To stay or to leave? That is the question
The author, Geof Goodman, came to Majuro in January to teach at the College of Marshall Islands. Photo courtesy of Marshall Islands Guide.
Majuro — The question I keep penduluming on: Do you stay on a currently-Covid-19-free island in a tiny developing country or return to the U.S.?
It’s April 2020 in Majuro and packs of kids are running through all the houses in the neighborhood, jumping in people’s arms, grabbing snacks and getting kid-things everywhere. They receive hugs, spanks, pinches and kisses from their neighbors. On weekdays they still go to school. Church services and birthday parties are on. The college is open. Adults still share one mic at karaoke nights at Jitak bar.
You can go to the hotel, sit on lounge chairs under trees and have drinks and food brought to you. You can ride a scooter 50 km to the other end of the atoll, stopping at every store and then camp on a cliché of a gorgeous tropical island beach. Every morning I can snorkel among the corals built on a Japanese WWII shipwreck before breakfast.
We see the images from the states and the rest of the world and talk with our friends back home. Their lives have been completely upended, but here things go on unchanged.
Majuro is the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a Pacific nation in a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The RMI is made up of 29 coral atolls, the capital of which is Majuro. Another atoll, Kwajalein, is home to a U.S. Navy base.
The United Airlines Island Hopper—which usually lands here four days a week—has ceased flights for what they say is a temporary delay. We are here for at least another few weeks or months, depending on whether we can ever make up our minds.
I came here in early January to work at the College of the Marshall Islands’ Liberal Arts department, but my partner came for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation which has since turned into a no-one-knows-how-long stranding. She arrived on what turned out to be the last flight before the country locked down, and then her return flight was cancelled. We are booked for the mid-April flights to go back to the states, as the state department requested we do, but that is decades in coronavirus-time so we do not know what the situation will be then.
The decision to return to a different kind of uncertainty or to live with the looming impact of coronavirus is weighing heavily on ex-pats and Marshallese-Americans alike. While the U.S. has become the country with the highest number of confirmed cases, the Marshall Islands have yet to have any confirmed. Given that tests must be sent to Hawaii to be processed, and those can be counted on one hand, this fact is also shaky.
If there were a confirmed case, Majuro’s already strained healthcare facilities would doubtfully be equipped for the near-certain catastrophe that would follow. It is still in the throes of a dengue outbreak that started last year, which it has extreme difficulty containing. Attempts to prevent and check dengue (which is transmittable only by mosquito, as opposed to the much-easier-to-transmit Covid-19) by public health workers and behavior modifications have left little confidence in restraining the pandemic once it reaches here.
Hospital visits in the Marshall Islands are a mere $5 copay. With healthcare here funded by the U.S. government this independent nation has universal healthcare provided by the Trump administration. While at other times this might be funny tidbit, at this one it is not a comfort. According to an authority here at the college, there are only four respirators here on an island that has 28,000 people which in turn are also all the respirators for a country of 58,000. Whether this was supposed to be ventilator instead of respirator is unclear, but I hope they misspoke.
The country has blocked entry for anyone coming from abroad so there has been containment, in a sense, through self-isolation. Although it would seem ideal to be a nation not letting anyone in and quarantined by an ocean, imports are that nation’s lifeblood. We are more reliant on intricate supply lines than most places and that ocean adds an extra layer of complication. So many links in the chain are fragile. Many vessels get here after passing through numerous East Asian countries from the Philippines to Japan, but how does one keep a 500-foot container ship sterile? With this in mind it is unclear how to feel about the fact that the college is stockpiling rice and other staples.
If we leave to go back to the U.S. we will have access to ventilators, testing, medicine and supplies. But we will need to quarantine. We will even need to quarantine from each other since we wound up having to take different flights back. (The flight I could get on has eight legs. Five of them are hops between Majuro and Guam.) When everyone needs to quarantine from everyone else, real estate runs out fast and I might just wind up camping.
But then, how long do I need to stay away from my elderly parents? When I get back to the U.S. how do I get back on the ACA since I no longer have American-funded healthcare? How long can I continue to teach online?
Staying or going is a question that, like most these days, has no good answer. The window to leave and/or get back to the U.S. may be rapidly closing. Looking to a local expert in the pandemic’s possible effects on this country of 58,000 is not an option.
No consensus among friends or colleagues has even been approached that could in turn be of help. Some people have even been evacuated by private jet to their home countries by the organizations that brought them here. Others are ready and willing to leave.
The locals for the most part have no such option so are carrying on as usual, used to such a lack of control in the face of epidemic sicknesses. There is a strong temptation to ride out this crisis as far from its epicenters and media-implied, imminent apocalypse as possible. Any path looks unsafe, even to a Covid-19-free tropical paradise.
Geof Goodman is an English instructor at the College of Marshall Islands. This article, which was first published in the Providence Journal and the Marshall Islands Guide, is republished here with the author’s permission. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org