New year, new hopes dawn for Samoa

As we turn our calendars over to 2021, for many it may still feel like we are living in the shadow of a year that was marked by listlessness, separation and so much hardship.

Indeed, after what feels like one of the longest years in recent memory, hopes of improvement might feel even audacious or bold. 

And yet, as with the passage of every new year, there is still room - and reason - to expect that things will get better. 

For one thing, after a year in which Samoa’s economy has been so battered, its people have been so isolated and we have had to surrender so much control over our own fate, there could be little possibility for anything other than improvement. 

The greatest influence on the year gone by - the global coronavirus pandemic - ironically, and despite some scares, never reached our shores. 

But despite that, the virus did, in almost every way, define our past year.

The confluence of a total closure of our borders; the imposition of emergency measures that restricted our freedom of movement and commerce; and the most precipitous economic decline since records began, all combined to define life on island. 

This resulted in a wide array of negative consequences, some related directly, and some indirectly to the pandemic.

These ranged from a massive increase in unemployment - not only in industries related to hotels and hospitality which depended so much on tourism, to restaurants, and even to fishing.

Tourism had been responsible for a quarter of this nation’s total economic output; it is no surprise, then, that almost no corner of our economy has remained undamaged and, along with it, the livelihoods of so many families. 

Economic downturn itself had a number of knock-on consequences. 

One of those was disconnection.

We also saw a disruption to events and activities that reinforce our sense of community and connection to others.

School and university graduations - many of which were delayed during last year’s measles epidemics - were delayed, postponed or truncated by limits on social gatherings.

Fast-changing rules also limited or stopped events such as parties, church gatherings, or family reunions. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that our people, increasingly listless and desperate for a source of income, began to act out in ways that were harmful to society at large.

We saw an unfortunate increase in the number of women experiencing domestic violence.

We saw an increase in crime, too, symbolised perhaps by the loss of three lives in incidents connected to alcohol over the New Year period.

Not any one of these, including people’s retreat into dangerous alcohol abuse, was the fault of the pandemic alone.

But there is no doubt that the disease and the sense of emergency and danger it brought to 2020 greatly exacerbated each factor. 

And so the most positive prospect for 2021 is the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine. Only vaccinations can promise to return some sense of normality to international tourism and therefore our economy and our family, social and communal lives. 

But the biggest challenge for Samoa will be ensuring these make their way onto the island.

As one of the fewer than a dozen countries in the world to have never recorded an active case of the virus, Samoa is naturally low on the international priority list for vaccine distribution. (That exacerbates the fact that our small population and relative isolation already made us a less-than-top-priority candidate for receiving vaccines).

By the dawning of 2021 more than seven million vaccinations had been dispensed between two international superpowers, China and America, alone.

That is an immense testament to the strength of human ingenuity in the face of challenges such as those posed by the pandemic. 

Will Samoa be left behind as the richer countries of the world scramble to inoculate their populations?

It would appear not. 

Our allies have not forgotten us in our hour of need.

The United Kingdom’s very recently approved Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine, will be made available to Samoans thanks to a generous contribution from the country. 

Their contribution of £500 million (T$1,724 billion) to the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme aims to distribute doses to 20 percent of Samoa’s population.

The vaccine, which has only in the last week been approved by regulators for use in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, is especially big news for Samoans because its doses are extremely cheap and easy to handle and store at regular temperatures.

No one vaccine or international initiative alone is likely to return normality to the wider world and this country; rather a combination is likely to be our best solution. 

For this, we must make special mention of our friends in New Zealand.

They have committed to purchase not only sufficient stock to vaccinate its own population by mid-2021 but also NZD$75 million (T$137 million) to get vaccinations to Samoa, Tonga, and other Pacific nations.

Domestically, we will see, of course, the running of what is shaping up to be the most competitive election in recent history.

We have no allegiance to either side, of course. But we do know that competition is always a bonus for democracy and only through competition can greater scrutiny and better governance prevail. 

We hope that, whatever the result of the April 2021 poll, that the dawning of a new politics defined by increased accountability and transparency and a strengthening of democratic values is its result. 

More broadly, in the international sphere, we will see an end to the Trump-era that has defined international politics, especially increasingly intense strategic geopolitics in the Pacific, for the past four years. 

In its place will be a Biden Presidency more likely to commit to multilateral solutions with the United States’ largest strategic rival, China. 

There is every expectation, based on decades of experience, that a Biden administration will favour negotiation over provocation and create the possibility of moving toward solutions on some of the big issues facing the region such as global warming rather than favouring smashmouth diplomacy. 

There is no telling what the future may bring. But for the first time in a long time, there is cause for hope. And for that alone, we can count ourselves thankful - and lucky as a new year and new possibilities dawn. 


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