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Covid chaos in Marshall Islands

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

By Sylvester Kajur

Majuro-- Flying into the Marshall Islands has been no easy feat since March 2020. One needs to register on repatriation flights with the RMI Safe Travelers Program, show proof of full vaccination against Covid-19 and undergo intense quarantine and testing procedures. But as the world now sits on the edge of its seat waiting for the Marshall Islands to reopen, events beyond its borders have caused chaos. In fact, it may end up forcing the government in Majuro to act sooner than it evidently wants.

The roadmap for reopening was released late last week. The Marshall Islands will drastically reduce its quarantine days before ending fully on Oct. 1. Prior to this, confusion and chaos beset travelers. At its May 30 meeting, the Cabinet approved the National Disaster Committee's recommendation to eliminate pre-quarantine requirements outside the Marshall Islands. The "travel bubble" that was in place at the Honolulu airport for Marshall Islands-bound passengers was closed. United Airlines had advised the disaster committee that it could not sustain these operations and were subsequently stopped a few months back. Members of the Cabinet, Nitijela and the NDC, who recently returned from official travels, confirmed that there is no “travel bubble" at the Honolulu airport.

Normal operations at the airport have resumed with travelers mingling in the terminal, through Transportation Security Administration screening. In other words, the first line of defense has come down. At the end of June, registration for the July repatriation flight never opened. The government announced that too many had registered for June, including the College of the Marshall Islands’ board of regents.

Some 40-50 people, who registered for June, were instead placed on the July repatriation flights, filling it up in advance. About the same number of people now have to wait until August or possibly even September to board a plane. But change is coming.

Hawaii is "back to normal." The Federated States of Micronesia announced it will reopen international travels on Aug. 1.

Moreover, among the June cohort to arrive in Kwajalein, eight cases of Covid-19 were initially detected at the border – all were vaccinated and either asymptomatic or were experiencing mild symptoms. There are now 27 active cases across all three quarantine centers for the first time.

In-country quarantine remains at 14 days with testing on days 3, 7 and 14 as well as an antigen test upon arrival. Any detection of Covid triggers a 14-day isolation period. Starting August, this will be reduced to 10 days, and then seven days starting September.

On Oct. 30, the quarantine requirement will be lifted, though visitors must be fully vaccinated, with their primary series and a booster.

Symptom monitoring of persons under active surveillance is managed using the Sara alert system. Severe cases will see patients transferred to the intensive care unit. Some announcement on reducing this quarantine is expected but details remain unknown. Luckily, when the borders reopen, the Marshall Islands is not expected to have problems with testing like Kiribati or American Samoa. There are some 30,000 in reserve and more coming.

What keeps officials awake at night is the thought of overwhelming the local hospitals and soaring death rates.

American Samoa, which has a similar population, a better vaccination rate, and similar comorbidities, had a little over 30 deaths in two months after reopening. As Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal noted, that’s a funeral every other day. Local lockdowns, mask mandates and restrictions are almost certain to come with the reopening.


Niedenthal added that "an outbreak of this virus potentially comes with months of school and business closures, so there is also a heavy social and economic impact to bear."

The rest of the world has already been here. The Marshall Islands has an opportunity to learn from the lockdown mistakes and reopening struggles of its neighbors such as Palau, Kiribati and American Samoa. The threat of restrictions may seem like a step back, but to paraphrase Willy Wonker, you’ve got to go forward to go back.

The early summer chaos surrounding the continued state of emergency is the clearest indication yet for the government in Majuro that it’s time to join the rest of the world and learn to live with the virus.

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