Respect must be shown to COVID concerns

By The Editorial Board 27 October 2021, 11:49PM

The announcement of a heavy schedule of repatriation flights into Samoa over the following two months has been cause to give many pause for thought.

The Cabinet announced this week that it would be scheduling 11 flights in and out of Samoa, after a complete grounding of international travel on island had earlier been considered by authorities.

For the general public this has been the cause for considerable concern. 

One barometer of public opinion is the “Street Talk” column published in Wednesday’s edition that sought the view of the public to unseal Samoa’s previously closed international borders.

Though unscientific, it contains useful insight into public opinion. 

All eight people surveyed urged the Government to think again about allowing repatriation flights into the country.

Rarely do we see such uniformity of view on matters of public policy. 

This newspaper stands for opening up Samoa’s borders in a safe and controlled way; to follow the lead of others in the region; and to reopen our economy in recognition of the fact that COVID-19 is wish thinking. 

But we empathise. The public’s concerns are understandable in the context of their traumatic memories from the terrors of the 2019 measles pandemic that claimed more than 100 innocent infant lives.

Their concern about potentially exposing Samoa to a case of a disease that has claimed the lives of nearly five million people worldwide.

And  it must surely have been heightened by the recent handling of quarantine cases.

Overseas experience has shown that inadequate management of quarantine facilities can be, if not fatal, at least the cause of sudden national shutdowns and economic paralysis. 

Last week, we saw the case of a man with apparent ease slip outside the confines of a protected quarantine facility, one meant to be guarded by 24-7 perimeter security, apparently make his way unimpeded into downtown Apia.

This incident exposed the shortcomings and potential complacency of our current quarantine regime and raised questions that are yet to be answered.

Chief among them is that if we are unable to adequately secure quarantine facilities in the current low-demand environment for returning to Samoa, what confidence can we have that health authorities will be able to secure facilities for another eleven plane loads of people in the coming two months?

It has been more than 18-months since the previous Government announced the nation would be operating under state of emergency conditions in response to the global pandemic.

Throughout this period - which has encompassed two different, elected Governments - the chair of the National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) and the head of the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) have been on hand to stage press conferences providing assured explanations about issues such as rising alert levels and the confusing saga of an incoming patient returning both positive and negative results for the virus.

In other countries, the public faces of state-mandated COVID-19 briefings, such as New Zealand’s Ashley Bloomfield and Australia’s Kerry Chant have in themselves become sources of public reassurance and calm.

Their regular updates about infection numbers, community transmission rates and potential clusters have provided their countries’ public with the sense of a Government that is in charge and on top of an emergent health crisis.

We appreciate the updates provided by Agafili Shemo Leo (N.E.O.C.) and Leausa Dr. Take Naseri (M.O.H.) but we would be lying to say that they have provided the same level of public assurance as their counterparts. This much has been reflected in public concern about the ability of our health and quarantine system to handle the extra load of the incoming flights in November and December. 

And there is a good reason why these public servants, who should be commended for fronting up to the media to field their questions, have not had the same soothing effects as their counterparts in other countries.

The plain fact of the matter is that the rhetoric they espouse does not correspond with the reality of actions on the ground.

The episode of last week’s escapee who made his way to a Western Union outlet is a case in point. 

We are told, this week, that the man who stands accused of breaching quarantine safety is currently under Police investigation. 

But is it too far to ask why we still have not seen punitive action taken when the evidence against would appear to be overwhelming.

On the strength of M.O.H. and police information the man was taken into custody and seventy bystanders were taken into custody.

While health authorities have provided a sketch of how he escaped quarantine and the path he has taken while on the lam are not undergirded by serious scientific proof, such as a long mooted but yet to materialised contact tracing application. 

We have also heard that last week N.E.O.C. was visiting accredited quarantine accommodation providers to remind them of what is required to secure a quarantine facility. At more than 18 months into the lockdown we view this as somewhat late in the piece to be reminding these facilities of their basic obligations and question why such upkeep was not provided earlier. 

We should be clear. We do not think last Wednesday’s escape posed a serious risk to the public health. News that passengers who were quarantined as a precaution was to be expected but also reassuring.

But the incident was a reminder of how, after so many months of assurances that the Government was taking umpteen precautions, that they were suffering from a credibility gap.

But so long as the gap between the number of fully and partially vaccinated Samoans stands at 35,000 people and our stock of vaccines will soon expire, worry is understandable. 

By The Editorial Board 27 October 2021, 11:49PM
Samoa Observer

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