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The Situation Report and moving to restore livelihoods

On Wednesday this week a leaked internal report exposed major flaws with the Government’s customs and immigration procedures for arriving passengers at the Faleolo International Airport amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

An article with the headline “Arriving passengers had ‘invalid’ coronavirus test” published in the September 30, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer, quoted details of an official report titled COVID-19 Situation Report No.95 that revealed passengers disembarking from a 18 September Air New Zealand repatriation flight lacking valid medical clearance to enter the country under the state of emergency [S.O.E.] laws.

“Many [passengers’] COVID tests were done more than 3 days (invalid) prior [to] arrival as stated on Travel Advisory”, the document states. 

“Only a few passengers did not present negative COVID test results and Medical clearance reports upon arrival.”

The situation report does not say whether any passengers were returned to New Zealand because of the violations. But it does specify that 293 people disembarked the plane and "all 293 passengers are currently undergoing 14 days quarantine at designated sites."

The revelation of the shortcomings in the authorities’ processing of incoming passengers’ documentation – where some of the COVID-19 test results were outdated with others not presenting medical clearance reports at all – is a cause for concern especially at the country’s main international gateway.

It also raises questions about the rationale of continuing to impose draconian restrictions on activities connected with the daily lives of citizens, when the “weakest link” in the Government’s COVID-19 national preparedness and response plan appears to be at the country’s first line of defense at the airport.

The Chair of the National Emergency Operations Committee [N.E.O.C.], Ulu Bismarck Crawley, has confirmed the oversight that the Government’s own internal report made reference to.

In a story titled “Ulu admits border safety breaches” published in the October 2, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer, the N.E.O.C. Chair acknowledged that the 18 September repatriation flight had issues and appealed to the public to follow the rules.

“We acknowledge that the information referenced in the article was the situation at the time of the report,” Ulu said.

“Surely, uncertainties have been evident in all efforts for necessary preparations causing anxiety, stress and insecurity but the opportunity is critical for us all to reinforce and encourage everyone to consider all safety measures as per our travel advisory.”

Non-Samoan citizens’ presenting of endorsement letters issued by the Samoan Consulate Office in Auckland upon their arrival at Faleolo, instead of travel approval from the Ministry of Health or the Government of Samoa, was another issue of contention that the situation report highlighted. 

Travellers from “high-risk” countries that had received the correct approvals by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had not, however, stopped for 28 days in New Zealand after leaving their countries, the report further stated.

We commend Ulu for admitting that there were breaches and assuring the public that his committee is “giving their all” on the Government’s COVID-19 response. 

But the oversight on 18 September, again, puts the spotlight on the Government’s own systems and processes and the capability of the personnel it has deployed to the frontlines to guard against the pandemic.

The fact of the matter is citizens and the local economy continue to pay a hefty price since the declaration of the SOE in March this year, with the loss of employment brought on by restricted trading hours and business closures pushing families to the brink of poverty.

After six months of living with restrictions, juxtaposed against our status as one of 13 Pacific Islands states that remain COVID-19 free, surely we can find a middle ground that works for the benefit of both our people and our crumbling local economy while continuing to maintain our COVID-19 free status.

It is obvious – based on this newspaper’s coverage in recent days of the sordid assessment highlighted in the situation report – that ultimately it is the ability of the Government’s frontline workers to strictly enforce the law on returning citizens at strategic points of entry which continues to remain an issue.

Therefore, identifying and fixing those vulnerable areas and boosting the capacity of the personnel to effectively process incoming passengers, while considering options to gradually remove restrictions on business trading hours, will go a long way towards boosting the Government’s plans to rebuild our local economy as well as restoring the livelihood of our people.

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