Let the families bury their dead

A year in to the global Covid-19 pandemic, with unprecedented border closures and severe travel restrictions across both hemispheres, it is imperative to keep our connections strong.

For Samoans, the most important of these connections is with family. As a people, we place great value on community and familial bonds.

One of the most important practices we share as a community is the faalavelave, and the king of faalavelaves - the funeral.

We gather, we mourn, we organise, we strategise, we collect, we judge, we laugh, we fight, we apologise, we love and then we go our separate ways until the next call comes in, announcing another faalavelave.

It’s our life cycle.

For our community and our families, funerals are definitely more than just a simple process of laying someone to rest. We even bury our dead at our doorsteps; a macabre signifier of the importance of family.

So what happens when you can’t bury your dead? What happens to a family who can’t complete the process of grieving?

We don’t know, but Samoa currently has 18 bodies awaiting postmortems at the Government mortuary.

Amongst the dead is a 16-year-old boy who has been lying in refrigeration, in limbo, for a whole year. He was joined in November by a 14-year-old boy who died at the hands of his father. Answers and closure remain elusive for the families of both.  

A postmortem is only called for by a coroner, and must be performed by a forensic pathologist, when there is doubt over the cause of death. Samoa does not currently have a resident pathologist, a position for which the Government is responsible.

So whilst the delays continue, the ones who can provide answers stay deaf to the cries of grieving families.

Last October, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said there is no reason for forensic pathologists to come to Samoa and they only travel over due to a “special request” to clear a six month backlog of autopsies.  

We posit that a body count of 18, most definitely justifies a special request.

So why is Government taking so long to answer a call they are legislated to provide?  

Is it the cost? Because we have discovered that it is indeed pricey. A glance at the Public Accounts, published online by the Legislative Assembly, shows the Attorney-General’s Office spent about $70,000 in 2018 and $65,000 in 2019 on Pathologist costs.  

Not an insignificant amount by any stretch, but how many bodies are they waiting for before it becomes a matter of priority?  

And how much has been spent on Parliamentary salaries and allowances this year again?
A fair question to ask ourselves, as we listen in to the sixth week of protracted self-glorification from our leaders.  

So what could be another reason for the delay? Border closures?

Last August, the Director-General of the Ministry of Health Leausa Take Naseri said they were doing their best to find a forensic pathologist who can travel to Samoa to conduct autopsies.

He said the pathologist would qualify under the essential workers category. But there was a hitch.

“Because the law changed in the last eight years, that says a forensic pathologist should do the autopsy, therefore we need to find a forensic pathologist from either New Zealand or Australia.

“But right now, no one wants to come because of the global pandemic.”

If this holds true today, then perhaps a change of tact is needed and the net cast further afield in the search for a willing Pathologist. If there are no takers from Australia or New Zealand, what about our other development partners? Does the law allow that?

The Attorney-General herself hasn’t been able to offer much of an answer to the delays, commenting only last October that they were working closely with Police and Health to make arrangements for postmortems.  

“There was a recent arrangement for the pathologist to travel over but due to the fact that at the time a new Covid-19 case was suspected from New Zealand this flights from New Zealand were cancelled.”

It’s quite clear that they can make these arrangements, despite our travel and border restrictions, and with Samoa’s solid response to positive Covid-19 tests in quarantine, the flights have resumed and citizens continue to be repatriated.

As of press time neither the Attorney-General Savalenoa Mareva Betham nor the Minister of Health Faimalotoa Kika Stowers had responded to further requests for information.

Even the judiciary has called for urgent action.

On Monday, Supreme Court Judge Vui Clarence Nelson shared his dismay at the delays, while sentencing a father over the death of his 14-year-old son.

“It appears there was no post mortem conducted on the deceased despite the coroner ordering one in November 2020, three-and-a-half months ago,” said Justice Vui.

Referring to the Coroners Act 2017, Vui said the coroner’s order for a postmortem is issued pursuant to statutory powers given to the court by Parliament.  

“It is therefore not only an order from the court but an order pursuant to laws passed by newly elected representative sitting in parliament,” he said.

“It is, in effect, an order from Parliament; it is not a matter to be compliant with at the convenience of Government officials. This needs to be drawn to the attention of the Honourable Minister of Health.”

Again, we are yet to hear from the Minister of Health on any measures Government is planning to take to provide postmortem examinations. This, despite Parliament being in session for six whole weeks.

If only Government could take a moment from their political pontificating, to let families know that they are doing something about the backlog.

Are there any other options available for the bereaved, whose loved ones lie in a refrigerated state of abandonment and deteriorating with every day that passes?

If Government cannot provide postmortem services; should they honour the desire of surviving relatives to release the bodies of their loved ones for burial?

Perhaps the law won’t allow it, but we can only ask the questions right now.

With all the great big fish we have in power and at the helm of our health services, and with the body count growing in the mortuary, is there no one who can offer a solution and provide some relief for grieving families?  

These sons and daughters of Samoa deserve to rest. Their families deserve closure and those holding on tightly to the reins of power should do something now.

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