Escapee questions don't stop there
Wednesday’s incident of a man escaping from a quarantine facility left Samoa shaken - but it was far from without global precedent and reminds us of the many ways to successfully achieve COVID-19 policy.
The effects will still be felt, in the regularity with which inbound passenger planes are deemed allowed to safely land and be processed in Samoa; and in the, if any, regulatory changes to the regulation of the security system, or the findings of a review.
Similarly, students who on Wednesday were expecting to undertake their final exams on Thursday found out that their schools had been shut down as a precautionary measure.
Equally jarring was the yawning gap in time between which rumours of a COVID-19 breach began to send the public into panic, from the escapee’s 9am detention, to the Government providing an explanation.
The frankly chilling sight of Ministry of Health workers clad in complete protective gear outside Savalalo Western Union brought the public’s worst fear’s to mind. That the disease that has claimed five million lives may have reached Samoa’s shores. Terrified parents texted their children to wear masks or give the area a wide berth.
The lack of reliable information was simply unacceptable and it was only when the samoaobserver.ws published an account based on eye-witness testimony that a reliable picture of what had happened could be pieced together.
Words of reassurance after more than 18 months of global panic took far too long.
The late night press conference from the Ministry of Health and National Emergency Operations Centre assuring the public that Samoa was not at risk should have been held far sooner, given the escapee’s detention at around 9 am.
For the Government to have dragged its feet in a matter of extreme importance to the public health and security is not acceptable; not when we have dedicated branches of Government to dealing with the COVID-19 problem.
But now that the Government’s failings to keep the public informed have been addressed we can address the issue of quarantine breaches in the light of day.
We suggest the only response the Government can take that alleviates the public panic felt yesterday is a full inquiry into how this was allowed to happen; that a man was allowed to simply wander off a notionally secure site when health authorities have, for so long, displayed a front of taking a no-nonsense approach to quarantine.
The incident raises a number of serious questions which should be asked.
These include whether our national private security system has the capacity to ably guard quarantine sites as demand for incoming flights increase.
We should review whether the culture at quarantine hotels is as strict as it is now as when it first began and what role health authorities can play in ensuring that it is.
Answers to these questions must be found without delay and the findings should be made public.
But it is also important that we do not hold the Government or health authorities to an unachievable standard of perfectly executing quarantine lockdown policy when no others in the world have.
Far better resourced countries than ours have suffered from escaped quarantine inmates and suffered far more serious damage.
To expect Samoa to have executed a system of managed quarantine perfectly would have been, frankly, naive.
In the 10 months to July 2021 a New Zealand Government review found that more 117 people were caught attempting to or successfully exiting their managed quarantine facility.
These were people in hotels with inbuilt security systems far greater than our own being guarded by security with better training than our own.
In fact, this very week New Zealand officials are searching for a known COVID-19 positive case, alleged to have fled quarantine after telling authorities they needed to go home to check on a pet.
The Australian state of Tasmania is this week in a snap lockdown after another positive COVID-19 patient escaped the confines of quarantine.
A certain percentage of the human population, when placed in lockdown, is, for whatever reason, programmed to try to free the shackles of confinement, thinking themselves to know better than authorities.
It appears to be a cross-cultural inevitability that a certain portion of the population will pose risks to public safety for reasons known only to them. For this, we believe they deserve a much higher penalty than $2000.
But they will continue to try.
These dangers to public health will always be with us. But it is our measure as a nation that we learn from these incidents.
We must do everything we can to ensure that the likelihood of a breach is minimised and to restore shaken public confidence the results of this review and policy changes must be made public immediately.
But the only long term solution is one known to us all: increasing the vaccination rate to prevent our people from this virus and its health effects.
When we recently went into a two-day national lockdown, health officials spoke of closing the gap of roughly 50,000 people who had been fully vaccinated and those who had received a single dose.
Today that gap continues to stand at 35,000. We need to hear more from the Government about how it is going to achieve its vaccination targets before vaccines expire and are disposed of.
That is the only way of securing public health - and calm.