TRANSPARENCY Solomon Islands (TSI) is very much concern about the way in which the government alters its views when it comes to repatriation of Solomon Islanders stranded overseas.
Before the China-Honiara direct flight, TSI like many other concerned Solomon Islanders called on the government to maintain closed-borders to avoid importation of covid-19. However, the country was reassured by the government that it is now safe to repatriate our citizens. That it was their constitutional right to be repatriated. Prior to and leading up to the China-Honiara flight, there was a sense of urgency to repatriate our stranded citizens in the Asian countries and elsewhere. Starting with China to be followed by Philippines.
The change of tone by Prime Minister (PM) Manasseh Sogavare that dates for the repatriation flight from Philippine can change and is not final as earlier proposed for 15th and 18th September’ now raises more questions rather than reassuring the people. The government’s intentions and reasons for repatriation plans were outlined prior to the China flight. The government was emphasizing on the importance and reasons for planned repatriation of students studying in the Asian countries including the Philippines. The people were informed that citizens stranded in Asian countries will be repatriated and although this decision was not popular with the majority of Solomon Islanders, it was clear that the government was set to proceed with repatriation flights. The government assured the people that this country is duly prepared to receive and quarantine incoming people from the proposed Asian countries repatriation flights. Then the China flight happened and no doubt the parents and guardians of students studying in Philippines and the students themselves must have marked the dates 15th and 18th September 2020. Trusting that the government has taken all the necessary actions to ensure that the Philippine flight (like the China flight) will proceed as planned.
More than a week after the China flight and the PM in his nation-wide address indicate that the dates previously announced ‘are not final and can change’. There was instead talk on repatriation flight from Australia happening before any Philippine flight. Interestingly the PM is bringing up ‘risk’ as a main concern for prolonged delay of any repatriation from Philippines. That China is a category 3 risk while Philippine is riskier in category 4. This statement made by the PM raises more questions than answers with regard the true reasons behind the whole China direct flight saga. Before the China flight, TSI raised the issue that there is an existing risk, that government must not disregard such a risk and the importance of maintaining strict closed borders to avoid importation of covid-19. TSI together with other concerned citizens called on the government to be cautious and not to proceed with the China flight, it happened anyway. Government is now concerned (as it should have been) about the risk posed by covid-19 infected countries and risk of potential importation of covid-19. Why was China given priority then? Category 3 or 4, there is still an existing risk.
It is concerning to note the PM usage of the term repatriation with regards a flight that will depart Brisbane. Unlike the China flight and other proposed repatriation flights, stranded Solomon Islanders are not expected to do their own booking and pay for their own fares. Whereas the Brisbane flights are more or less like any other normal flights -albeit with some additional requirements due to covid-19. Passengers do their own bookings and pay for their own airfare tickets. TSI holds the view that this is a normal flight from Brisbane by Solomon Airline to earn money for their business operations during this time of the pandemic. So, any Solomon Islands passport holder can book the flight to Honiara at their own expense, including any foreigner exempted by the Office of the Prime Minister to enter the country. Government revealed that the China flight to Honiara was a chartered flight by the Chinese government which is different from the Brisbane-Honiara flight that passengers meet their own travelling expenses. There are already Brisbane-Honiara flights, therefore instead of telling the citizens about the Brisbane flight(s), the PM should be informing the people of this country what steps the government have taken to ensure the safety and preparedness of our students stranded in Philippines as they prepare to be repatriated. TSI understands that students in Philippines are not studying at the same institution, they are accommodated at various locations in different cities and there is risk of contracting the virus during travel. Can the government assure us and the students on what precautionary measures the government have in place to ensure the students safety and to avoid importation of covid-19? Why refer to the Brisbane flight when speaking on the issue of delay to repatriating Philippine-based students? The Airlines airbus A320 is Brisbane-based and any flight from Brisbane would be regarded as a scheduled flight by Solomon Airlines to generate money for their business operation. Flight(s) from Brisbane should not affect any propose date set to repatriate our students in the Philippines. It now seems that the real reason and intention to have stranded citizens repatriated from Asian countries have been achieved – influx of the Chinese personnel.
We still have citizens stranded in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea and throughout the region, these are countries next door to Solomon Islands yet there were delays in the plans to repatriate. On the other hand, there was such urgency to repatriate from Asian countries but now that the China flight has brought in the huge Chinese delegation with some Solomon Islanders, the proposed dates for the next Asian country may now change. The flight to Honiara is scheduled for 15th of September and will return to Brisbane on 16th of September. It is now clear that the Philippine flight was included when there was heavy criticism from the public questioning why there was a planned flight to China whilst we also have a huge number of students in Philippines.
Transparency Solomon Islands noted that the female student from Malaita studying in Wuhan who was infected with covid-19 and recovered later did not board the recent direct flight from China that arrived on the night of Wednesday 2nd of September. Reasons for her not boarding the flight is unknown, whether or not she was included in the number of citizens that were supposed to be repatriated from China is unclear. More information is needed to be shared with regards this case and reasons why she was not on the flight. Are there Solomon Islands students still studying in China? TSI understands that some of the reasons that are now being considered by the oversight committee include the fact that students need to complete their studies. Once repatriated, some of these students may not be able to complete their studies, therefore Philippines flight may be delayed or even cancelled. If so, why have a flight to China when it was clear that students need to complete their studies and may not be travelling back to Solomon Islands just yet? Why use these students as an excuse to travel to China to repatriate them?
The government must inform the people about what measures the government has taken towards planned repatriation for more than 400 Solomon Islanders in Philippines. Before the China flight, the citizens of this country were informed that students and citizens stranded in China must be repatriated, they must not be denied their constitutional rights to return home. That measures were taken to ensure they were safe from importation of covid-19. That all relevant front liners are prepared to receive and quarantine and contain any unfortunate outbreak. The question now is, what is being done for the students in Philippines to ensure they are safe and will not be denied their constitutional rights to return home and more importantly, that covid-19 is not imported during this process?
Transparency Solomon Islands supports the repatriation exercise currently carried out by the government for the return of Solomon citizens residing overseas, but urged government to be cautious of the possible importation of covid-19. TSI holds the view that students who are safe and are continuing with their studies abroad without any problems should not be repatriated. If the students are in an environment where they can safely pursue and complete their studies, their studies should not be interrupted with the repatriation flight. And TSI wants to remind the government to be transparent with every decision they made and be consistent with information they conveyed to the public otherwise people will lose trust and faith in their leadership. People are frustrated, some voicing their concerns in the media -print, radio and social media. We believe that the people’s concerns and frustrations does not go un-noticed, the PM during his weekly address, acknowledges that there is some pushback from the public. It is time that the government not only take note of the public outcry but to act on it as well, stop saying one thing and doing something different. The executive government should now learn from those positive critics and take into account the need to ensure the nation continue to maintain its covid-19 free status and most significantly building trust and credibility in their leadership.