Police in churches: Government overreach or muddled policy?

Without a coronavirus case, and with the borders tightly shut to anyone from outside Samoa, we now have Police officers marching into churches and removing people if there are more than a hundred members of the congregation worshipping their God.

What else are they going to do next? We say this because it all seems so muddled. The level of contradiction and confusion when it comes to enforcing these S.O.E. orders appear to have reached a new low.

Ironically, before Sunday when the Quarantine Police came out and marched into the churches, Prime Minister Tuilaepa was among a crowd of more than a hundred people celebrating the opening of the Vaisigano Bridge with all the light works and the fanfare.  After the official opening, hundreds more people flocked to the seawall and surrounding areas to enjoy the lightshow.

How can we square the sight of people standing side-by-side on the seawall on Friday night with recent state of emergency amendments that limit the attendance of building openings to a maximum of 50 couples? 

Perhaps the Government might split hairs about whether Friday's event falls under the technical definition of a building opening. 

But even if we concede that technical point, two things are becoming increasingly obvious.

The distinctions the Government is drawing between events that require the enforcement of social distancing rules and those that do not no longer seem either grounded in commonsense or understood by the people or even different branches of the Government. 

The next day at the Apia Park, 16 teams gathered for the final tournament of the Vodafone Samoa National Sevens Series. Hundreds and hundreds of supporters, families, friends and fans gathered to enjoy the occasion.

The same was witnessed at the netball tournament and other similar gatherings across the nation. 

There may be no clear cap placed on the number of people allowed to attend sporting events in the state of emergency regulations.

That again raises more questions. 

The most obvious of which is: why not?

What is the difference between an outdoor sporting event - so far as the hypothetical risk of the transmission of a disease is concerned - when compared to an outdoor gathering of a family kind?

What about an official Government gathering held under a marquee when compared to a religious one?

The Government ought to have a basis in fact for the regulations it passes and be able to provide reasonable justifications for them to the public. 

No matter the technical definition of an event and the limits placed on its attendance, there is one thing the state of emergency guidelines impose clearly across the board: people must be standing two metres apart.

At the very least, this aspect of the regulations does not appear to be enforced consistently.  Indeed, these recent events, despite being in plain sight of the entire nation, did not seem to be held to the same level of scrutiny as the church service.

People could be forgiven for thinking that these distinctions are arbitrary or that even those tasked with enforcing them are confused about which rules apply and how. 

Let us be absolutely clear about this. We do not object to the lightshow, rugby games or the netball. It is nice to see people getting out and about and it was a wonderful break for the people of this country after all the gloom lately.

Let us be reminded here today that we do not have a case of coronavirus and as long as that is the state of play, the people of this nation should be able to enjoy the freedom millions of other people in the world can only dream of today by being allowed to do what they do.

Which is why we find the way these restrictions and orders are being carried out baffling.  Sunday’s development was another level. Police had been ordered to enter churches to count congregation members and physically remove churchgoers if numbers went above 100.

Under the recently issued amended S.O.E. orders, churches can and should only accept 100 or less people during Sunday worship. At the Vaiusu Catholic Church, the Samoa Observer witnessed a group of Police officers walking in and moving out churchgoers after they did a headcount of the congregation. The same thing has been reported from other congregations.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa had apparently issued a warning that this was coming during his weekly chat with his scribes.

“And if a church disobeys the orders, it’ll be on the pastor’s head because he’s the one looking after the church,” Tuilaepa said. “It’s also convenient to fine the pastor so the church members can all pay for it and so they would all have a feel of what [the Government] is trying to push. These things are all for the protection of everyone.”

Protection of everyone? From what exactly? We don’t have a coronavirus case and in the absence of it, the Government is imprisoning people in their own country with these restrictions. This is on top of these draconian orders that are already hurting businesses and thousands of Samoans who have been left jobless.

What are these orders for? Are they really for the coronavirus or are they for something else?

Interestingly, the first week of the month of September is one of the most anticipated weeks in Samoa with the Teuila Festival. This week feels a bit different. Instead of the usual Teuila, the Government has decided to keep it “digital,” regurgitating programmes from previous years that are aired on TV channels and online forums.

Now why didn’t they just cancel it? What is the point of a Teuila without an actual festival? But then this just goes to show how contradictory the Government’s decision-making has become. It is really mind-boggling stuff.

In a Christian country where P.M. Tuilaepa has been telling people to go to church on Sundays, they then turn around and send the Police to remove people if there are more than a 100 in church. 

And yet the nightclubs, bingo games and everything else are allowed to operate freely. Is there method to thy madness? If so, the public does not appear to have been made privy to it. 

Lastly, speaking of the coronavirus, what concrete preparations has this Government done to prepare the nation apart from the obvious ploy to instill fear in people through some of these S.O.E orders? Has there been a special ward for coronavirus patients prepared? Have we acquired sufficient P.P.E (personal protection equipment)? How many ventilators are there? What about the supply of masks, test kits and so forth?

That should be the focus. What do you think? Have a lovely Tuesday Samoa, God bless!

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