THE Wuhan lockdown on January 23, 2020 which panicked governments around the world into copying China’s ‘house arrest’ response to Covid is said to have been unprecedented.
However, it was heralded weeks earlier in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa by the drastic response to a measles outbreak. The authorities ordered the population to stay indoors and a hastily-orchestrated compulsory mass vaccination programme was launched.
By the time China’s draconian action made world headlines, the story of the Samoan lockdown was memory-holed and its significance missed. As I shall explain, the evidence is that this authoritarian new normal is emerging from America rather than China.
The Samoa story begins in 2018, where confidence in measles jabs dropped after two babies died on the same day within minutes of being given MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines. Two nurses were subsequently blamed for improperly diluting the vaccines with a muscle relaxant and jailed for five years for negligent manslaughter.
Following the tragedy, the Samoan government suspended the MMR vaccination programme for ten months. The number of babies given a first dose of MMR vaccine dropped from 80 per cent in 2017 to 40 per cent. In 2013, MMR vaccination levels had been at a high of 98.7 per cent. Not all returned for second doses.
On October 1, 2019, the United Nations children’s fund Unicef began delivering to Samoa two different types of measles vaccines, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.
Just a fortnight later, Samoa declared an outbreak when a year-old baby with suspected measles died a week after being admitted to hospital. Samples from 38 other children with suspected measles, all from the southerly island of Upolu, were sent to Melbourne for testing. The day after the child died, Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, a New Zealand-based vaccinologist and chair of the World Health Organisation’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety told the Fiji Times: ‘Measles is the most infectious disease known to man. So, assuming it’s in the community, the only way to control it is to increase immunity among the people and that is through the vaccine, quickly.’
By November 17, some 700 children had suspected measles infections. The Samoan government declared a state of emergency, closing schools, banning anyone under 18 from public gatherings and making vaccination compulsory for adults. A week later, when it was reporting 1,797 measles patients and 22 deaths, Samoa stopped using laboratory tests which genotype the virus to confirm infection.
On November 22, New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said they were getting ‘all spare human and medical utilities ready for the compulsory vaccination programme that they’re going to start running in Samoa’ to help out ‘as much as we possibly can’.
This took the form of 3,000 doses of vaccine, 30 vaccination nurses and ten doctors. The vaccine New Zealand uses is Priorix, produced by GlaxoSmithKline. In total, 18 emergency teams from around the world arrived in Samoa to provide medical assistance.
Although approximately 5,000 babies are born each year in Samoa, Unicef reported shipping 100,000 MR (measles and rubella) vaccines and 15,000 MMR vaccines there along with 30,000 doses of vitamin A as of October 1.
Measles vaccination is recommended by the WHO. It says the risk of complications from an infection is 1,000 times higher than the risk of adverse events from the vaccine. This is a statistical sleight of hand, because the risk calculation used for natural measles infections is ‘as measured in industrialised countries’. A footnote states: ‘The risk in developing countries is generally higher, but not well defined.’ The WHO also estimates that about five per cent of children given measles vaccines develop a fever and two per cent develop rashes, typically five to 12 days after inoculation.
In countries such as Samoa, where protein deficiency malnutrition is common, children’s vitamin A levels are usually suboptimal, if not outright deficient. The WHO protocol is that vitamin A, which is essential for the immune system, is given alongside measles vaccines to boost the antibody response. Large doses of vitamin A are also given to treat measles infection, since a deficiency increases mortality and severity.
Between October and the end of December 2019, 5,707 of Samoa’s 200,000 population were reported to have become sick with measles. Eighty-three died, 76 under the age of five. The UN went into full crisis propaganda mode. Its resident co-ordinator in Samoa, Simona Marinescu, said: ‘I think we have all learned a painful lesson here. We speak about a nation that literally had no vaccination for a certain number of months and that happened on the grounds of the very sad story that happened last year with the two babies killed during a routine vaccination.’
The deaths kept mounting. By December 2, with 62 measles fatalities recorded, 54 of them under the age of four, the government of Samoa announced its unprecedented two-day nationwide shutdown on December 5 and 6 to complete the vaccination campaign.
The country was put under curfew and businesses ordered to close. Unvaccinated families were instructed to identify themselves with red flags outside their homes and to keep off the roads so that international vaccination squads could go door to door at speed.
By the end of the lockdown, 90 per cent of the targeted population were inoculated, followed by a further 3 per cent by December 12. In the final reckoning, 134,499 individuals were vaccinated. Given the previous levels of MMR vaccination, many were receiving boosters, not first doses.
The Samoan prime minister, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, blamed anti-vaccination sentiment for the crisis, saying: ‘We have so many anti-vaccination people and of course many of our people still resort to traditional healers.’
The government sent a message about the seriousness of its intent to vaccinate by arresting a local man, Edwin Tamasese, who had spoken out publicly. Measles vaccines contain weakened (attenuated) live virus and he believed under-attenuated vaccines were causing the outbreak.
Many people were becoming sick five to six days after the inoculations, during the convenient two-week window when they are considered unvaccinated for statistical purposes.
Measles is a more severe disease in adults than in children due to maturational differences in the immune system that enable children to mount more effective immune responses. The problem in populations where vaccination suppresses measles is that the vaccine protection eventually wears off, creating newly vulnerable adults.
Tamasese, who had been providing vitamin A and vitamin C for families with sick children sent home from hospital, was charged with incitement against the government for allegedly posting a message on Facebook saying: ‘I’ll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree.’ The case was dismissed a year later for lack of evidence.
In introducing the lockdown restrictions and mass vaccination campaign, Samoa was following the lead of American Samoa, a neighbouring territory of seven islands.
American Samoa, with a population of 55,000 and a measles vaccination rate of 99.7 per cent, had declared a state of emergency on November 13 after two under-fives, visiting from Samoa, developed measles. Schools were closed, mass gatherings banned and border controls introduced. On December 8, 2019, this state of emergency was extended and 14,128 adults were given measles vaccines CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US public health agency] directed mass vaccination campaign.
On the day Samoa announced the lockdown, the American Embassy issued a message from Ambassador Scott Brown saying: ‘The advice to Samoan families from the specialists from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US public health agency] echoes the official advice from the Samoan government: The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your community is to make sure you and all your loved ones get vaccinated.
‘You can save lives today. If you have unvaccinated folks in your household, please tie a piece of red cloth outside so that the doctors and nurses can easily identify the homes needing most assistance.’
The Washington Post reported that one of two CDC officials sent to Samoa was an expert who would focus on ‘fighting misinformation about measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases, in response to requests from Unicef.’ Robert Linkins, who it identified as a global immunisation official at the CDC, said Samoan health officials needed ‘to communicate that the disease is dangerous and that the vaccine is good’.
USAID, the US agency for international development, sent the Samoans $200,000 in disaster relief following the lockdown announcement, which may have encouraged a government which would otherwise have been concerned with damage to its economy. Days later, the World Bank announced it was committing $3.5million in financing and a further $9.3million to strengthen Samoa’s health care system.
The United Nations Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) stepped in with a further $2.7million, some of which was allocated to strengthen Samoa’s vaccination monitoring system by digitising its records. Under the authoritarian new normal, when the next outbreak happens, no one will need to hang out red flags. The vaccination teams will know at the click of a mouse where people live and what they are to be injected with.
Samoa appears to have been a trial run to see whether governments would shut down and roll out mass vaccination campaigns; the fortuitous timing certainly provided useful lessons as the lobbying for Covid lockdowns began in Wuhan’s wake.