Health Director-General's games demean us all

What might we have done to provoke the anger of the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri?

It doesn’t matter.

On Thursday, Leausa refused to answer questions put to him in English by a non-Samoan speaking reporter from this newspaper.

In so doing he denied the many thousands of readers of this publication essential public information about an unfolding health crisis. 

And he chose to do so in a most juvenile manner; one that demeaned everyone present. 

Ironically, the Director-General refused to communicate in one of this country’s official languages in a room plastered with health Ministry posters advising the public about the coronavirus in English. 

(English, of course, is not just an official language of Government which takes precedence in the event there is a dispute about the meaning of a Government document) 

But we do not feel the need to justify ourselves in asking questions of the Director-General; answering questions from members of the press to inform the public is part of his job. 

If Leausa is to confect childish reasons for avoiding those responsibilities then he shows himself either unfit or unwilling to do his job. 

For refusing to engage with us in an apparently spiteful way, we can only presume that the Director-General was seeking to get even with a newspaper and reporter who have done their job by exposing him to scrutiny.

We do not regret any of our reporting in the field of health policy; without it the public would have been kept in the dark about important matters of public health, 

But perhaps Leausa feels slighted by some of our recent reports. We do not have to think very long to remember examples of his chequered record as Director-General which have been brought to light by the Samoa Observer. 

There was the time that we identified that Samoa was dealing with a measles epidemic weeks before the Government admitted to it. Leausa never disclosed, as we did, that the hospital had set up an isolation unit and was still telling the press the nation only had suspected cases. 

(This came, of course, months after front page warnings that our vaccination rates had dropped dangerously low under the Director-General’s recent tenure). 

Then there were the unanswered questions about what the Government and the Ministry of Health specifically might have done to avert this tragic loss of 83 infant lives. 

The Government has preferred to blame parents for not seeking treatment for their children or preferring alternative treatments to those offered by the hospital.

We asked a different question to which we never received an adequate explanation: why in 2012 had 90 per cent of children received their first measles vaccination but in 2018 this figure had dropped to one-third. 

Then was our expose of the “tragedy” of the story of the dismantling of the national hospital’s intensive care unit - an innovation that had cut the death rate among the national hospital’s most serious patients by four times.

That specialist, roving unit for the most gravely ill patients was founded by one of the world’s leading experts in emergency medicine, Dr. David Galler, out of his own time and even out of his own pocket. Dr. Galler did so in order to address what he saw as the appalling death rates at the national hospital. 

Within one year of its creation, the death rate of intubated (or patients at the most advanced stage of illness) had dropped from over 82 per cent to 19.7 per cent.

After Dr. Galler resigned, his successor Dr. Dina Tuitama continued to run the specialist unit successfully.

It was then, under Leauasa’s leadership that the Intensive Care Unit was disbanded.

The impacts were immediate, something Dr. Tuitama tearfully recounted to the 2019 World Intensive Care Congress: that after the unit was disbanded in April 2019, mortality rates had jumped to 31 per cent in May and 47 per cent in July. 

These are only the big issues that spring immediately to mind. We could go on but space does not permit for the cataloguing of questionable health policy initiatives during Leausa's tenure that have never been explained adequately. 

There were lesser issues that we reported on, of course, that might have bruised Leauasa’s ego but which were of lesser substance.

These include the Director-General exposing his underpants and dancing at a Health Ministry function last year in the midst of one emerging health crisis and just after another, with mass fatalities, had run its course. 

It is clear that somewhere along the way that Leauasa has had his feelings hurt.

To this, we would say: welcome to the big time.

Those who elect to put their hand up to lead publicly-funded institutions also choose to take on a range of other responsibilities and that includes making oneself accountable to scrutiny by the media and, by extension, the public. 

It was a British Prime Minister who said that complaining about the media in public life makes as much sense as a ship’s captain complaining about the weather. 

Make no mistake, what the Director-General has engaged is, in effect, a kind of censorship. It may have been executed in a ham-fisted and childish manner but it is nonetheless denying someone the right to ask questions. 

We might have expected that a medical doctor, who was sworn to uphold that profession’s rigorous ethics, would not allow personal matters to get in the way of a duty to ensure the public is informed about health matters no matter the cost. 

But evidently, he has.

It is to the credit of the National Emergency Operations Centre's interim Chair, Agafili Shem Leo, that after Leausa had finished grandstanding he went on to answer other questions from the same reporter in English. 

He clearly understands that readers of Samoa’s most popular media outlet deserve to know about public health developments and it is hard to imagine he has not been embarrassed by his colleague’s conduct. 

These are the values of leadership in public service. Exposing oneself to scrutiny and ensuring the public is informed in a time of crisis. No one ever said these things were easily achieved. But those who allow hurt feelings and emotions to override their public duties are clearly not cut out for leadership. 

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