Transparency the antidote to virus fears
It was a little more than three months ago that the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Take Dr. Naseri appeared at a public workshop about public awareness in the time of pandemics.
From what we saw the Ministry chief today, it would appear that he was wasting his time and that of his audience.
American Samoa’s Department of Health head, Motusa Tuileama Nua, revealed Leausa was informed at 9.30pm last night that a cargo vessel docked in Samoa for nearly a day was found to be carrying three sailors infected with coronavirus.
Given the high degree of emphasis the Government has placed on keeping Samoa coronavirus-free, it should have responded immediately. Instead, it has taken the Government nearly a full day to release information about its response and even that has been wanting.
The statement Leausa should have made after receiving that phone call need not have been more than a few paragraphs but it would have had the advantage of the Government showing leadership and reassuring people that it is on top of things.
Why he would choose not to boggles the mind.
The news was going to get out regardless of whether the Samoa Observer reported on Motusa’s comments or not, given the two Samoas' close relationship.
American Samoa’s press conference, by contrast, was held on Monday afternoon Samoan time, was a textbook example of how to operate a transparent, trustworthy Government in a time of crisis.
Department of Health Epidemiologist Dr Aifili John Tufa outlined exactly how the coronavirus tests were conducted on the sailors; how the officials who administered the tests, the laboratory workers who confirmed them and those involved in docking the ship at the wharf would be quarantined.
A total of 11 people were being taken into quarantine as a precaution and the port has been closed for 24 hours with only a skeleton staff while it undergoes deep cleaning.
That is a classic example of the Government communicating with the public in a calm and reasoned manner before panic can set in.
Disclosure is a sign of a Government that is in control.
Silence has the opposite effect.
When it comes to health crises, the public abhors a vacuum.
The Government did not until 7pm on Tuesday evening to announce its response and confirm it would be putting frontline workers who dealt with the vessel containing the infected sailors into controlled isolation and testing them regularly.
But even then several key details were omitted including whether the Government would be looking to trace who these people had been in contact with and have them tested too and whether sterilisation of the port was part of the Government's plans. If American Samoa could release this information it has to be asked why our own Government could not do the same with an added close to 24 hours to think it over.
The Government’s decision not to proactively release a statement until then and only respond to a journalist from one, selected media outlet in the meantime was deeply perplexing. It paved the way for speculation and conspiracy theories to spread online.
Throughout Tuesday we heard reports of all kinds about the community’s understandable concerns, many of which were probably out of proportion with the seemingly small risk posed by the ship’s docking at Apia Wharf.
KLAS Taekwando, a local martial arts dojo cancelled further training sessions until it received clearance and updates from the authorities.
But from the Ministry of Health multiple, emails, phone calls and requests for comment from this newspaper simply went unanswered.
Under questioning from another news outlet Samoa Global News, he assured the public that Samoa’s procedure for protecting from the virus is “watertight”.
But the Director-General’s control of public information is anything but.
Leauasa, speaking to his favoured outlet, told the public not to panic.
By then it seemed too late for that.
It should be stressed that the odds of anyone involved in unloading cargo from the Fesco Askold appear low so long as they were following the rules and wearing their proper personal protective gear as prescribed.
To give the Director-General his due and reasoned explanation, Leausa said Samoa’s border protocols at the port are “very tight”; he went on to fill in detail that should have been provided several hours earlier.
“The area is sealed off and closely monitored by Police, Quarantine, and Health officials and there is no contact with any crew member,” he told Samoa Global News.
“Our protocols require that crew members are isolated on the vessel, and no one comes off or makes contact with anyone.
“The containers are all offloaded by crane onto a secluded area of the wharf, fenced off with only two or three stevedoring crew to operate the cranes.”
Leausa says there are at most, five people involved who were fully equipped with personal protective equipment who will now be isolated and tested despite making no contact with sailors.
But one big question went unanswered,
At St. Paul’s Chanel Moamoa School parents were advised via email that school was closing early after a student had been in direct contact with a family member who had been clearing cargo from the Fesco Askold Ship.
“At this stage, we are waiting for the Government announcement as now contact tracing is now in place,” the email from the Principal said.
The email seemed to imply that contact tracing (monitoring those who had come into close contact with those who had themselves worked on the ship) was in place in Samoa for those frontline workers. Questions seeking confirmation that this was in fact part of the Government's plans were just ignored.
For a Government that likes to style itself as taking no chances on matters relating to COVID-19, releasing information about whether it will be pursuing contact tracing is the obvious thing to do.
But whether it is following this take-no-chances approach or not falls under the rather large category of things the Government is not revealing.
The way the two Samoan Governments handled the news of coronavirus positive sailors being docked in their wharves was a study in contrasts.
Our close neighbours in the American territory showed that leadership looks like transparency. Its officials disclosed information as it came to hand.
Our Health Ministry took the opposite approach, perhaps in the hope that the population would not panic. That has only had the opposite effect. And for that, the Government has only itself to blame.