Samoa’s COVID-19 Response – Support Each Other Locally and Take Lessons from Overseas

Samoa remains locked down, and COVID19-free. Let us hope, and stand in prayerful agreement as a nation, that it remains so.
With the state of emergency now extended a further four weeks, we are praying that the immediate government steps taken to close borders, restrict public gathering numbers and reduce movements, continues to protect us.
We look across the globe, and we see the terrible consequences of unfortunate, slow protective measures against the virus.
The Italian Prime Minister has called COVID-19 the country’s most difficult crisis since the Second World War and despite closing its borders to China in January, and setting a national quarantine lockdown in place on the 9th of March, Italy still became one of the world’s COVID-19 epicenters with over 124,000 cases, 15,362 deaths and just over 20,000 recoveries, as at 4 April. The Indian Prime Minister has apologised for their nationwide lockdown issued on the 25th of March with little warning, causing increased hardships to fall upon the quarter of its 1.3 billion population, who live below the poverty line. In the United Kingdom the Prime Minister has himself contracted the virus and is forced to work hard-to-lead, from his living room.
With an infection level of more than the current population of Samoa, the USA is now the new international epicenter of the virus. It’s own health officials are estimating a national death toll of up to 200,000 if lockdown measures are not put in place. They are now working hard to fight the virus, but they are scrambling to catch up particularly in New York, due to their President’s troubling initial approach of playing down the virus as one that would soon, ‘disappear’ and suggesting at a political rally 28th February, that it was a Democatic party ‘hoax.’ He did later attempt to retract, but we do see that approaches to COVID-19 have to be rid of crucial time-wasting mistakes.
On the other hand New Zealand’s decisive action of going to Level 4, with a month long lockdown, effectively closing everything but essential services, is being hailed as a move that is saving lives. It currently sits on 1039 cases, 156 recoveries and 1 death, meaning that today there are 882 active cases.
Samoa imposed a high level of restrictions, and then declared a state of emergency, based on the world wide risk of COVID-19 spread, and suspected yet-to-be-confirmed, cases.
These were not in this opinion drastic measures; these were necessary and decisive steps from the Government.
However, the follow-up call to action for Samoa, is three fold:
1) The public to adhere together to the State of Emergency Orders in support of each other and national safety;
2) The Ministry of Health to continue to be built up in preparation for the worst case scenario. Have we audited our Health Care System and hospitals against the WHO Hospital Readiness Checklist for COVID-19? A document that gives recommended actions, and asks if we have a well-functioning Incident Management System (IMS).  Do we have adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), listing medical/surgical masks, N95/FFP2 respirators, gloves, gowns, eye protection etc. to be easily accessible for health care workers?  Have we calculated our ability to handle Surge Capacity – the total number of beds, availability of human resources, the adaptability of facility space for critical care, and the accessibility of mechanical ventilators? There is a reported shortage of ventilators worldwide. Do we have more than the rumoured 15 ventilators? Do we have enough oxygen supply? The lapses and lessons learnt from our response to the measles epidemic has greatly benefited us so far, but let’s not forget how we ran low of oxygen and requested ventilators very late in that crisis.
3) The Government has to do more! to preserve the economy. The necessary shut down measures needed to contain COVID-19 affects people’s ability to work and earn an income for their families – and that is true for Samoa’s formal AND the much wider informal sector. That cannot be ignored and must be addressed in a Relief Package with the same level of priority that is given to the medical/health system response.
The NZ Minister of Finance negotiated debt repayment relief from Banks, and has so far given out over $4 billion to affected salary earners in a Wage Subsidy Scheme that NZ Treasury now estimates will cost between $8 billion to $12 billion depending on uptake by businesses.  Hon Grant Robertson is quoted as saying, “This ensures businesses not able to operate do not need to lay off staff. Even if this requires businesses to operate with no activity, the subsidy allows them to keep their workers on the books, particularly during Alert Level 4.”
The tourism industry in Samoa has been hit hard. Tourism has supported sustainable development in Samoa through its broad based employment of thousands in the formal sector, and hundreds through income-generating activities in the informal sector.  Those in the community who relied on attractions, tours, beach fales, handicrafts, entertainment and other community based tourism opportunities are now all without an income. Those in the community who supplied hotels and restaurants with not only goods but services, are jobless. “Tourism” in this sense includes all travel into Samoa – this affects so many micro, small and medium-sized businesses that used to benefit from and earn their income during annual church conferences such as the 2-week long Malua Fonotele.
As COVID-19 threatens economies around the globe, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has said the International Monetary Fund will tap into its USD$1 trillion lending capacity and it stands ready to provide aid to its 189 member nations of which Samoa is one, and encouraged governments and central banks to deploy their own stimulus measures. Can Samoa tap into that, if is has not already?
The USA Federal Reserve (Central Bank) is said to be setting interest rates at 0% to help ease debt pressure – can Samoa reduce its rates? Given the relatively high level of business debt and even higher levels of personal loans carried by almost every Samoan with a job in the formal sector? In 1998 government took substantive steps to ‘free-up’ and ‘liberalise’ Samoa’s financial sector which saw the Central Bank remove interest rate controls and relax the credit ceiling. The idea was that Banks would set their own interest rates, and open competition would allow the ‘market’ to set lower interest rates. That works in countries like NZ and Australia, yes. Has that happened in Samoa? Is the competition fierce, and reflected in our interest rates? How many Samoans ‘negotiate’ the interest rate with Banks? The reality is different, as we Samoans are often just in desperate need for urgent financing. In Jan 2020, CBS recorded an average lending rate of 8.88% and an average deposit rate of 2.46% in Samoa. That means an average margin of 6.42%. The Reserve Bank of Fiji has been known to set this margin at 3% to ensure sustainable interest rates to those seeking finance, and to help grow business.
The ecomonic rainy days have arrived, and it is time to take out and blow the dust off any remaining unforeseen budget. If income is scarce, then what ways can government save on expenditure? Can we re-assign the millions that go into roads every year? and perhaps get those funds out into the economy as income for the people who’ve lost their jobs instead? What Government resources can be mustered up and distributed to help businesses, farmers, fishermen, pensioners and workers at this time? 
To conclude, Samoa has an international reputation as a wonderful and prodigious host of all official and non-official visitors. However, it also attracts a perpetual wave of criticism, critique and at times ‘righteous’ condemnation from overseas. (That is the nature of social media contact and the freedom of speech. Power to that freedom.)
It follows therefore, that Samoa has every right to do likewise; to take note of different approaches, and lessons learnt by overseas countries, in the current fight against COVID-19. To keep doing its blessed and humble best, to fight with God’s grace and with all it’s got – to keep our people safe. Oh and for decision makers and those close to the action on all sides, please remember that a strong spirit of working together is needed in our approach. We are in a crisis and there is no room for egos, or wiffm (what’s in it for me) and negative attitudes (n/a). It’s not about you/me – it is all about and for, the people of Samoa – manuia lautele o tagatanuu uma.
We soldier on with a smile, maintain physical distance and stay socially connected with family and friends on social media, send a passing wave to each other on the road, and worship ‘online’ together on Sundays with the many local churches who now film live services. And don’t forget we have a Police Commissioner whose on standby in case COVID-19 gets two legs and starts to act like a prison escapee – then it’s in real trouble! i.e. We try the best we can, to also keep our sense of humour 🙂.
Be Kind and Stay Safe Samoa.

Editorial Board