First COVID-19 case: no room for complacency

It has been nine months since the Government declared a state of emergency [S.O.E.] in Samoa to mitigate risks associated with the COVID-19.

And the country’s first positive case of the virus, which has already claimed over 1.3 million lives globally according to the Johns Hopkins University, was confirmed Thursday morning when Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and members of the National Emergency Operations Centre [N.E.O.C.] fronted the media in a 8.30am press conference at the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet conference room.

But prior to the Government’s press conference, word had already got out on social media of Samoa’s first case, confirming the challenge that authorities currently have with the mass circulation of unverified and unsubstantiated information and the impact it could have on an uninformed or misinformed population.

Nonetheless the early morning press conference on Thursday pointed to the seriousness of what has now become a national public health crisis. After months of enforcing S.O.E. restrictions – which reduced Government and business hours, curtailed public movement and promoted social distancing in public areas –  citizens were advised that the country now has a COVID-19 case with Tuilaepa calling for calm and not to lose faith.

“After four days [in quarantine] tests were conducted and a sailor was [tested positive] and he was immediately isolated, as per usual procedures and the Police are stationed there for safety reasons," the Prime Minister said. 

“It’s all systems go for the Government’s COVID preparedness and response plan.

"A second test was conducted at 6am (Thursday) and it came out negative and these things happen, hence the press conference to inform the public over this matter.

"At the same time [it is essential] for the country to remain calm.

“Let us continue to remain calm and not to lose our faith in our never-ending divine blessings from our Father in Heaven.

A look at the response time of the N.E.O.C. and its partners such as the Ministry of Health [M.O.H.] to last week’s Fesco Askold COVID-19 cases, which unravelled in American Samoa when three crew later tested positive to the virus, would have got the public concerned at how local officials handle our first case!

The Fesco Askold saga highlighted two points: State agencies that were caught off guard by a vessel that was already a threat to national security when it transited through Apia; or an attempt by local authorities to keep the issue under wraps until the cargo ship moved on to Pago Pago.   

And while senior Samoa Government officials went out of their way last week to defend their handling of the public health threat, the fact that three persons of interest came within a whisker of our unsuspecting population sends shivers down one’s spine. 

Why is it not a surprise that a couple of days later the repatriation flight brings the country’s first positive COVID-19 case to our shores? And does the handling of the Fesco Askold saga give our people confidence for the future? 

Nevertheless there was an air of self belief at the 4.30pm press conference on Thursday. 

After nine months of citizens toiling through an S.O.E. – which ironically generated more revenue for the Ministry of Police due to the spike in spot fines for breaches of S.O.E. orders – it was D-day for the Government apparatus charged with the responsibility to lead the nation’s coronavirus response.

The Prime Minister assured the public on Thursday afternoon, saying that there is nothing to worry about and even the repatriation flights will continue, despite the flight last Friday flying in the infected passenger.

It must be put on the public record that the turnaround time that the N.E.O.C. and the agencies under its umbrella took to respond to the positive COVID-19 test result was impressive, some 8-10 hours after the sailor’s test came back positive, not to mention the early 8.30am press conference for senior Government officials.

Surely by this time, after nine months of running the Government apparatus through the S.O.E. period, we want to think everything would shift into gear upon the confirmation of the country’s first case. And as we await the results of the test samples that will be flown to New Zealand, we can only hope for the best.

Thankfully, the basic COVID-19 awareness on preparedness that the Government has promoted since March this year has not changed: the use hand sanitiser and following proper hygiene protocols; while maintain social distancing and avoiding large public gatherings remains paramount. 

It is important that our top bureaucrats are in sync with the whole-of-Government approach that the N.E.O.C. Interim Chairman Agafili Shem Leo spoke passionately about last week.

In a public health crisis it is about doing the small things right, in order for it to have a ripple effect on the Government’s overall strategy, to keep this deadly virus contained.

And these responsibilities lie with the core Government agencies at the forefront of the COVID-19 national response being on top of their game as any oversight could be costly in the long-term.

It is also important the public also takes heed of the coronavirus precautions the M.O.H. has been disseminating, while observing hygiene and sanitation protocols as well as social distancing.

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