Keep labour channels open
News that nearly two dozen Samoans in Australia have tested positive for COVID-19 is cause for concern but not to forget the limits of our ability to control our health environment at the border.
The re-opening of channels between Australia and New Zealand and Samoa last year represented a significant step in the normalisation of economic relations between our countries and others in the region.
But such a move was always going to carry a degree of risk of exposure to the rapidly evolving coronavirus threat.
We saw as much late last year, as our neighbours in Tonga registered the country’s first positive case of the virus after attempting to ride out the pandemic by keeping COVID-19 out of the country entirely .
Despite safeguards and requirements for vaccinations and quarantine, the first breach of the country’s quarantine strategy came on a repatriation flight in the form of a returning seasonal labourer from New Zealand.
The case prompted the country to perform a change of tack and delay further plans to repatriate overseas workers.
Now the country, protesting a lack of quarantine facilities, has withdrawn from the latest round of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in New Zealand.
Samoan workers - and those from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji - stand to benefit from their withdrawal and will pick up extra places as a result.
But with the scheduled return of a contingent of seasonal workers from Tasmania next week, our own quarantine system is now likely to face similar pressure.
As we reported on Thursday’s front page (“Samoan workers contrast COVID-19”) a dozen workers from this country stationed in that state have been placed in isolation after recording positive tests for the virus.
It is understood that a further eleven workers in the mainland state of Victoria have also registered positive tests.
It is not known whether these workers were intended to return to Samoa presently on repatriation flights or, if they were, what will happen to them now that they have apparently contracted the virus.
But it is clear that it will be next to impossible to keep migrant work channels open between Samoa and its larger Pacific neighbours without the risk of importing the disease into the country.
The latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is currently running rampant across Australia with the public health system overwhelmed by reports of tens of thousands of new cases daily across each of the country’s six states.
Does this mean that we should, as Tonga has done, shut the door to future participation in seasonal work schemes?
We do not believe so.
Our country is currently amid one of its deepest economic declines on record. The latest data shows we have wiped off more than five years of economic growth during this recent pandemic-led period of stagnation.
Money being brought into the country by seasonal workers, whose labour is so desperately needed, is one of the few novel streams of income Samoan families can rely upon.
That does not mean that continuing to allow these workers to travel into the country does not carry any risk. It does.
But there is only so much control we can hope to exert over the border as citizens return to the country amid the global pandemic.
Keeping the virus entirely out of the nation can only be achieved with certainty by closing the door to returning workers entirely. Instead we should be seeking to bolster our systems for detecting it and preventing its transmission.
Our health authorities are closely studying Fiji and the results of its open border policy in seeking to weigh the risks of following suit and opening our borders to tourism and the prospect of economic revival.
While they do so, it is important that we do not allow reports of Samoan nationals contracting the virus to spook us into correcting too far the other way and restricting the freedom of movement of workers.
Rather their return should be as a prelude or a stress test for a broader border opening and the systems of quarantine and border control that the Government has so studiously worked to create.
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