COVID-free Pacific island nations to open borders

(May 5, 2022) Marshall Islands COVID-19 Vaccination Team on Namu Atoll (Mae, Loen, Namu, and Majkin). PHOTO: RMI Ministry of Health/Facebook

Two of the last four remaining COVID-free nations in the world are preparing to open their borders.

The Federated States of Micronesia has announced its plan to open its borders without quarantine beginning August 1. Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands has gradually reduced its quarantine requirements since late last year and the country’s top government administrator said Friday it is no longer “realistic and sustainable” to maintain the two-and-a-half-year border closure. 

The Marshall Islands, which since March 2020 when it closed its borders to travel has maintained one of the world’s strictest COVID-prevention systems, is expected to further reduce quarantine as early as next month. 

FSM President David Panuelo in a statement published in the Marshall Islands Journal Friday acknowledged that opening this north Pacific nation’s borders “is equivalent to purposefully choosing to introduce COVID-19.” 

Vaccination coverage

The health departments in both the FSM and the Marshall Islands have been engaged in an aggressive COVID-19 vaccination programme. 

“A significant rationale for delaying the opening of the nation’s borders until 01 August, 2022 is on the premise that the FSM’s vaccination coverage is insufficient (at this time) to prevent widespread human suffering, and the overwhelming of limited medical staff and equipment across the nation,” Panuelo said in his statement. 

RMI Government Chief Secretary Kino Kabua recognised Marshall Islands’ Ministry of Health and Human Services for its extensive COVID-19 vaccination programme that she said is “a key component towards moving to a more relaxed entry and eventual opening of our borders.”

“It may be scary to a lot of us here in the Marshall Islands, but the world has moved on and adapted to COVID-19,” Kino Kabua said, adding “So must we.”

Quarantine protocol

Both FSM and Marshall Islands have seen multiple so-called “border” cases of COVID-19 in managed quarantine. But there has been no spread into their island communities due to strict rules for quarantine. All four COVID-free nations are in the Pacific. In addition to FSM and Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu remain COVID-free. Three other areas are also still COVID-free: Macao, Niue and Tokelau. 

Until late last year, the Marshall Islands maintained a four-week quarantine system with multiple COVID-19 tests to enter the country: Two weeks in Honolulu prior to departing to the Marshall Islands and a further two weeks in the country.  It is currently three days in Hawaii and 14 in Marshall Islands. 

The Marshall Islands government is considering eliminating quarantine in Hawaii altogether and reducing the quarantine period in the Marshall Islands. 

RMI Ministry of Health and Human Services continues to urge leaders to maintain a quarantine period in Hawaii in order to screen incoming travelers for COVID-19 prior to arrival, and to keep the 14-day protocol in place for in-country quarantine. 

Roadmap in the works says RMI Chief Secretary

However, Kino Kabua and perhaps most of RMI’s NDC are expected to support recommendations to the cabinet next week to eliminate quarantine in Hawaii and to reduce the quarantine period on Kwajalein and Majuro from 14 to 10 days. 

“I don’t believe it’s realistic and sustainable to keep the status quo,” Kino Kabua said. “There is a working group in charge of developing a roadmap that will be presented to the cabinet on the path forward for summer onwards and on when we can expect to relax the entry requirements.” 

“At what point do we decide to live with the virus?” Kino Kabua asked. “The roadmap will be our guide.” 

RMI Chief Secretary Kabua said she aims to have the COVID-19 Roadmap submitted to the cabinet for initial review on the first week of June and the cabinet’s endorsement will launch steps toward re-opening the country’s borders.