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Situation "volatile," Finance chief cautions

The Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Finance, Leasiosiofa'asisina Oscar Malielegaoi, says Samoa is in a “volatile” situation and cannot take its COVID-19 free status for granted.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer on Tuesday, Leasiosio said while Samoa continues to bring cargo on ships and passengers on flights, it cannot assume it will remain free of the global pandemic causing virus forever.

However, he would not specifically defend the COVID-19 state of emergency orders currently in place, saying only that some level of restriction is “good,” and that maintaining two metres of social distance helps avoid any spread of disease.

Asked exactly how closing supermarkets earlier than normal, or banning swimming on Sundays would contain an outbreak, Leasiosio said: “Don’t ask me that question. I am not defending the restrictions that are in place, but from the perspective from where I sit is at least we have some form of control in place. 

“If we do record a case, at least people are better prepared.”

He said if shops have to be even further reduced in their operating hours, at least the reduction will not be as large as it would be if closing times were left to the private sector to decide.

“You may be aware Solomon Islands last week recorded their first ever case, so the situation is quite volatile and anything can happen, any time.”

Leasiosio’s comments come after former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, voiced her concerns over the restrictions, which include curfews on retail and hospitality business, travel restrictions on weekends and even a ban on swimming on Sundays.

On Saturday, Fiame said she tried to use her position in Cabinet to voice people’s issues with the emergency orders, especially business owners who have been hit hard by the restrictions. 

The global situation will continue to rage outside Samoa, but the country needs to do what it can to keep its economy afloat and allow people to maintain their livelihoods, she said.

“We can keep the borders secure but open up the country as much as possible so that people can begin to work on their livelihoods,” she said.   “There are things that are within our control, that we can do, and I think it is important we take that approach.” 

Fiame said she is worried that the Government has not sounded the alarm over Samoa’s economic situation, and instead are putting out the message that the country is doing fine.

“You hear around the world that the economies are on a dive but that is not the message that the Government is sending out. They are saying we are okay, which is a bit strange,” she said.

Last month, Chair of the Economic of Disaster and Climate Change Professor Ilan Noy sounded the alarm over Samoa’s economic status, warning that given the country has no cases of COVID-19 its economic downturn should not be as bad as it is.

The Samoa Bureau of Statistics recorded the country’s worst ever quarter to quarter drop in the economy for the July quarter. 

Professor Noy said while a recession was unavoidable given the global situation, Samoa’s commerce sector should not have been as hard hit as the data reveals it to have been. 

Leasiosio said Samoa should maintain some restrictions however so that if the country needs to go into a full lockdown again, the move will not be so stark.

“New Zealand moved down to level one and as soon as they recorded community transmission they went back as high as three or four.

“If for example we have a case next week at least the shift will not be as extreme because we are already practicing some restrictions.

“That will help.”

On specific restrictions, Leasiosio was careful he does not make the decisions, nor does he necessarily engage in the decision making spaces. 

He did say he strongly advocated for services to return closer to normality in the first weeks of lockdown after it became clear Samoa had no case, but was not convinced all restrictions should be lifted.

“As long as it keeps Samoa safe, we’re good,” Leasiosio said.  “As soon as we go back to lockdown, that will significantly impact the economy whether it’s tomorrow, next week, next month, it will undo any work we have achieved over the past five months.”

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