The Marshall Islands’ dilemma: to reopen or not
By Sylvester Kajur
Majuro—Are things good in the Marshall Islands right now? That depends on who you ask as much as what your question refers to.
If you’re asking about the economic outlook, the government will say “sort of.” If you’re asking a government official about Covid-19, things were fine until a week ago.
As noted by the International Monetary Fund, the country’s strong containment measures have prevented a domestic Covid-19 outbreak. On top of that, the economy is slowly recovering, and growth is expected to gain strength as Covid-19-related restrictions are relaxed.
The flip side is skyrocketing prices. Gas now sits around $6.50 a gallon, diesel $6.75, in Majuro as the local taxis are now charging $1.50 a ride (it was previously $1). Grocery prices have also gone up by as much as 50 percent and rents are slowly increasing. On top of that, school lunches are more expensive and building material costs are up by a third.
While that picture is true in much of the world, the average household income in the Marshall Islands is around $16,000 per year. That figure is often split five, six or seven ways. Many of the young have dependents, be it children, parents or grandparents, all living under the same roof. A handful are also juggling studies with their employment.
Reopening can and will alleviate some of those financial pressures, but accelerating the vaccination and booster rate is key to reopening the borders safely. The trouble is that the government keeps punting on reopening as the economic outlook is also clouded by the spillovers of the war in Ukraine and related uncertainties.
Shanghai’s recent lockdown sent some alarm bells ringing and caused panic across the supply chains. Without a doubt, it made any hesitant ministers want to keep punting. But then in mid-April, seven positive cases were detected at the border in Kwajalein, the first involving Marshallese since November 2020.
Although the borders remain closed, the government recently decided to reduce pre-travel quarantine in Honolulu from seven to three days as other Pacific island nations saw outbreaks from their reopening.
In mid-February, the health ministry resumed house-to-house vaccinations, which are now moving on from Majuro, Kwajalein and Ebeye to the outer islands and atolls. Cash incentives of up to $150 have been offered to get the booster.
The Marshall Islands has had just a handful of cases at the border, but the main worry is a Covid-19 outbreak among the population that will completely overwhelm the health care system.
Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said the main lesson learned from Palau’s reopening was to protect the hospital and its staff.
Community stations will be necessary because, as Niedenthal noted, “eventually, everyone will get exposed to it’’ but added that another lockdown may also be necessary. “A lockdown slows the spread, so the hospital can handle it in a more organized way so that everyone doesn’t get Covid at the same time,” he said.
But that is wishful thinking. A study by Johns Hopkins University actually found that lockdowns had “little to no effect” on slowing the spread of Covid-19. Then there are CDC‘s Covid-19 statistics showing that hospitalization rates were less than 1 percent of those infected. Those more likely to die from Covid-19 and/or be hospitalized are the elderly, overweight and the unvaccinated (those chances were upwards of 70 percent for each group. Survival rates among children were above 99 percent.)
Reopening is, of course, risky for any nation, but the Marshall Islands has the data available to work out a more focused approach, one that protects the most vulnerable and allows normal life to continue.
There’s another potential reason why the border reopening has been delayed: the U.S. is still the promised land for many Marshallese, and most haven’t left their atolls since 2020. When the borders do reopen, many might quickly leave for pastures new, never to return.
A government commission was set up at the start of 2022 to look into why so many Marshallese dream the American dream, though the results have long been known.
The IMF suggested the Marshall Islands do more for its most vulnerable sectors of the economy and population: “Economic policies should focus on gradually consolidating the fiscal position to preserve fiscal sustainability while providing targeted support to the most vulnerable, taking a cautious approach with initiatives to adopt still-developing technologies to safeguard financial stability, and accelerating critical structural reforms to achieve a green, sustainable and inclusive growth.”
And of course, for that to be possible, its borders can’t stay closed forever. The population is as prepared as it can be for when the borders re-open and Covid-19 enters. But too many in Majuro are getting frustrated with the ongoing closure. The pandemic isn’t over, but life has returned to normal across the world and it returned in the Marshall Islands before much of the world. Closed borders are no longer a necessity, but a choice. The government can’t keep punting on that question.