Olo, P.M. clash over measles' cause
An opposition M.P. and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi have clashed over the causes of the deadly measles epidemic during a fiery exchange on the first day of Parliament for 2020.
The Salega Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Va’ai, claimed a 2018 decision to suspend the M.M.R. vaccination campaign for nearly a year contributed to the epidemic's spread during a fiery debate with Tuilaepa on on Tuesday.
Olo accused the Government of being negligent, claiming they ignored the alarm bells about the measles epidemic, which had been ringing for at least seven months before the epidemic was declared.
He also revealed that the Ministry of Health did not have a “Pandemic Emergency Response Plan” and that they only managed to scrape one together in November last year, well after the measles crisis had claimed innocent lives.
“So why is the Government blaming the parents now? Everything starts from here,” Olo said in Parliament.
Prime Minister Tuilaepa was not impressed and he immediately took the floor to object. He said the Government couldn’t force people to vaccinate their children if they didn’t want to.
“Can I ask the member again; is it your wish that the Police go out and lock up all the parents who did not want to vaccinate their children? It’s a direct question, yes or no?”
That’s when Olo made the allegation.
“Mr. Speaker,” he responded, “why should the Police go out?
“Who stopped the vaccination programme that prevented the children from being vaccinated? It’s you [Prime Minister Tuilaepa]. The vaccination programme lapsed for a whole year, that’s why these children died. That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
Prime Minister Tuilaepa deflected the blame, still pointing to parents.
“Kids have died because the parents did not want them to get vaccination. What do you say about that, give me an answer?” Tuilaepa fired back.
Olo would not budge.
“Mr. Speaker, it’s not that the parents did not want to take their kids to get vaccinated. The Government stopped the vaccination programme. That’s the truth.”
At that point, Speaker of Parliament, Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi intervened, asking the Salega M.P. to move to another matter. But Olo would not.
“The Prime Minister is blaming the parents but what about his responsibility as the leader of the country,” Olo asked.
In response, Tuilaepa said the Government did what it had to do.
“We took the vaccination to the people. What happened? Even some people who stayed next to the hospital didn’t want to be vaccinated. Even if we had taken the vaccine last year or the year before, there will always be people who wouldn’t want to be vaccinated.”
Tuilaepa pointed out that despite the vaccination campaign that had been running for two months, an old man still died “just recently because of his choice.”
“So my question to you [Olo], what can you do about this? You said we have to provide vaccination, that’s what we did. This is proof that this allegation [of the Government being responsible] is unfounded.”
Tuilaepa said Olo shouldn’t have waited until now to offer his opinion.
“So why didn’t you give me that recommendation then for the police to round up these people? You didn’t,” said Tuilaepa, reminding that his administration recognises the rights of people to choose.
Olo remained defiant.
“Mr. Speaker, if that is the opinion of the Prime Minister, then carry out a Commission of Inquiry to test what he’s saying. This is what transparent governments do; they carry out these commissions to find out the truth.”
Earlier, Olo highlighted the impact of the measles epidemic on the country and reiterated that a Commission of Inquiry is necessary.
“The impact of measles has been widely felt in Samoa, the earth is filled with tears of victims, it has separated families, it has also affected the economy in a major way.
“Today, we are in a state of uncertainty, asking what is going on?
“If it was the government at fault, we need to ask why. If it was the country at fault, we need to also ask why. We can work together when people understand. We need to understand the problem so that we are aware and know how to protect ourselves against future problems.”
Olo pointed out that New Zealand informed Samoa about measles in March.
“That was seven months before. The Government sat there, guessing. They were unsure about what to do. Why? We didn’t have a Global Epidemic plan or a Pandemic emergency response plan to guide our response.
“Mr. Speaker, I can tell you now that no life would have been wasted if we had a proper Pandemic Emergency Plan.”
But this was disputed by Prime Minister Tuilaepa.
“The truth is, no one wanted to vaccinate their child because of the incident in Savai’i, they all wanted to wait until the end of the Court case.”
The Prime Minister also spoke about Samoa’s customs, traditions and healing methods.
“With everyone who died, it was the mother’s decision not to bring their child to do what is usually done (vaccination) but they chose Samoa’s traditional healing methods. I don’t think anyone in this building has not been subjected to our traditional healing methods because these vaccinations only arrived in 1963,” Tuilaepa said.
Olo disagreed pointing to flaws in the Ministry of Health’s implementation of policy.
“During the measles, the government publicized that everyone entering Samoa would be stopped at the border if they hadn’t been vaccinated. So what happened? Everyone came with their immunization records but there was no one from the Ministry there to check. What if these people brought another kind of virus?”
Tuilaepa again took the floor, saying: “When someone makes up his mind about what they believe, no one else can dissuade them, especially Olo. I cannot have a debate with Olo, he has already made up his mind.
“All I want to say is that despite the campaign, and even after the government moblilized the public service to carry out vaccination, some people still refused to be vaccinated. In some cases, they only brought them in but it was too late.”
Turning to the Speaker of Parliament, Tuilaepa said that in Samoa, people have the freedom of choice.
“What can the government do? Send the police to round them up and bring them in? Is that what you want Olo? You want the Police to lock them up?
“Mr. Speaker, that’s not our culture and traditions. People have the right to choose when it comes to treatment but the opportunity was there, even to the point when the public service was mobilized to provide it.”
Tuilaepa added that Olo was absent during the measles vaccination campaign.
Speaker Leaupepe supported the Prime Minister, telling Olo to stop.
“That’s your opinion,” Leauepe told Olo. “What can we do if that’s how you feel? It’s like an animal, as the elders would often say, you can take an animal to the water but if they don’t want to drink, what can you do?”
Olo objected to the Speaker’s reference to an animal.
“Mr. Speaker, your comments are inappropriate, members of my constituency are listening.”
But the Speaker defended his choice of words.
“Those are words to make something easier to understand. As the Prime Minister said, do you want the police to lock up these people? That is your opinion.”
Still, Olo would not back down.
“You are correct Mr. Speaker, that this is my opinion but you should also be patient to listen to my opinion.
“I’m not trying to point the finger and to find whose at fault. I’m offering my views looking in from the outside on how we see the government being run by the Prime Minister because he doesn’t know everything that is wrong.”
Olo also asked the Speaker to stop interfering with his address.
“I’m speaking about the Ministry of Health, this is the duty of the C.E.O, the Minister and the Ministry,” he said.
At that point, the Minister of Health, Faimalotoa Kika Stowers, took the floor. She backed Prime Minister Tuilaepa, fending off claims that the Government was responsible for the epidemic.
“The Government didn’t stop the vaccination programme, as the member had claimed. In this life, there are things that happened that cause other things to happen, like the incident in Savai’i,” the Minister of Health said.
“The vaccination programme was stopped so that an inquiry could be carried out to determine if the vaccination was faulty or whether the workers were to blame. Samoa and the world now know the outcome, the court case went on for a year and the outcome is that nurses have been punished.
“The workers were slack, that is no longer a secret. In this life also, we all have faults, we all make mistakes, even in this house, no one is perfect under the sun.”
Looking at the future, Faimalo said the Government has learnt its lesson.
“We have already put in place long-term plans, we have learnt a lot [from what happened].” She did give details about those plans.”
Still, Olo remained unconvinced.
“Thank you Minister but I have a copy of our Pandemic plan, it was only done in November after more than 70 kids had died.
“It was only rushed in November. That’s what I’m talking about. You are also saying the Government didn’t stop the vaccination programme, but who did? It was stopped in July 2018 until April 2019.”
Parliament continues this week.