Virus mutation strains New Year's hopes

Hopes for a better 2021 almost appear like misplaced optimism now that the glow of New Year’s celebrations has dimmed. 

We all knew that the crisis that had defined 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, was no respecter of time or place and that a mere change in the calendar promised no end to the hardships it visited on the world. 

But as 2020 ended few were not overtaken by thoughts of a new and better future. 

And there was a good reason to be so. The new year period also coincided with the rolling out of vaccinations and promises from international friends such as England, New Zealand, and multilateral bodies that they would be expedited to all corners of the world, even Samoa and the South Pacific. 

But the sudden scrambling - internationally and domestically - to respond to a new mutated strain of the coronavirus that now appears to be spreading rapidly across the world now threatens to overshadow these hopes. 

Just as scientists were coming to grips with their understanding of the strain that sent the entire world into lockdown, so much is unknown about the new version apart from the fact that it appears to be increasing in prevalence rapidly.

The new strain is confounding scientists who know little about it other than it appears to have substantially higher rates of transmission.

For Samoa, it threatens even greater isolation as the result of a global pandemic that never even reached our shores. 

Movements in and out of Samoa were just beginning to relax following a false alarm and close brush with the virus in the form of people with two historical cases who had entered without declaring they had been previously infected.

It took more than a week to discover the men were no longer contagious or posed a public health risk but the scare alone set back scheduled repatriation flights for early December into the early new year.

By Christmas, passengers were already leaving Samoan shores bound for New Zealand on flights. 

But now developments off our shores threaten to further tighten restrictions upon Samoa, and the potential ramifications for our country and economy are untold. 

New Zealand officials have confirmed six cases of the new variant of COVID-19 have been detected in the country.

Samoan health officials announced measures taken to prevent the new strain from arriving on our shores soon after the new year. 

Signed on 3 January 2021 by the Ministry of Health’s Director-General, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, issued a  special advisory denying entry to Samoa for passengers arriving from a total of 13 listed countries including Australia. 

It is not yet known whether this will result in New Zealand being added to the list. 

But the chance is more than slight and the potential impact is severe. 

For the past year, points of entry into Samoa have narrowed severely and the effects have been felt by consumers and businesses alike. 

We even saw instances of rationing where the amount of chicken families were allowed to buy was limited.

But now the flow of people, but especially goods, into Samoa could be placed even further into jeopardy if the Government imposes the same restrictions on New Zealand as it has these 13 other countries. 

We don’t yet know how a future in which passenger traffic from New Zealand is limited would affect the economy. 

But there is no scenario in which it portends good news for Samoa.

As we see in a story carried on the front page of today’s edition of the newspaper the restrictions and precautions associated with the new strain are already curtailing the freedom of movement for not just people.

The long-touted arrival of a new plane for Samoa Airways onto Samoan soil is also subject to potential issues relating to border protection and the new COVID-19 plane. 

Until its ability to thrive and be transmitted on surfaces - combined with the declining profitability of running the return legs of flights into Apia from Auckland - is better understood we can assume it will result in some kind of disruption to supply chains into Samoa. 

That could lead to possible price increases or disturbances to planned deliveries along the vital air freight route that sustained Samoa during last year’s shortages. 

Cruelly, these possible interruptions have come as the pandemic has already upended the reliability of sea freight itself but also at a time when the weather around the islands is at its most disruptive, potentially exacerbating shortages even further. 

Despite being untouched by the coronavirus, Samoa’s economy has been seriously buffeted by it; recently we registered the biggest single drop in the country’s economy since quarterly records began.

The very real possibility that this might now be combined with a supply shock appears to have, at the very least, put our recent hopes in new perspective. 

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