this week, Leausa called the Samoa Observer “misleading” and “unqualified.”

He said that the National Emergency Operation Centre (N.E.O.C.) has been running the country’s COVID-19 prevention plan, including strict travel restrictions and monitoring of all arrivals, and that health workers are receiving online training on preparation and response to an outbreak.

He also reminded that at the same press conference, he had said that if Samoa records a case of COVID-19, the patient will be “immediately isolated from densely populated areas for quarantine and for treatment,” and that land in Tafaigata will be used for the morgue and mass burial should it be required.

“We are keeping a vigil that it will not happen but we must prepare for a worst-case scenario,” Leausa told the Savali.

Earlier this month, rapidly spreading rumours online about a recently returned seasonal worker who died suddenly prompted Leausa to host a press conference.

He emphasised that, though the Ministry of Health has ordered a post-mortem examination to officially determine the cause of death, he is certain the man did not die of COVID-19, and that Samoa remains free of the virus.

It is during this press conference that this newspaper asked what preemptive measures Samoa will take to prepare Samoa for a potential outbreak, like warning about how extensive any lockdown might be and how people should prepare to help officials with contact tracing.

Overseas, Governments have been advocating for citizens to use digital apps or diaries to log their movements and activities to help contact tracing teams quickly reach everyone a new COVID-19 case may have interacted with.

In response, Leausa said it is too soon for this for Samoa.

“We are still COVID-19 free and I don’t think anyone will respond. It has become a stigmatised disease, people are reacting to COVID unnecessarily and they begin to panic."

But he and the N.E.O.C. are watching developments in New Zealand closely, after a new outbreak started in Auckland at the beginning of the month, a week after the Government advised how the country would respond in the event of such an event.

“The N.E.O.C. has been meeting since we got this news and we are working hard on it but we don’t want to create unnecessary panic to our people,” Leausa said.

In his interview with the Savali, Leausa said Samoa’s fast response at the beginning of the coronavirus’ global spread has worked well for the country.

He said border monitoring began as early as January and that, though unpopular, the decision to send even citizens away to quarantine on foreign soil before their return home kept Samoa safe.

“All this, we did to accomplish the objective, keep Samoa COVID-19 free,” said Leausa.

Savali reports that, on why Samoa will not be conducting widespread community testing for the virus, the Director-General said the testing kit supplies are scarce because the countries that supply them to Samoa have to manage their own response first.

“Under these difficult conditions, we are responding as best as we possibly can with the resources that we have on island,” he said to Savali.

“And I even asked the Samoa Observer’s reporter as a media practitioner for her recommendations at one point in time during the Press Conference and she didn’t have an answer.”

But the reason Leausa asked the Samoa Observer reporter for recommendations was not around testing, but on what to say to people sharing misinformation about the coronavirus in Samoa online.

The exchange went as follows:

Samoa Observer: On the issue of fake news, as the Health Director what is your message to the public? 

Leausa: Fake news is irresponsible.   Irresponsible reporting, irresponsible journalist to do that. You shouldn’t be making up fake news, especially when it is a matter of life and death. Everybody should take it seriously.

Samoa Observer: People online who are sharing misinformation, they are scared, they don’t know what to do or don’t know what is going on. So do you have a message to them, who are not [media] professionals, what do you say to them to help them understand why they have to be careful about what they share online.

Leausa: What would be your message as a media yourself? You know how to tell them, rather than a doctor telling a patient, I know how to talk to my patients. As a media person, a responsible journalist, what would you tell those people, the wannabe journalists who want to break the news.

Finally, he told Savali: “Lastly I take this opportunity to remind the Samoa Observer that it is their ethical duty to inform not to inflame. It’s the least that they can do.”

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