By David Williams, PPP Board member, with Muavae Va’a, PPP President
Photos courtesy of Muavae Va’a.
When Pacific Peoples’ Partnership initiated a special fund to deal with emergent situations, little did we realize how valuable and timely this idea would be. A tragedy, one brought about by human folly, makes our recent use of this fund particularly poignant.
The Pacific Resilience Fund (PRF) arose out of the observation that to fulfill our mandated role properly as the one Canadian NGO linking the peoples of Canada and the island nations of Oceania, we would require the means to respond quickly and appropriately to needs brought about by climate change and other problems. Our goal was for communities to be able to apply directly to the fund to finance small to medium scale initiatives that increase social, cultural and physical resilience.
The Samoa measles outbreak was not the first use of the PRF. It had already been used in both Fiji and Vanuatu, but this came very close to home for PPP president Muavae (Mua) Va’a because Samoa is his home country and he has many relations there. Indeed, Mua had already experienced tragedy when he lost seventeen family members in the 2009 tsunami. At that time he also assisted with relief efforts, returning to Samoa from his home on Vancouver Island with volunteers to help rebuild the village of Aleipata.
Measles should be a thing of the past, but instead a tide of propaganda from anti-vaccination zealots combined with some improperly prepared vaccine that killed two small Samoan children to create a tsunami of a different sort. Two nurses had mistakenly tainted the vaccine by mixing it with a muscle relaxant instead of water, according to a story in the newspaper, Samoa Observer. All this created a climate of fear among Samoan parents that led to many children not being vaccinated. And so the virus took hold.
By October 2019, only 31% of the population had been vaccinated with a single dose. That’s half of what is required to prevent the spread of the disease once it is present in a community. To achieve what is known as “herd immunity”, an immunization of 95% is required for such a highly contagious disease. Samoa had less than one-third the vaccine coverage rate it needed to prevent a disaster. To make matters worse, at the time of the children’s deaths the government halted the measles vaccine campaign for ten months while it investigated. This was against the advice of the World Health Organization.
On November 17th. the government declared a state of emergency. By mid-December 2019, Samoa had 4,819 measles cases and seventy deaths, most of them children under five.
Sadly, what happened in Samoa is part of a global trend. Vaccinations have dropped precipitously while measles has grown exponentially, up to 300% in the last year. War and highly organized anti-vaccination propaganda campaigns are the main causes.
Mua first heard of the outbreak through social media and local newspapers. Hearing of one young couple’s cry for help from Nofoali’i Village following the loss of one child and a plea to protect the rest, Mua knew he had to go. By the time he was ready to leave, his own grand nephew was dead as well.
In the village of Mutiatele, Muavae Va’a brings condolences and a gift to his nephew and his wife upon the loss of their son to measles.
PPP immediately began a campaign to build up the PRF with money that we could use to bring aid to stressed Samoan medical practitioners and suffering families. We got a quick and gratifying response.
When Mua arrived in Samoa in January, at least 5,700 people had been infected and the death toll had risen to 83. He quickly sought out allies through our partner organization, the Samoa Social Welfare Fesoasoani Trust (SSWFT) and the churches of this heavily Christian country. Mua himself is a life-long missionary, impelled to service by his strong faith.
Working through SUNGO, the umbrella organization for NGOs in Samoa, linked to by SSWFT, Mua soon decided his first mission was to the village of Mutiatele where his grand nephew was so recently buried. It was there he heard of other places of great need, so early in the morning of January 8th, along with staff from SSWFT, he began a journey. Exhausting in the overwhelming heat yet satisfying, Mua and his crew met with 12 families in more than ten villages. He recounts how profoundly emotional this was, and so very difficult to listen to the many stories of loss from grieving parents.
In Lalomanu he found good use for the PPP’s Pacific Resilience Fund. The nurses at the small district hospital had for four years been forced to wash all bed linens by hand, a time-consuming and inefficient use of highly trained personnel. Word came back to us in Victoria that a new washing machine and boiler would transform the operation in the hard-hit hospital there. Funds from PPP were soon on their way and Lalomanu village hospital now has a new washing machine, dryer and boiler.
This may seem like a small thing. It is not. Nurses are now relieved of this tedious duty and able to use their skills more appropriately in healing the sick. PPP has left a small but vital legacy that will be long remembered.
Working with many selected partners in South Pacific nations, we understand that it is important to listen carefully at the grass roots level to learn what the needs are. Often, larger NGOs go into small nations and communities with preconceived ideas of what aid should be. At its best this can be merely self-serving. At worst, it can actually do harm, resulting in a series of unanticipated consequences. Our more localized approach, where we don’t assume we know best, brought us this response from one of our Samoan partner organizations:
“ … here in Samoa, so we do have a list of families that their children died from the measles. We are grateful to Pacific Peoples’ Partnership and especially to your President for his kind contribution to our beautiful Samoa. I know for a fact your President understand and know exactly what our people needs so whatever your organization provide will appreciate.”
We all confront death. The certain knowledge of our own mortality is perhaps the tragedy of our species. But different cultures treat it differently. In the West we tend to hide it and allow it little space in our lives. Not so in Samoa. The dead, even small children, are on open display before interment. Many pictures of dead children, perhaps shocking to western eyes, appeared in local media throughout the epidemic. The dead find permanent resting places in plots and tombs in the yards of their families. They are kept close.
The Samoan measles outbreak is now over. Most children and adults have been vaccinated and are safe from this potentially deadly disease. Life lessons have been learned by a new generation that thought they were growing up in a world where this scourge had been eliminated. And Mua is back home on Vancouver Island more determined than ever to work with the staff and board of PPP to build the Pacific Resilience Fund so that we can deliver aid wherever it is needed in the island nations of the Pacific.
According to Mua, young families that have lost beloved children are being torn apart by grief and loss. Sometimes they turn inward and direct their anger at themselves or one another. Hearts are breaking and so are families. Such trauma does not end quickly, if ever, but it is a great encouragement for these families to know that people beyond their borders care about them. Mua says even he knows that his experiences working for these families has caused elements of post traumatic stress disorder in himself.
Canada, to its credit, provided significant aid to Samoa during the emergency, managed through the High Commissioner’s office in New Zealand, where Mario Bot recently departed as High Commissioner.
Late in 2020, the two authors of this report will be travelling to Samoa together. While in Samoa they aim to make solid connections with organizations like SSWFT and SUNGO that were so helpful to Mua and PPP during the emergency, for which they are here thanked. The two men will explore possible appropriate projects for the PRF in villages throughout the islands.
This will also be a journey through time for David. His ancestor, the missionary John Williams, travelled and lived throughout the Pacific two hundred years ago and was settled in Samoa with his family when he died in 1839 on Erromango, Vanuatu. John Williams’ influence throughout Oceania is still much in evidence and Mua feels that this aspect of the next visit to Samoa will be a celebration of sorts. They look forward to reporting back to PPP members upon their return.
Would you like to contribute to the Pacific Resilience Fund? If so, please click on this button to find out more and make a donation.
This article was co-written by Muavae (Mua) Va’a, PPP President and David Williams, PPP Board Member and Chair of Development. PPP would like to acknowledge the extraordinary leadership and compassion that our President Mua demonstrated in response to this terrible tragedy. He and his family went over and above, donating personally and absorbing many costs towards this campaign. Inspired by his devotion, a fundraiser will soon be held by members of his Tsawout and Tsartlip Family and Friends on March 30th.